1st September 2010
Soft racism in the West – the last frontier for equal freedom
Let me preface this post by stating that most Westerners I meet are the most pleasant and decent people one can imagine. Australians have a natural knack for friendship that I find amazing, and a knack for putting you at ease. Humour and wisecracks are their forte. My critique below does not apply to most people I have come across during my sixteen years in the West. (Which is the same as saying that not all Indians discriminate on grounds of caste, although caste discrimination – and it is race-based in my view – is in fact far more prevalent than what I'm going to discuss shortly, below).
Let me also re-affirm at the outset a few things some of which I have stated elsewhere, such as that Westerners do not, as a rule, hate Indians. It is just that some of them are terribly stupid. I disagree with the UN Committee on Elimination of Racial Discrimination's rebuke of the Victorian government and police for allegedly "ignoring racial motives behind a spate of assaults on Indian students in Melbourne". Let this be very clear about this: violent crime is far less prevalent in Australia than in India, and in any event, the hoopla about the mass killings of Indians in Australia was so misplaced that it simply reaffirms once again that stupidity rules the world. Confused analysis of facts is the norm, not the exception. and the UN, in particular, has lost all credibility with me (what with its seriously flawed IPCC findings and all that).
Finally, let me make note that racism in India is far deeper and more insidious than in the West. I'll go into details of Indian racism separately (I've given examples earlier, such as caste-based racism and racism against people from NE India – see also BFN and DOF for an extensive discussion). Things in India are actually quite bad. Every few months when someone from India doesn't agree with what I have to say, I am bombarded with emails with racist epithets. Some call me 'Kala angrez' (black Englishman) and use the most foul and threatening language to 'prove' their case (I had to report one such message to the Police since it threatened assault). Such comments from Indians are both deeply racist and totally misinformed. So when I talk about Western soft racism, I do not mean to imply that this is a particularly worse problem than similar problems in the highly ill-educated Third World. It is all a relative matter, in the end… All very sad.
But I digress. Let me turn now to the issue of this blog post; an issue that is obvious to all but is not widely discussed. Too much emphasis is placed in the Indian media (and in others) on 'hard' (or overt) forms of racism – but that part is largely over and done with – at least in the West. Far more common and far more insidious is soft racism.
In soft racism 'race' (I use inverted commas since 'race' is a nonsensical, non-existent concept) is not publicly acknowledged and no offensive comments or expressions are used , but strong undercurrent of racism and prejudice are implicit in its import. Soft racism is not aggressive, it is not violent, it does not use harsh or foul (racist) language. Instead, it uses subtle cues that are hard to distinguish from what would otherwise be thought of as 'considered judgement'. It is therefore sophisticated, not crude. It is in many ways implicit, a state of mind. Its outcomes are subtle as well: leading to discrimination against and devaluation of merit. And it is quite common in across the world – including in the West and India.
The decline of hard racism
"One day [in June 1893], when he was travelling from Durban to Pretoria in the first class compartment of a train, a Britishman boarded the compartment. On seeing Gandhiji, the Britishman got furious. He called the Railway officer, and both ordered him to get out of the train. Since Gandhiji had purchased a first class ticket, he refused to do so. However, they paid no heed to him. Gandhiji also did not budge. Finally the police were summoned. They pushed him out of the compartment and threw his luggage out of the window. Gandhiji had to spend the whole night on the platform." (from Jyoti Solapurkar's article)
The days when Gandhi could be kicked out of a first class compartment because of the colour of his skin are now over. Feeling humiliated, but not mentally broken by this horrible and shabby treatment from those whom he had earlier held in some esteem, Gandhi led a movement for equal freedom that destroyed the last vestiges of open racism across the entire world. Martin Luther King, one of his many followers, finished off the job that Lincoln had started but could not complete during his lifetime. Let no one have the slightest doubt, therefore, including Obama, that Barak Obama is President today ONLY BECAUSE GANDHI – an Indian – LIVED AND CHANGED THE WORLD. Obama should install a memorial to Gandhi before he is (soon?) thrown out by Americans for his socialist leanings.
True, hard racism still exists – in plenty – across the West. A recent example is the hate mail received by Ken Wyatt, Australia's first aboriginal MP likely to be elected to the House of Representatives which said: 'Wouldn't know you were indigenous – we wouldn't have voted for you if we did'. Or when he was called "Uncle Tom Wyatt" while walking in his electorate. Australia has at least some very mean- and petty-minded hard racists. No doubt about it. They are a blight on this otherwise great nation. But as I have argued, hard racism in Australia is now very small and to call Australia racist would be wrong. Plain wrong. The country is fine. A few of its people are very stupid.
