By Yudhanjaya Wijeratne –
When is racism not racism? Apparently, when it’s a minority doing it.
Many people who read my article ‘Wali Kukul Le’ liked it. Many didn’t. Ironically, it was those who hated it that saw through to the next question: why are we bashing one particular ethnic group for being inordinately proud of their race? What about the others?
Granted, the question was never worded as politely as that. The closest someone got to being polite was asking, But aren’t the Muslims racist, too? Isn’t EVERYBODY racist? before recounting incidents that had happened to him on his travels throughout the country.
That’s a good question, because we are.
Sri Lanka, despite the marketing, isn’t as multi-cultural as it seems. Go to Pannipitiya and you’ll find people who won’t rent you a house if you’re not a Buddhist or a Catholic. Go to Pasikudah and you’ll find Muslims and Hindus who won’t sell or rent you their property unless you, too, are Muslim or Hindu. Go to Pettah and talk in Tamil and pretend to be a Muslim and you’ll find that prices plummet gently and discount materialize out of nowhere.
Or forget all that: look at Colombo, this weird little city where everybody knows each other and has slept with each other. Geographically, Colombo divided: Cinnamon Gardens is, by and large, a bunch of old Sinhala or Catholic families; Dehiwala is predominantly Muslim; Wellawatte is largely Hindu. Despite living all of three kilometers apart from each other, people have managed to sort themselves into their own little ethnic and belief groups and act accordingly. And in all but a few circles of society, disparaging remarks – usually prefaced with I don’t mean to sound racist, but… are gently slung across the dinner table. Sure, you nod and shake hands with people of all religions and skin colors, but at the end of the day, once the gloves are off and the office has closed and the requirement for civilized politeness has worn thin ….
Photo by Malinda Rathnayake (https://www.flickr.com/photos/malindaratz/11503973234/)
Such is life.
And yet, we say, we must preserve the cultures and rights of each ethnic group. Muslims must have the right to spam the soundwaves with prayers. Buddhists must have the right to wake up the entire neighborhood by leading a bunch of pyromaniacs and an elephant through it. Hindus have all access passes to embed hooks in themselves in public. And Christians are undoubtedly the worst of the lot: they have the right to make us all depressed by showing us just how awesome Christmas is. It’s even acknowledged that in the quest for political correctness, we’ve over-corrected. Now a Sinhala Buddhist cannot discuss Islam or Hinduism or Christianity even in the most abstract terms without being accused of being a racist. Fie! scream the activists. We must respect all religions! Creeds! Ethnicities! Minorities! Majorities! Fat people! Vegetarians! All ways of life!
So given all this, why are we blaming a bunch of people for publicly saying what everyone else is only hinting at with their customs, manners and dress? Why are we pointing fingers at a bunch of Sinhalese Buddhists for being proud of being Sinhalese Buddhists? Isn’t that a wee bit hypocritical?
The problem is that we’re different.
Firstly, there is the belief that our ideas are right. Our worldview – and those of our community – are right. Our God is the one true God. And those people across the street – well, we’re not going to cross over and call them wrong , but you know their beliefs are different to yours and they’re not right. This is racism, or any other -ism, boiled down to its core: the knowledge that they are different and we are right.
Photo by Gldeon https://www.flickr.com/photos/malias/6067300380/)
Now if we were intelligent, we’d be able to divorce the ideals from the man and think, okay, ideas maketh the man, but they’re not all that goes into a person; things like humanity, humility, courage, talent, ambition, drive – we have those in common. We’re people. And some of us can even go so far as to explore this concept a little bit further and think: okay, maybe there’s more than one truth. Maybe our way isn’t the only way. Maybe Heaven has seven gates instead of one and they’ve just found a different way in.
Unfortunately, that’s not how most people work. Most people don’t get to this part. Most people stop at ‘they’re different’ and leave it at that. Oh, their women wear short skirts and have Western morals. Oh, their women cover themselves up. Avoid, avoid.
Can you blame people?
