I am a banana. In Singapore, where I used to live, this needs no explanation — it means I’m yellow on the outside but white on the inside, someone who looks ethnically Chinese but whose way of thinking is ‘western’. There are bananas all over Asia, and I daresay the world. We are better versed in Shakespeare than Confucius, our Mandarin is appalling, and we often have pretentious Anglo or American accents.
Then there are people who are ‘ching-chong’, a reference to anyone who enjoys the kitschy bling of stereotypically Chinese things, sans irony — they like paving their entire garden with cement, for example, or driving a huge Mercedes, or placing two garish stone lions on either side of a wrought-iron gate.
In Asia, there are lots of labels like these, based along racial lines. Most trenchant of all, an entire kaleidoscope of words exist to refer to foreigners, more often than not whites: farang in Thailand, gaijin in Japan, mat salleh in Malaysia, gweilo in Hong Kong. In the latter, ‘gwei’ means ‘ghost’ — taken literally, it means a white person is not fully human. Indeed, in many Chinese dialects, the idiomatic term for any foreigner, be they Indian or Ivorian or Irish, contains the ghostly ‘gwei’; only ethnic Chinese are constantly referred to as ‘rén’, which means ‘person’. In other words, only the Chinese really exist as full-blooded people.
Now, these terms have been used for so long and so broadly that often they’re not employed as racial epithets — though sometimes they are. But I wish they weren’t in circulation at all, because they make us view people through the narrow lens of ethnicity.
And where’s the outrage? No high-level, activist campaign exists in any Asian country to eradicate such racially charged language. Nobody feels strongly enough to object, least of all white people.
In Britain though, where I now live, the opposite seems to be true. I can’t help noticing that certain sections of the population are now so acutely tuned into the issue of race that they spot racism where none is intended. I was stunned for instance, when a few years ago police in the Isle of Wight arrested a beach-bar singer for belting out the pop song ‘Kung Fu Fighting’ because someone had complained it was racial aggravation. (I try to picture the Singapore police taking action over a claim that ‘Play that Funky Music’ is offensive to white boys, and can’t.)
Recently there was an online petition against a Knorr advert featuring Marco Pierre White making a dish of rice, peas and chicken and describing it as Jamaican — the chef’s creation was not authentic enough, apparently. A writer in the Guardian called this ‘disrespectful cultural appropriation’.
Racism is such a charged subject in Britain that even outside observers feel they have a right to offer hyperbolic comments about the state of the nation: the Iranian commentator Ismail Salami recently said that ‘racism is eating away at the fabric of Britain’ and that the nation is ‘plunging into the depths of moral deterioration’. It’s true that he made the remarks after the horrific murder of a disabled Iranian by extremists in this country — but then Iran is hardly the poster nation of a rainbow society. It’s also unclear whether he was also talking about the equally horrific murder in Woolwich of a white soldier by black Islamists.
Britain is not a racist country. I have not, as a member of a minority ethnic group here, encountered racist comments or treatment from anyone, neither in London nor in the countryside, when I go there. I’m sure racism still has a hold in places — even the Home Secretary suggests that blacks are disproportionately likely to be stopped by the police, for example. The British National Party may have imploded in the last five years but it still exists — albeit relying on the votes of angry old men. But it’s hard to say, even by the widest stretch of the imagination, that racism is one of this country’s big problems.
Take the Woolwich murder. The killing might have roiled prejudice — this was the hope of the so-called English Defence League who tried to organise scores of rallies. They picked the wrong country. In Exeter and Devon, no one turned up at all. In Leeds, 20 of its members were met by 30 opponents shouting ‘You’re not welcome here.’ It was a similar story in Manchester, Oxford and Edinburgh.
Surveys show racism is dying on its feet in Britain. In the 1990s, the British Social Attitudes survey found that 44 per cent of people said they would be uncomfortable if their children married across ethnic lines. But that is changing dramatically: according to a recent British Future report, only 5 per cent of those aged between 18 and 24 would mind their children marrying someone of a different ethnic background. The World Values Survey found British people among those most likely to befriend a neighbour from a different ethnic background. (The nations that were least tolerant included Jordan, Egypt, South Korea and Iran.)
To the British young, racism is not repugnant — it’s incomprehensible. The young of Britain, says the British Future report, belong to the ‘Jessica Ennis generation’ and are ‘ever more likely to form mixed race relationships themselves; and much less likely to think there is any big deal about that anyway’.
You only have to look at other nations across the globe to see how far Britain has come. Countries everywhere impose laws and policies along racial lines, in a manner that would be inconceivable here. Malaysia, where I was born, has a constitution which safeguards the ‘special position’ of ethnic Malays, such as by establishing quotas for entry into the civil service, public scholarships and public education. Thus many Malaysians — and I am deemed an ethnic-Chinese Malaysian — come to be extremely aware of their racial background.
As for China, racism appears to be ingrained, especially against blacks: large numbers of young Africans studying there complain of this. (The early 20th-century Chinese reformer Kang Youwei once advocated ‘Improver of the Race’ medals for whites or yellows willing to marry blacks in order to ‘purify mankind’.) And across Africa, where in several countries slavery still exists, inter-ethnic tension is rife.
Britain, perhaps ironically through her Empire, has become a multi-ethnic state — and continues to mix it up. One reason why there are cases of racism and discrimination constantly being reported in the UK is because there are so many different ethnic communities here: there is far more chance for the odd episode of racial friction than in a vastly more homogeneous country such as, say, China. In Beijing, just 4 per cent of the population are non-Han Chinese. In London, 40 per cent are non-white.
The danger with crying racism at every turn is that it conceals real problems. Immigration cannot be discussed properly here, because anyone who wants to raise the subject is labelled bigoted or racist — even if they’re talking about white Poles. The concerns of the poor, who live in areas where immigrants flock, are about oversubscribed GP surgeries or about schools that suddenly go multilingual. Yet their concerns are dismissed by the governing elite as racist, such as when a voter once voiced her concerns over crime and immigration to Gordon Brown, and he was caught on microphone calling her a ‘bigoted woman’. It risks alienating a class from British politics and driving people to support genuinely racist parties.
And while Britain is looking out for the old bigotry, new ones creep in. ‘Culturalism’ — favouring someone because they share the same mindset as you, is not so bad because it’s not ‘racist’. Appearing before the Commons education committee, an Ofsted inspector recently raised the issue of working-class white schoolchildren being overlooked and without representation versus ethnic groups: too much race awareness tends to cause division, rather than inclusion.
Just a few weeks ago I discovered that I fall under a group known as BAME — Black and Minority Ethnic. Such categorisation, used mainly by the political left, is meant to protect my rights against discrimination. But I feel mildly repulsed by it (and no, I don’t understand why the acronym segregates blacks from other minorities, either). Ironically, this well-meant labelling might be the most racist thing that I have ever encountered in the UK.
The truth is, I didn’t come all the way to Britain to hide myself under an umbrella acronym. I refuse to be the ‘ME’ in BAME. I don’t want to feel safe and secure by cordoning myself off from the larger community. I can’t bear to feel perpetually aggrieved, offended, slighted, victimised. Most of all, I don’t want to be viewed purely according to my race — I’ve had enough of that back where I come from, thank you very much.
I have been welcomed and accepted in this country, and — uncool as this may sound — I feel grateful for this. Perhaps there are thousands of other ‘minority’ people in this country who feel the same way. We are here to throw ourselves pell-mell into the national life, whatever that may bring. Because of course Britain faces many challenges today. It’s just that racism isn’t one of them.