On the problematics of “colour”, and on silence

Blog / Thursday, May 30th, 2019

I have issues with the term “people of colour”. I despise it. One problem is because it’s an American term that has been popularised and adapted into global acceptance, without as much as contextualising the differences in history, culture and language. It also comes loaded with American sensibilities, and with it, its conception of race. Why must an Americanised notion of race be imposed upon the world? Why the absence of accusations on imperialism and post-colonialism here?

Is race merely an American problem? No, it isn’t.

Is it only a problem for “blacks” and “whites”, as it’s often generalised in America? No, it’s not either. It’s not merely about violence perpetuated by one “colour” unto the other. Why simplify such a complex issue? Why assume everyone has the same experience with race?

And while I’m at it, what am I then? “Brown”? But I’ll never be “brown enough”. Am I supposed to be burnt toast or bread that is lightly toasted? Or am I supposed to be “yellow”? Why must I accept the term “yellow”? Do I look like a character from The Simpsons? Am I now supposed to colour my hair blue to match the yellow-ness? Do you not see how problematic it is to identify someone through a colour?

You want to talk about race and institutionalised racism? Let me tell you a story about race.

I grew up in Kuching, Sarawak; on the island of Borneo. For a century, it was governed by an English family, the Brookes. Sarawak became a British Protectorate in 1888. It was ceded to the British as a crown colony in 1941, and not long after, the Japanese occupied Sarawak. In 1963, Sarawak joined Sabah, Singapore and Malaya to form the Federation of Malaysia.

Malaysian history books will tell you they (Malayans) saved us (Sarawakians) from the evil clutches of a pirate. They will also tell you that Sarawak has always been a British colony, even though no historical records exist to acknowledge it as one. Neither would Malaysian history books acknowledge that the US recognised Sarawak as an independent state in 1850. What does a predominantly indigenous population on a piece of land largely covered by rainforest know about being civilised, right? I can tell you the Sarawak Legislative Assembly (historically known as the General Council of the Kingdom of Sarawak), made up of Dayak, Chinese and Malay members is the oldest in the region, established at the time of the second Rajah, Charles Brooke. That the various races have always been involved in the governance of their own state, one way or another. That their cultures have always been incorporated by the Brooke Rajahs into the development of Kuching, into the architecture, even to their style of government.

It is easy to dismiss this as history written and promoted by supporters of the Brooke kingdom, to point to the problems, the failures, the silences. But without historicising where I’m coming from, the formation of a nation state (that of Sarawak, not Malaysia), I am equally being silenced by the general – and global – discourse on race, when the assumption that a singular experience of race(ism), of post-coloniality is imposed on those who have essentially been deemed to be not “white”, “black”, or “brown” enough to talk about race.

When I was a child, we would regularly travel to the Malaysian capital, Kuala Lumpur. In cabs, hotels, shops, and tourists attractions, I would always be asked if I still live on trees; do I know what a car is; do we have airplanes and airports in Kuching (this particular question, I will forever remember, was posed by a cab driver who had picked us up from the airport).

In university in Australia, after being harassed numerous times about the so-called wildness of Sarawak, I once told fellow course-mates that there were no airports or airplanes in Kuching. I have travelled to Australia riding on the back of dolphins. They believed me.

In London when I was doing my postgrad, an acquaintance I had just met asked how long did it take my ship to make the journey from Sarawak to England.

The course-mates in Australia who believed the fantastical dolphin story? They were from West Malaysia. The acquaintance in England who asked about my journey? They weren’t Malaysians; they lived with West Malaysians who told them Sarawak was a backward village with no infrastructure except for rainforests (ironic, considering much of the rainforests have been razed for excessive palm oil plantations or illegal logging).

In secondary school when it was near time to choose universities, I was told to not bother thinking about higher education unless my parents can afford to send me away or my grades were so good I couldn’t be denied a scholarship and/or a place in university. Private universities were scarce then, and public universities had no space for someone who did not have the right surname, the right religion, or were of the right race. Quotas for universities were in place, not based on whether you were locals or foreign students, but based on your race.

And if I wanted to be in civil service, I should not harbour any ambition to be a leader of any sort either for the exact same reasons. When applying for my student visa to England, I needed extra verification from a bank based in West Malaysia because it was national policy to not trust official documentation from Sarawak. These weren’t colonial policies left in place by the British. This is, very simply, the policies of the Federation of Malaysia.

I could go on with more examples. It was a fact of life. Malaysia is peaceful, sure – there is education, accessible healthcare; there is no war. We don’t live in abject fear. But having it say “Malaysia” on my passport does not guarantee reprieve from discrimination, especially when my passport and any form of official ID identifies me as Sarawakian. As culturally and racially different.

My point is, the micro-aggressions, the racist policies, those weren’t inflicted by “people of a different colour”. These institutional discriminations are embedded into the very essence of Malaysian federal politics, and into the fabric of its society post-independence. Make no mistake: race is politicised.   

I hear the same narratives from my students. Young Sarawakians who don’t even realised they were never a colony until the cession to the British crown in the 1940s, encountering the same micro-aggressions; being discriminated against because these policies are still in place. In 2019.

Institutionalised racism isn’t bound by “colours”. When I see woke activists and academics talking about being an ally to fight things like institutionalised racism or structural whiteness, I think about the gaps and silences. In cultural studies, we are taught to be critical, to see the structures and critique these institutions, but in our haste to position ourselves as an ally, who are we silencing? Is my experience of institutionalised racism less valid because these acts weren’t perpetuated by someone of a different “colour”? That if I were to speak up, it feels like I’m furthering some imperialist agenda because it’s been embedded into my education.

It feels that way. But isn’t using blanket terms like “people of colour” unto communities and cultures with a different experience perpetuating the same kind of violence?

I’m silent because I’m made to feel like I’m robbing the guilt out of those who are woke. Asia isn’t just Japan, or Korea, or China: these countries are traditionally – and likely, if you look into their histories, forcefully – homogenous cultures. Asia isn’t just India either. Understanding how race work in Japan does not immediately grant one a crystal ball vision into how race works in other parts of Asia. And yes, while Malaysian (and especially Sarawakian) academia may be asininely insular, it doesn’t mean that they – we – should be silenced.

Nor should a blanket term like “people of colour” be accepted without challenge or contextualisation to best represent people when talking about race because that is a gross assumption that is unfair to some. I have no solutions. I don’t think there is any. Nor should they be a blanket term to represent all. Especially when the term itself comes with its own baggage, its own assumptions about what it is meant to represent.  

I’m just tired of being silent.   

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