And yet the underbelly of soft racism continues
What is much more widespread and chronic is soft racism. It is, as I have defined above, not related to overt or aggressive racism, but to ignorance. It might even be practised unconsciously. It is at its heart a disease of ignorance, a disease of poor education. It is based on stereotypes (on which I've written much about in DOF). The recent claims by Dev Patel, the star of Slumdog Millionnaire, that Hollywood is institutionally racist are precisely the kind of thing I'm talking about. Here's a brilliant actor whose contributions and talent are being deliberately undermined and devalued by soft racist owners of Hollywood studios. (Is it time for Indians to now take over control of Hollywood – not just the IT industry of USA?). It sometimes must feel to Indians living in the West what a low-caste person perhaps feel living in India! (Tit-for-tat!? No. Both are bad. Both must go.)
It is time to take serious note of this blight on humanity, and work towards its reduction, if not elimination. Soft racism is now the last major frontier in the battle for equal freedom. Once we can find a way to get people to stop stereotyping others' knowledge, abilities, or character based only on the colour of their skin, we would have achieved equal freedom.
This one is going to be very, very hard to overcome, though. I struggle to think of ways to eliminate it, but I've got a few ideas that I'll suggest towards the end of this post. In the main, I believe that education and (global) competition are the main tools that will ultimately compress out the last vestiges of soft racism from the minds of humanity, and finally let the world live as one happy family.
The magnitude of soft racism
It is difficult for me to place a precise figure on the magnitude of soft racism found in the West but I am inclined to say it is actually quite high – although low in comparison to that found in India. I had estimated that assertive (hard) racism could be around 7 per cent of the Western populations. When subtle prejudices are factored in, including those that people may not be aware of, I'd say that soft racism perhaps afflicts 50 per cent or more of the Western population. This is the group of Western citizens who have a prejudice in favour of (or against) people merely because of skin colour – regardless of whether they consciously know about their prejudice or not.
Kinds of soft racism typically 'practised'
- Most parts of Australia become MUCH HOTTER in summer than most parts in India. I can't even begin to describe the kind of sharp heat of the Australian sun in the peak of summer (because of greater UV content).
- Many parts of India get much colder than Australia in winter. (Have Australian teachers ever heard of the Himalayas? Is geography even taught in Australia? Why are these people so ignorant about India?)
- And are they taught basic biology? Just because someone is born or lives (or lived) in a particular place (whether hot or cold), the person's body 'type' doesn't become different! Humans are 99.99% identical genetically. The ambient temperature when the above conversation took place was 9 degrees Celsius, and everyone (except this ignorant racist!) was wearing a thick overcoat. I know of plenty of 'white' 'Aussies' as well who shiver when the temperature drops slightly below 21 degrees. Humans have a wide range of temperature-tolerance characteristics. Sanjay Gandhi wore a mere shawl in Moscow in the middle of the deep Russian winter when everyone else was dressed up in thick layers of warm clothes and overcoats.
The ignorance of the human condition displayed by such comments would be laughable were it not for the fact that such soft racists move up to positions of power from which their biases and prejudices damage the prospects of those who don't look exactly like them.
b) Language stereotyping:
Language stereotyping is even more common. Apparently Indians don't know English. Here's an extract from DOF (draft):
"I mentioned to an Australian colleague that while growing up in India I used to read many American comics and English novels. The colleague inquired whether these were translations, imagining perhaps that Indians could not read English! Many people in the West find it hard to believe that many Indians speak, read and write English quite well in India itself, and do not have to learn it after reaching the West! This might be a case of harmless ignorance but I know that this person has since been promoted and will soon be recruiting people. Such ignorance is likely to impinge badly on such recruitment decisions, depriving people of Indian origin job opportunities – often denying them even an interview call. Helen Szoke, CEO of the Victorian Equal Opportunity Commission, notes that despite labour and skill shortages, recent arrivals from non-English-speaking countries do not easily get jobs compatible with their skills. This hurts everyone: Australia misses out on talent and the immigrants are unable to perform to the level they are qualified for and earn less. Clearly, the use of stereotypes to select people for public office (including government jobs) are particularly insidious and inimical to equal freedom. Such decisions shouldbe based on merit and those who discriminate on the basis of irrelevant characteristics for selection to tax-payer funded jobs should be seriously punished. "
One of the worst examples of soft racism I have experienced was when I sent this article to Mises.com for publication.
One of their editors, Jeffrey Tucker (a famous writer but clearly with an ego too big for his skull), wrote back tersely (not the slightest sense of email etiquette), "Your article is excellent but I sadly have to decline to run it because no one has time these days for language repair." I asked him what he meant by such a disparaging phrase "language repair". He responded: "the problem is that the English is not as fluid as it would be for a native." I was flabbergasted, and suggested that even liberals can't overcome hubris easily. I suggested that his comment (about alleged 'natives' who apparently are the only ones with the the gift of writing good English) reeks of racism and blocked him out permanently from my email system. I don't have time to communicate with alleged liberals who are racists at heart. Who cares a fig about their mastery over the English language? They may. I don't. I care, most importantly, to be treated with respect. That is a million times more important to me than knowing how much English you know.
