Confronting Global Racism
Race is staring us in the face. Confronting and dealing with it is highly emotional and disturbing, so much so that in polite company, it's unspeakable. But we can't avoid it, because racism has become global.
Malaysian social commentator Chandran Nair's new book, "Dismantling Global White Privilege," is a book that confronts racism by calling it a privilege. Is White Might right? Do Black Lives Matter? Should Yellow be identified with Cowardice and Peril? Identifying race with colour is so highly charged that no one can discuss it objectively. For a person of colour, to criticise white behaviour is often dismissed as subjective bias. For the white media to label others as corrupt, aggressors, enemies, evil, low IQ, is considered objective free speech. Fair deal?
Nair's book is a battle cry to create a more free, equal world, where skin colour should not be a barrier to a more just planet. The book is a cringing read, because every page challenges our assumptions of daily life—that it is free, equal and democratic with rule-based order.
The pandemic proved that the world is not free, when the poor, aged and weak can't afford vaccines and are free to die in even very rich countries.
The world is not truly democratic because if every one of the 7.8 billion global citizens had a vote, the one billion rich, powerful and mostly white people would be out-voted with a very different global order.
The rules-based order raises the fundamental question—who sets the standards, norms and rules? Can we have a proper conversation on whether these rules are fair to all, and are at least enforced fairly, justly and transparently?
Nair has looked comprehensively at white privilege from the angles of history, business, media and publishing education, culture, sports, fashion, and sustainability. It would be facile to dismiss him as biased.
But what does it mean to be white?
White sociologist Robin DiAngelo sums up racism as a black/white binary system that posits a world of evil racists and compassionate non-racists—that is itself a racist construct. Racism as a term was introduced to the English language in the 17th century with colonialism, plantation slavery and exploitation, linking whiteness with freedom and blackness with slavery. Even today in Latin America, there is a "pigmentocracy," in which power and social status are associated with lighter skin colour. That holds true in other societies.
In her latest book, "White Fragility," DiAngelo asks, "How were we, as white people, able to enjoy so much racial privilege and dominance in the workplace, yet believe so deeply that racism (has) changed direction to now victimise us?" Her example resonates with anyone watching Hollywood movies, "When actors audition, they are most often judged by white people, using white standards for roles written by white writers and intended for white audiences… precisely because the system reflects white interests and worldview, white people will not see any of this in racial terms. They are confident that we can represent all of humanity—if no Asian actors apply, we don't question casting efforts."
The bias built into current standards that is Western, Educated, Industrialised, Rich, and Democratic (WEIRD) was first observed by Canadian psychologists Steven J Heine and Ara Norenzayan in their survey of psychological studies, which were mostly based on Western college students with WEIRD characteristics. The biased sample behaviour is then generalised as global representative standards.
Nair concludes that change can come by rejecting the three Es: Entitlement, Exclusivity and Exceptionalism.
But will change happen?
DiAngelo sums it up best: White fragility is a reaction from both white liberals and conservatives. The conservative populists want to fight against any challenge to the erosion of white rights, whereas the progressives want more state intervention to address inequities. She, however, thinks that "white progressives cause the most daily damage to people of colour." Polarisation stalls change, because the right is against state intervention, whereas the left calls for more, not realising that it creates a dependency syndrome that is neither fiscally nor socially sustainable.
My personal view is that racism is often an excuse not to address the wicked problems of social injustice and planetary destruction. Blaming each other will not work anymore for the existential issues that face us. Race is only a mask over deep injustices locked down into our psyches of power and hierarchy. Technology has enabled us to begin a conversation at local, communal, corporate, state, regional and global levels on how to shape a world of peace and sustainability, rather than demonising each other and beating the drums of war.
I commend Nair's book to be read, even if what he says is uncomfortable to many.
Andrew Sheng is adjunct professor at Tsinghua University, Beijing and the University of Malaya. He was formerly the chairman of the Securities and Futures Commission, Hong Kong.
Copyright: Asia News Network