Coloring Judgment

In a preview of US President Barack Obama’s trip to Ghana, BBC asked children at an Accra elementary school to explain the meaning of his visit.

One boy, perhaps seven years old, said, “Obama proves that black people can do anything that white people can do.” As an American, I’m extraordinarily proud that our country could help teach this lesson. I pray that it sinks in the across the African continent.

As a former resident of Africa, it’s incredible to me that, after 50-plus years of independence, an African child born this century can believe in the inferiority of black people. I won’t speculate about the reasons the boy feels that way, but I’ve witnessed something similar in Asia.

While working on Lonely Planet’s inaugural guide to Borneo, I crossed the border from predominantly poor, poorly educated, underdeveloped and untouristed East Kalimantan in Indonesia to more affluent, educated, developed and cosmopolitan East Sabah in Malaysia and suddenly found race an issue. As I wrote in Asia Times, during six weeks in Kalimantan, I received overwhelmingly warm receptions and helpful responses to inquiries. In Sabah, I was mocked, shunned and insulted. (I understood the taunts since I speak Indonesian, as close to Malaysian as US English is to British.)

I peg the difference to the Malaysian government’s racial policies. Its system of preferences of Malays and restrictions on Chinese and other groups institutionalizes racism. It teaches that all people are not created equal, that there are differences in race, and that Malays are at the bottom of the pile.

That’s no way to raise proud Malaysian children, and, unfortunately, it’s most likely going to be a while before America elects a Malaysian president.

Totally globalized native New Yorker and former broadcast news producer Muhammad Cohen is author of Hong Kong On Air, a novel set in his adopted hometown during the 1997 handover about television news, love, betrayal, financial crisis, and cheap lingerie.

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3 Responses to “Coloring Judgment”

  1. Ch'in Shih-tang Says:

    Very insightful commentary on the social distinctions driven by political boundaries within the island of Borneo.

    Institutional Malaysia is beginning to wrestle with the moral implications of their policies favoring ethnic Malays. Politically, that is dynamite there and may end up splitting UMNO. I like the way you put these neo-racists “at the bottom of the pile” for their majority-favoring affirmative action. Essentially, the policy is driven by a sense of inferiority, particularly toward their Chinese co-nationals, and the question is not whether the Chinese will put up with it, but whether the Malays will rebel against it: it won’t take too many defections from the Bumiputra Line to make it un-defendable (as opposed to indefensible).

    It will be interesting to see if the often-hypothesized arc of human affairs toward justice will apply here.

  2. China pulls back the media veil « Muhammad Cohen on media and more Says:

    […] many believe Chinese racial and cultural superiority contributes to their economic success. (See Coloring Judgment (July 12, 2008) on my blog for the Malaysian […]

  3. Anonymous Says:

    […] many believe Chinese racial and cultural superiority contributes to their economic success. (See Coloring Judgment (July 12, 2008) on my blog for the Malaysian […]

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