We can’t avoid this. The problem with having a multi-cultural society is that we encourage diversity. And diversity is just another word for differences. And where there is difference, there is conflict. This is one thing that those who passionately argue for diversity turn a blind eye to. Everyone is entitled to their own opinions and beliefs, but to deny the results of any two masses of people having two different sets of beliefs is to be stupid. It’s not politically correct to say this, but in reality, the only way to avoid conflict is to eliminate all differences.
If successful, this leads to us becoming a sterile, flat culture, something more akin to the hapless souls of Equilibrium than to the fiery Sri Lankan of today. If unsuccessful, this leads to Holocausts and Black Julys. Neither is a road I want to take, so let’s not eliminate anything. Instead, here’s the inevitable truth of a multicultural society:
Some amount of racism is inevitable.
We cannot ever have a non-racist society. #SayNoToRacism all you want. Sure, we can (and should) prevent racial violence in every way we can. But racism is in words and gestures, in how we think and feel and speak; the tongue, like a sharp knife, often cuts without drawing blood.
People, if you haven’t noticed, love taking sides**. There is no better indicator of this than in Dante’s Inferno, the first part of a 14th-century poem penned by Dante Alighieri. In it, Dante, having traversed the nine circles of hell, having seen every crime under the sun punished in its rightful place, concludes that the hottest places in hell are reserved for those who maintain their neutrality in times of moral crisis.
The urge to declare one’s beliefs or race has always existed among us; history proves it so. It will always exist. It may be a lot less violent that it was before; in today’s world, it is no longer acceptable to put heads on a stake, so we resort to culture-specific dress, various attitudes towards pork or alcohol, Sinhale stickers, and rants about racism. All of these things will exist. People will keep labeling themselves and then complain when they are labeled.
Photo by Josep Castell (https://www.flickr.com/photos/josepcastell/13149841253/)
And in all honesty, it works; not individually, but collectively. It gives us flavor. It gives us color. It adds the right touch of drama. Life in Sri Lanka is a story, not a painting; a story that retells itself over and over again in front of a fantastically rich backdrop. Even the darkness adds beauty to this play.
But there is a tipping point, and we owe it to ourselves to pull back
The moment when something goes from “Those people are evil” to “Those people are evil, and we’re going to do something about it” is what we should really be concerned about. Regardless of how racist we are inside, regardless of how we dress or how we spend our Happy Hours, this is the point where we, as a society, have an obligation to pull together – regardless of all other ideals – and squash this like an errant mosquito until it is dead and we can go back to our casually racist ways again.
Sinhale is one such movement. Many legitimately use it as a declaration of who they are. In that sense, it’s not that different from the Allahu Akbar or the Praise Jesus bumper stickers: at the end of the day, all of these are representations of what you and people around you stand for and believe in. However, unlike these sticks, Sinhale has potential; the potential to make people start spray-painting it on walls, the potential to bring to mind the old conflicts – the potential to become another BBS. The Allahu Akbar stickers are trivial in comparison. In the long run, the pose no threat. This, on the other hand, is on the cusp of going from just another sticker to being something to be afraid of.
Because when left untouched, these ideas fester. These ideas produce the LTTE. They produce the Bodu Bala Sena. They produce the Islamic State. And we cannot, ever, afford that.
*I, being athiest, blame religion; this mess of fairy tales and hodgepodge moral codes that have just enough truth to keep one society functioning and just enough lies to keep it functioning at the expense of another. I blame how it’s taught. Any child receiving any religious education receives it gift-wrapped and packaged in the social consensus that this way is the absolute right way. Combine this with history and the legal and social freedoms that religion is generally given, add the visual segregation that we bring to the mix (hijab, anyone?) and you’ve got a rather potent package. Since religion is the most common means of transmission of a moral code and set of ethics, it’s fair to say that what guides us is also what divides us.
** This may, in a rather oblique way, a way of fulfilling some need to belong and be noticed.
Yudhanjaya Wijeratne is a contributor to Colombo Telegraph, his articles can be found on his blog, icaruswept.com