Racism is not one thing: experiences of different cultures

I have lived in two countries, and worked in another, on different continents, and been obviously ethnic minority in all three. I will start with my own birth certificate. It states my race. It states my parents races. This was regarded as normal and necessary until just three years ago.

I have heard it defended as necessary for security (i.e. to enable racial profiling to catch terrorists) by people whose other views were sufficiently social liberal to fit in with the most woke of western institutions: it was entirely normalised.

I was born in Sri Lanka, and the racial categories used will be unfamiliar to westerners: I am Burgher (of European ancestry) because my father is – in Sri Lanka race is patrilineal. Of course, in the UK, I am British Asian. I am a demonstration that race is defined by culture, not biology.

The three biggest racial groups in Sri Lanka are Sinhala, Tamil and Muslim. As you may guess from the last (which lumps together people from multiple origins from Arabia to India to SE Asia) race is strongly linked to religion: Buddhist, Hindu, and Muslim respectively. The only one of the countries four major religions that crosses racial boundaries is Christianity.

This may have changed in the last few years, but when I last lived in Sri Lanka your race and religion were regularly recorded: for example if you made statement to the police (even if it was for a car accident). If you had a non-standard combination (if your religion was not an acceptable one for your race) it invited disbelief.

Race is strongly linked to identity: to Buddhist fundamentalist nationalists the only real Sri Lankans are Sinhala Buddhists. These are not fringe views: I can, for example, recall a government minister saying that the country belonged to the Sinhalese, and the Tamils and Muslims were “guests”.

I have lived most of my life in the UK. The big difference is that overt racism is almost entirely unacceptable. While there are undoubtedly racists, there are far, far fewer than in the 1980s: over my life I have seen a continual decline in racism.

The biggest problems are stereotypes and there are complexities to these. For example this study shows (see table 2) that the group most favoured by employers are white British women, and the next South and East Asian men. The most discriminated against groups were Pakistani and Nigerian. It is clear that the factor that matters is not skin colour, but national and religious stereotypes.

I once spent a few months working in Kenya. There the most apparent racism is the resentment by the majority of the relatively successful South Asian (all of us called “Indians”) groups. Unlike elsewhere educated professionals seem to be more racist: they feel out competed. As in some western countries, Asians are the “new Jews”: a group resented because of its success.

It is also apparent that the “Indians” live somewhat separately from the majority. Much like European Jews did.

Finally, a country that I have not lived or worked in, but that has the most influence (and a harmful one – that will be the subject of a future post) on how the world perceives and deals with racism. The USA.

It had long been obvious to me that racism in the US is far more entrenched in its culture than in the UK. This has been commented on by many people including Frederick Douglas:

They measure and esteem men according to their moral and intellectual worth, and not according to the color of their skin. Whatever may be said of the aristocracies here, there is none based on the color of a man’s skin. This species of aristocracy belongs preeminently to “the land of the free, and the home of the brave.” I have never found it abroad, in any but Americans. It sticks to them wherever they go.

There are a number of similar quotes in the chapter about the two years he spent in the UK in My Bondage and My Freedom

I had long been aware that the American perception of race is very different and rooted in the “just one drop” laws of segregation. It had long struck me that it was peculiar that Americans who wanted to be anti-racist could not get away from this. People who have no problem accepting the idea of self-assigned gender, usually regard race as an immutable characteristic. People who are obviously mixed race (President Obama) or look white to my Asian eyes (Meghan, Duchess of Sussex) are still “black”. There are other peculiarly American classifications of race such as “hispanic”.

I only really understood this when I read Isabel Wilkerson’s amazing book Caste. American racism is a caste system: the only difference between the US and India is that the entirely arbitrary markers of where you belong are different. In both you are assigned to a group on the basis of your ancestry.In both there is a hierarchy. In both your descendants cannot escape their assigned place. In both those who are mixed are assigned to the “inferior” group. Both are (or have been, in the US) by both the authorities and by systematic violence.

This makes it very different from personal prejudice, or prejudice within particular institutions. It is pervasive and it is inescapable. Even people who want to be anti-racist cannot escape it because they cannot truly free themselves of the underlying assumption that their culture’s definition of race is an eternal truth.

India has, of course, other racial and religious discrimination on top of the caste system, which makes it somewhat different from the US.

Five countries, at least five different types of racism.