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Confronting global racism

/ 04:03 AM January 31, 2022

Race is staring us in the face. Confronting and dealing with it is highly emotional and disturbing, so much so that in polite company, it’s unspeakable. But we can’t avoid it because racism has become global.

Malaysian social commentator Chandran Nair’s new book, “Dismantling Global White Privilege,” confronts racism by calling it privilege. Is White Might right? Do Black Lives Matter? Should Yellow be identified with Cowardice and Peril? Identifying race with color is so highly charged that no one can discuss it objectively. For a person of color to criticize white behavior is often dismissed as subjective bias. For the white media to label others as corrupt, aggressors, enemies, evil, low IQ is considered objective free speech. Fair deal?

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Nair’s book is a battle cry to create a more free, equal world where skin color should not be a barrier to a more just planet. The book is a cringing read, because every page challenges our assumptions of daily life—that it is free, equal, and democratic with rule-based order.

The pandemic proved that the world is not free when the poor, aged, and weak cannot afford vaccines and are free to die in even very rich countries.

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The world is not truly democratic because if every 7.8 billion global citizen had a vote, the one billion rich, powerful, and mostly white people would be out-voted with a very different global order.

The rules-based order raises the fundamental question—who sets the standards, norms and rules? Can we have a proper conversation on whether these rules are fair to all and are at least enforced fairly, justly, and transparently?

Nair has looked comprehensively at white privilege from the angles of history, business, media and publishing education, culture, sports, fashion, and sustainability. It would be facile to dismiss him as biased.

But what does it mean to be white?

White sociologist Robin DiAngelo sums up racism as a black/white binary system that posits a world of evil racists and compassionate non-racists, which is itself a racist construct. Racism as a term was introduced into the English language in the 17th century with colonialism, plantation slavery, and exploitation, linking whiteness with freedom and blackness with slavery. Even today in Latin America, there is a “pigmentocracy,” in which power and social status are associated with lighter skin color. That holds true in other societies.

Protecting privilege as a property right with material benefits is neither predestined nor ordained. No one elected or appointed whites or Americans as global leaders—they fought and dominated with superior technology and arms.

But in this age of massive disruptions, with climate change, demographics, and spread of knowledge/technology causing mass migration from poor to rich countries, can such privileges be sustained?

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Nair concludes that change can come by rejecting the three Es: entitlement, exclusivity, and exceptionalism.

But will change happen?

DiAngelo sums it up best: White fragility is a reaction from both white liberals and conservatives. The conservative populists want to fight against any challenge to the erosion of white rights, whereas the progressives want more state intervention to address inequities. She however thinks that “white progressives cause the most daily damage to people of color.” Polarization stalls change because the right is against state intervention, whereas the left calls for more, not realizing that it creates a dependency syndrome that is neither fiscally nor socially sustainable.

My personal view is that racism is often an excuse not to address the wicked problems of social injustice and planetary destruction. Blaming each other will not work anymore for the existential issues that face us. Race is only a mask over deep injustices locked down into our psyches of power and hierarchy. Technology has enabled us to begin a conversation at local, communal, corporate, state, regional, and global levels on how to shape a world of peace and sustainability, rather than demonizing each other and beating the drums of war.

I commend Nair’s book to be read, even if what he says is uncomfortable to many.

—Asia News Network

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Andrew Sheng is a former chair of the Hong Kong Securities and Futures Commission.

The Philippine Daily Inquirer is a member of the Asia News Network, an alliance of 22 media titles in the region.

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TAGS: Andrew Sheng, Commentary, global racism
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