His offensive statement implied that all (Anglo Saxon?) Westerners write good English. That is utter tripe. Nonsense. I have seen atrocious English written by at least half the Anglo-Saxons I have come across. I do not claim to be the world's best writer of English: but I do claim that I can write well enough to get by – to communicate. And can JT communicate in Hindi, for instance? So shall I trash his ideas completely merely because he can't write Hindi as a 'native'? Language is a communication tool, not an end in itself. We must be able to get our message across. No more. All else – the polish and glitter – is a waste of time. Good for a Nobel prize, perhaps, but not for eliminating poverty and misgovernance. If one were to go by JT's conception of life, then all writings by non-native speakers should be thrown out – lost entirely to humanity. Indeed, mises.com should make it clear on its website that non-native English speakers need not try to write or propagate freedom. Language has never been a yardstick for the quality of an idea.
JT should have realised (had he asked) that I am full time employee with extremely limited spare time. I write in an absolute tearing hurry (just like this one has been dashed off rapidly)! If necessary I revise, condense, edit. But apparently, according to JT, only native English speakers can edit! Non-native speakers must perish the thought of writing for mises.com. What utter racist claptrap.
I think I've got my point across, so I should leave JT alone to stew in his 'white' sweat. The point is that Indians are likely to experience outright rejection of their ideas by the surfeit of soft racists in the West, regardless of the merit of their ideas. This bias against a different name, a different skin colour, flows through into the career prospects of Indians, as well. I have seen this at work at very close quarters for ten years, so I speak with great confidence about my understandings of the underbelly of Western soft racism.
c) Cultural stereotypes
Assumptions about Indians are made not only about their knowledge, heat-tolerating capacity, English skills, but on a range of other, cultural, matters. Such cultural stereotypes are often outed in the most odd and unexpected circumstances. I'll illustrate two – both of which surprised me (I could list another 20, but this is a blog post, not a book!):
- In my previous job, nearly 9 years ago in Australia, one of my managers said in passing during a private conversation that they were looking for stakeholder skills and hadn't found them in the area in which worked. In response I told her politely that I had dealt with senior stakeholders the whole of my working life before coming to Australia (where I was cooped into a tiny research role). I had all the relevant skills, but my role was not expansive enough, making me play second fiddle. Only after making that comment did my manager give me opportunities to display my skills, and only then was I promoted (twice) – finally into a senior stakeholder management role, after they found I out-performed in every role I took. But their bias against me was clearly at work, unwritten rules that prevent Indians from even being considered for certain roles.
- Then there was the case of a particularly stupid senior manager (in one of my different roles, in a different time and place). He came to me after a talk I had given to a large group of people and suggested to me that a (trivial, short) training that I had recently attended must have prompted my ability to deliver my outstanding talk. One more example of absurd racist nonsense! I have been speaking in public since the age of 10, I was in my school and college debating teams, and have delivered hundreds of public talks over the years. To even suggest that a single, short training (it wasn't even that) can create speaking skills is such claptrap that I wonder how these people think. But this kind of nonsense is actually quite typical. Such soft racists live and thrive in senior positions in the West, holding on to their ridiculous prejudices about Indians, preventing them from the opportunities where they can express their capacities fully. They don't know what the IAS is, they don't care to know anything about India, and yet they prejudge all Indians.
Cultural stereotyping in the West is dangerous for the career prospects of Indians. It blocks opportunity for them and makes for a lose-lose situation for all (but of course, there are no penalties for public sector managers who give full play to their prejudices).
3) Foreign aid:
Underlying real causes of soft racism
Of course, there do exist some genuine reasons for the common Western stereotypes about Indians (or Muslims, or whatever). Everyone in the world (including me) uses stereotypes as convenient shortcuts.We can't possibly live without stereotypes.
- The status of all Muslims declines all over the world each time Muslim terrorists engage in violence. Muslims then lose out on jobs, they lose out on promotions, they are no longer welcomed as migrants.
- The status of all Indians worldwide declines each time any any Indian indulges in corruption. If the Commonwealth Games in Delhi are mismanaged (as all signs seem to be showing they will be) expect soft racism against Indians to increase sharply.
- And it is true, for instance, that given the cultural differences between Indians and Westerners (such as the level of informality prevalent in the West), it may take time for Indians from India to acclimatise to working in the West.
Thus, by no means am I claiming that all Indians will perform outstandingly well in all roles. That is not my point. The point is that individual assessment is needed on certain key matters, but stereotypes are more readily used. Soft racism become a real problem when people with doctorates from some of the world's best universities are treated on par with high school students (or less) and not given even the basic opportunity to perform in trivial jobs. None of the reasons for stereotypes explain the lack of individual-specific assessment that is crucial for a merit-based non-discriminatory society.
I know of a person with some of the best qualifications from India, some of the best senior executive experience in India, and a Masters in public administration from one of the best universities in the world (in the USA). She also holds a doctorate from Melbourne university. BUT she was not, and has not been given even a toehold in any policy-related job, an area in which she excels. She has stopped applying, so rampant is soft racism in Australia. She now works for disabled Australians, a menial job that places her LOWER than a third rate high school student from Australia. Shame on soft racism in Australia that treats some of its high quality immigrants like dirt. Equal freedom DOES NOT EXIST IN THE WEST.