Tuesday, April 07, 2009

This house proposes that we are all racists xenophobes

Listening to: 'Kinderszenen: Träumerei' by Robert Schumann

'Racism' is an ugly word with ugly connotations. It conjures up images of Apartheid in South Africa during the latter half of the 20th century, the LA riots in '92, and (closer to home) rioting Sinhalese in '83, to name but a few. The OED defines racism as -
The belief that all members of each race possess characteristics, abilities, or qualities specific to that race, especially so as to distinguish it as inferior or superior to another race or races.
TheWhacksteR has written some very interesting posts about the role of racism in Sri Lanka. Based on the above definition, I don't think 'racism' actually plays a very big role in Sri Lanka at all. Xenophobia on the other hand, is rife.

Say what? Returning to OED, xenophobia is defined thus -
a deep antipathy to foreigners
For the purpose of this discussion, we shall take 'foreigner' to imply 'someone not of your kind'. So when I use the word 'xenophobia', what I mean is -
a fear of, or aversion to, someone not of your kind
Doesn't this seem plausible? Someone 'of your kind' will have a similar upbringing, similar values, similar language, similar traditions...you get the picture. Someone 'not of your kind' on the other hand, will have...well you don't really know, do you? And therein lies the root of the problem. You don't have any firsthand knowledge of their values, language or traditions...so you buy into negative stereotypes based on anecdotal evidence.

Baseless negative stereotypes are everywhere. In Sri Lanka, I’ve heard the Sinhalese are stupid, Tamils are racist, Muslims are stingy and Burghers are promiscuous. Yet I know plenty of people that defy all these labels. And what about Britain? Apparently Northerners are uncivilised, Essex girls are tasteless, Scots are racist, English are stuffy, South Asians are unclean, Chinese are rude, Blacks are violent and Muslims dress 'funny' and blow shit up. And again, I know people from all these regions and communities that defy the stereotypes. But if these stereotypes were all you had heard about a particular group of people, wouldn't you be apprehensive?

So why are all xenophobes not racists? I see racism as a superiority complex based on the prejudices borne out of xenophobia. And as with many complexes, it is a manifestation of insecurity. Someone who is insecure about his position in society is more likely to feel the need to convince others (and himself) of his supposed superiority, than someone who is perfectly comfortable with his position in society. The latter might still be wary of other communities, but he won't see them as a threat...and hence his actions will not be affected. The former, on the other hand, will always act to set himself apart from those whom he feels threatened by...in this case, other communities. As I see it...the latter is a xenophobe, but the former is a racist.

So what's the solution then? There has been a lot of discussion about secularising schools in Sri Lanka and reinstating English as the main language. Secularisation would serve to educate people about other cultures and reduce the effects of stereotyping, but look at what's happening in Britain. After years of having a somewhat successful secular state school system, we're now witnessing the birth of a number of 'faith schools'. These schools cater to a particular community (usually Catholics, Muslims or Hindus) and have special allowances for religious and cultural activity, and in some cases, lessons in the native language of the 'home country' (e.g. Hindi). Their justification is that the secular system does not provide a sufficient platform for students (usually 2nd or 3rd generation immigrants) to maintain their cultural heritage.

How about language then? Surely a common language would bypass the communication barrier? Well in the UK (home of the English language), the National Health Service sends out invitations for Cervical Screening Tests in 14 languages. Yes, English and Welsh plus twelve unofficial languages (including Arabic and Polish). Why? Because the UK can't seem to convince ethnic minorities that it’s beneficial to learn English. And when some delusional postmaster thinks he can enforce change, he is criticised for violating the rights of British citizens (Which right? The Right Not to be Arsed to Learn the de facto National Language?). If the UK is having difficulty in getting everyone to speak English, I'm not sure how successful Sri Lanka would be.

So the problem remains: how to get rid of xenophobia. Can we? Should we? I don't know. Sachintha replied to Whack's posts and he commented on how we feel safe in our 'groups'. Attempting to assimilate our ethnicities into one 'kiri kopi'-coloured nationality will compromise that sense of belonging, and might not be that easy to achieve. And why should we? Are we not proud of our ethnicities, as we are of our nationality? As I told Whack -
I am Sinhalese and Sri Lankan, in the same way I am female and left-handed. They're not the same, and yet they're not mutually exclusive. And one doesn't rank above the other. They co-exist. And they're both integral parts of me.
I think the question we should be asking ourselves is, how do we prevent xenophobia from escalating into racism? The government can bring in all the legislation it likes to nullify the effects of racism, but it won't stop retards from telling Whack to 'go back to Arabia'. It is my view that for the mindset to change, we need to be directed by those we respect: our parents, teachers and religious mentors. These people have a huge role to play in 'demonising' racial discrimination. From a personal perspective, if more Buddhist monks preached the benefits of spreading Loving Kindness (Metta) to all Sri Lankans instead of going and joining the JHU, we'd be much better off.

This is an absolutely mammoth post so I think I'll stop now. In closing, I think we're all xenophobic and this is natural. However, I don't think that this xenophobia has escalated into racism in the majority of the Sri Lankan population. I don't think it's easy to wipe out xenophobia, but we can stop it from turning nasty. And to do this, I think we need to call on those who have a cultural, rather than political, influence over us. OK I’m done.


  1. Brilliant post!
    Enjoyed every bit of it.

    Xenophobia? Honestly, that's the first time I heard that word. LOL...
    But jokes aside, yes you do have a point. In my post, maybe that is what I meant. Because, there I said that our constitution has allowed some privilegeds, and the governments has reasonably tired to make sure the minorities get those privileges. Not perfect, but reasonable. On the other hand, I said that racism at a personal level do exist and that it is in a way the nature of us. So, now reading what you have to say, maybe we both mean the same thing.

