Sunday, May 01, 2011

Racism and Cultural Insecurity

JP and I had a conversation today, again, on multiculturalism and it's discontents. I've come to the conclusion that there is a difference between "racism" and what I loosely term "cultural insecurity". I note that the true definition of racism relates to the belief that a particular race is inherently genetically inferior from another, but I'm using it in the context of, say, an Anglo-Canadian telling an immigrant to "speak english" or to "go home" while flinging pop cans at him; or the unreasonable assumption that "so-and-so is a PRC female and is therefore out to get your money".

While driven generally by the same source (discomfort with the "other"/"unknown") racism is a more of a personalized, emotional response while cultural insecurity is more of a condition of the social fabric that a community is constructed from. For the most part, racism is a resulting response of cultural insecurity and as such, the two concepts are closely linked. But, of course, racism can exist independently from cultural insecurity (where there is no perception of a threat - but if you broaden the definition of cultural insecurity enough, it would capture most situations); and cultural insecurity does not, under any circumstances, have to give rise to the response of racism.

From the onset, it's important to recognize that racism is, universally, a negative and should not be endorsed at all. It is also very important to recognize that cultural insecurity is very real and in some cases, inevitable. Particularly so with the extensive cross-boarder movement that is seen today. Hence, while racism must be stopped, cultural insecurity cannot be ignored and must be engaged to ensure discontent is properly contained (and hence, preventing it from leading to racism).

So what is the difference between the two? Well, as set out in the first two paragraphs, racism is an emotional response that comes from a seat of insecurity and anger and is personal. It is a personal attack on its victim and deems his race to be a problem, above all else. It is an expression of disrespect for the fundamental aspects of his person and identity. On the other hand, recognizing cultural insecurity shifts the focus from the person to the dynamic between two different groups that co-exist within the same community space: the "local" and the "foreigner". It the recognition of the difficulties of difference and deems certain developments in the community (as a whole) to be the problem.

The exact nature of these "developments" are will differ, depending on the local group and the foreign group. Hence, the cultural insecurity that is experienced in Anglo-Canada with large Chinese/Indian immigrant populations will be different from the cultural insecurity that is experience in European states with Islamic immigrants and from French-Quebec with its pockets of Anglo-Canadians. But there are similarities:
  1. The economic: The fear that they will take our jobs
  2. The social: We do not trust them
  3. The cultural: They have strange/barbaric practices
(1) isn't really a problem for the purposes of this discussion and is artificial. It is basically an extension of (2) and (3) which are interrelated (the social and the cultural). After all, it is the social and cultural differences that create the division between "us" and "them". A better example would be in Singapore, with its influx of PRC and Malaysian workers. Everyone is Chinese but the PRCs get picked on because they do not speak English, Singlish or Dialect; while the Malaysians blend in like Skrulls [quote courtesy of Alex Yap]. No one complains about Malaysians taking our jobs, but everyone yips about the PRCs and the other immigrants from SEA.

The problematic social and cultural developments that happen within a community in a state of cultural insecurity are as follows: Point (2) above relates to a decrease of social capital: i.e. the amount of trust you have in the next person in your community. Not to say that all immigrants are untrustworthy scum, but there are two things worth noting: First, new migrants and temporary workers do not yet have a sense of belonging to the community that they have entered. They did not have a stake in building the local society to what it is today and as such, have little vested in it. This effect is particularly multiplied if the local community receives them with hostility, or if the new migrants have an established a foreigner community that is segregated from the local communities (i.e. cultural ghettos - think Richmond in Vancouver). As such, the new migrant would have little to no sense of accountability to the local community and vice versa. Second, point (3) of being uncomfortable with certain cultural behaviour feeds into the sense of mistrust, as it is unclear to the local if the foreigner will necessary interact with him in the way that the local is comfortable with. Simple things like different concepts of personal space, expectations of gender roles, hospitality and manners can lead to unfortunate misunderstandings which fuel the reduction of social capital.

So what is to be done in with all this? Well, firstly, the understanding that racism is not cultural insecuirty can assist with the elimination of the former. Remove the inappropriate personalized attacks and recognize that the underlying cause is cultural insecurity, which, as an institutional problem can be dealt with using appropriate policy measures. Such measures would, again, differ from context to context but in general, would encompass some measures taken towards the integration of the foreinger. If it can be determined what the threshold of tolerence for cultural insecuirty that the local community has, and the areas which are deemed important, policy makers can work towards immigration policies that are effective.

JP asked me if I thought that integration was a two way process, whereby both the foreigner and the local should change to integrate together. I think the answer is: it depends on what you want. Generally, local populations do not want to change and they do not see the need to. "This is our home and we were here first. So please learn to be like us, as we should not have to learn to be like you". If this is the case then the burden of the integration process will be more heavily slanted toward the foreigner: learn the langauge, adopt the cultural practices and norms, our way of dress, our festivals, our religion, earn our trust and be accountable. The process, I think, will inevitably still be a two-way process. But to maintain stability and to keep discontentment at bay, the evolution of the local community would have to be slow, almost imperceptable. Multiculturalism, then, cannot be a blanket "come-one-come-all" approach - but must be carefully adopted to ensure that the threads in your social fabric don't start to run.
An evening at a PAP rally, and a discussion over the foreigner situation in Singapore over durians has reminded me of how much I love this country.