    I also have my doubts over trying to adopt one language as common in Sri Lanka. One, loving our race/language is not racism and we all love our languages/races. At least most of us do. So... Sinhala and Tamil are two languages that have a history of more than thousand years. It is not easy to give it up. Two, it is not easy, I'd say even not practical to teach everyone English in this country. Do you think a farmer in Polonnaruwa or Monaragala will give a shit about teaching his kid English? Mostly they don't even give a shit about educating them at all, because they have bigger problems to worry about. Or because they can't afford it. So, I think that could cause more problems that solutions. Also, here in Japan, you see day to day that you don't need English to be successful, though I agree that everyone here speaks Japanese. So... well I'm going off topic.

    But in Japan, you see some other level or racism, or Xenophobia as you put it. They treat foreigners as best you can imagine. But, when you get down to things, you can see they too are racists, or Xenophobists, if there is such a word. For example, the seats next to us on a train are almost always the ones to be last occupied. Can you imagine how you feel?

    OK getting back to the point, I think as you put it, it more needs to be done with a personal level. Because, I think I have a very good view and a pretty good unbiased view when it comes to matters like this because of my parents. They both are teachers and they did indeed brought me up teaching me the values of treating everyone equal. Also, if you can get people to interact more often, people of different races, I think people will learn to tolerate and even love each other. I was brought up in a neighbourhood where there were a lot of Muslims and we always interacted. So... naturally, I could see that the beast is not black as it has been portraited. (No offence to the Muslims). They are just as normal human beings as us Sinhalese, but with a different culture, habits, language and some more. They are not any good or bad than us. SO.... if we can get people to interact more, I think people will realize that more or less we are all the same.

    I'll stop now, before the comment gets bigger than the post itself. Or has it already?

  2. aah.. the suspense is lifted ;)

    hmmm u make some very interesting points that actually made sense to me.. abt faith schools tho, i think that its a bit different in UK (i may be wrong) cos Britain is primarily a Christian nation, yea? hence the sudden increase in faith schools may be because of all the restrictions in secular school these days that are imposed to accomodate all the different faiths ie the no praying, no creationism, more 'santa' and less 'babe in a manger' etc etc.. and once u have more christian schools then u'll get more muslim schools and more hindu schools etc etc... in lanka tho, we've gone the opposite direction and tagged the sinhala language along with it, hence the need for a tip in the scales towards more secular schools.. of course, i could be wrong but thats my opinion....

    about language.. i dnt think ur example is relevant cos its more of an exception to the rule, u kno? i doubt that the percentage of non-english speakin ppl in UK is even close to that in lanka.. besides, u've seen for urself how much of a barrier it is to todays youth with regards to their opportunities.. of course, teachin em english from school level wont make them 'brighter', but it'll at least make them more presentable and open up their horizons..

    abt mammoth post.. yes :P

    interesting, interesting... hmmm...

  3. hey nice one.. and not that long..

    "The latter might still be wary of other communities, but he won't see them as a threat"

    ..and the latter is a xenophobe?

    how can he be a xenophobe and not see other communities as a threat? if xenophobia is fear of foreigners or as you say 'different people', then that fear is borne out of a threat. and if people feel threatened they will eventually act upon their fear if pushed yes? there is ultimately no difference then is there?

    Your categorization of racist into a packaged product called a 'xenophobe' is interesting. Maybe it isn't only the race, and income and social differences play a big role as well eh?

    also the problem may seem more complicated than before. But maybe sri lankans will fel more eager to learn englisg because of the opportunities it provides? while expats in UK have the confidence of learning english in their daily lives anyway and therefore want to preserve their native tongue through their education? irrational as it may seem..

  4. Sachintha - Glad you liked the post! Yeah, when I read your post I figured that we were thinking along the same lines.

    Gehan - I know what you mean about the schools. Britain is a Protestant country, so Catholicism does form a minority, albeit a big one. I haven't heard of many Protestant faith schools, so I'm not sure the restriction on worship is the problem (although yes, you do have a very valid point). From my experience (I spent a few years at state-run primary schools in the UK during the early '90s), 'secular school' meant we had a Christmas concert and made lamps for Deepawali, and Religious Education class was when we learnt about all religions - so we had a little bit of everything. It seems this wasn't enough for the minorities, hence the move away from secular schools. Isn't this a potential problem even with 'language-based' schools? I was looking at secular vs non-secular schools from an 'integration' point of view. Regardless of the driving force (religion or language), the move away from secularism is a blow for integration.
    (See below for the language discussion)

    Whack - not that long? Aww you're too kind :D
    Right I see what you mean. In my eyes, the distinction is that a xenophobe will not see other communities as an immediate threat that needs to be acted on. You're right...they'll only act if pushed - but I think a racist will act with no provocation whatsoever.
    I agree that prejudices aren't solely based on race. But people love to pigeon-hole, and 'race' is something you can easily use to define someone.
    Regarding the language issue in the UK...expats in the UK don't learn English in their daily lives. They live in pockets of immigrants from their home countries and they only need English if they want to move away from that environment...and only a handful ever do. The kids do learn English in school but their standard is far lower than the national average. The older generations don't speak any English at all. From what I've heard, it's similar in the States - there are many who speak Spanish but not English. I think the proportion of Spanish-speakers in the States is similar to the proportion of non-Sinhalese speakers in Sri Lanka. My point was that if the UK is finding it so difficult to teach a small minority its de facto national language, how easy will it be for Sri Lanka to teach a majority (let's face it, fluent English-speakers are a minority in Sri Lanka) an 'alien' language? I hope the prospect of increased opportunities will counteract that, but I don't know.


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