Friday, January 22, 2010

Racism, Colourism, and Discrimination. Or why Michael Jackson needed to lighten his skin tone.

Jan 21, 2010
Does race matter? Yes, even when it's not official
By Andy Ho, Senior Writer

THE offspring of inter-racial marriages may now have their 'race' hyphenated. The decision to offer this option has reignited calls from some quarters to do away with race categories altogether.

A reader suggested that Singapore should emulate Brazil's cross-colour conviviality, which experts attribute to a longstanding official policy of silence when dealing with race. Thus, racism does not exist in Brazil, she argued.

Brazilian exceptionalism began in 1889 and 1891 when the government burnt all documents pertaining to slaves. In this way, half a million slaves emancipated in 1888 entered a society that already had large numbers belonging to a hybridised race (mulatto).

With few white women around, the Portuguese colonialists took local ones. Over time, there was a large mulatto population, giving rise to much racial ambiguity. Today, the mulatto may describe himself or herself as claro (light complexion), moreno claro (medium-dark complexion), moreno (dark complexion), pardo (brown), and so on.

In such a context, rigid racial segregation was difficult, so the authorities did not categorise people based on their descent or ancestry. To this very day, race is not used in official Brazilian data collection, analysis and discussion. If we did away with race as Brazil has done, my reader argued, racism in Singapore too will disappear.

But is Brazil's 'racial democracy' real? Its southern regions are relatively white or light-skinned while the north and north-east are relatively darker. And significantly, there are very high levels of inequality: Non-whites fare badly in educational achievement, vocational earnings, career progression and life expectancy.

While blacks and mulattos dominate in music and sports, whites rule in most other fields, especially commerce and industry. Little wonder Brazilians themselves generally regard a fairer skin as better.

This idea of racial democracy was first promoted in the 1930s by Gilberto Freyre, especially in his rambunctious work entitled Casa-Grande & Senzala, translated as The Masters And The Slaves - a romanticised account of sugar-mill towns that were practically owned by one white man, who was, in effect, the patriarch of his black workers, first slaves, then servants.

Freyre argued that the Portuguese were less racist than other colonialists. Their Iberian-Catholic tradition facilitated the establishment of a 'polygamous patriarchal regime' where 'widely practised miscegenation tended to modify the enormous social distance between the Big House (Casa-Grande) and the slave hut (Senzala)'.

This racial mixing resulted in so many shades that discrimination based on ancestry became well nigh impossible. This then led to a racially harmonious society. In Brazil, therefore, social classes are economic, not racial, Freyre argued.

Today, riled at the socio-economic disenfranchisement they suffer in Brazil, black activists pooh-pooh this idea of a racial democracy. A job advertisement requiring someone with 'good appearance', they point out, is understood to mean a white person.

In the 2006 Race In Another America: The Significance Of Skin Color In Brazil, Professor Edward Telles paints a nuanced account of the current state of race affairs in Brazil. A sociologist at the University of California, Los Angeles, Prof Telles documents the shift in public opinion, from one that subscribed to the myth of racial democracy to one that perceives a racially divided society.

While Brazil's rates of inter-marriage and residential integration are high, this is true only among the poor. Thus, while there might be a racial democracy for 80 per cent of people, the privileged class remains irrevocably white. Prof Telles finds that the inequality between whites and non-whites in Brazil is far worse than that in the United States.

Abject poverty among non-whites has led to crime that is so bad regular police patrolling the streets have to don bulletproof vests daily. According to Time magazine, 6,000 were shot and killed in Rio de Janeiro last year - 1,000 by the police.

Since the fairer-skinned are more privileged, many have 'self-whitened', Prof Telles notes. More blacks are self-identifying as brown while more browns are self-identifying as white. Hence, parents of one colour may have offspring who self-identify with a lighter colour.

Despite being shorn of official race categories, there is hyper-consciousness about fine gradations of skin colour. These gradations have to do with how much African ancestry one has. There is a deep structural racism in Brazil that is only minimally covered over by the fig leaf of a seemingly friendlier system of colour stratification.

Because there are no legal categories of race in Brazil, there are also no laws to combat racial discrimination which undeniably exists. By contrast, official practice in Singapore leads to bright-lines among the races. But the very same laws that inscribe these lines also make it possible to recognise and address racially discriminatory practices.

In this way, having legal categories of race may not be so pernicious after all.

Does race matter? Yes, even if we think we're colour-blind
By Shankar Vedantam

LAST week, US Senate majority leader Harry Reid found himself in trouble for once suggesting that Mr Barack Obama had a political edge over other African-American candidates during the US presidential campaign because he was 'light- skinned' and had 'no Negro dialect, unless he wanted to have one'. Mr Reid was not expressing sadness but glee that Americans were still judging one another by the colour of their skin, rather than - as Dr Martin Luther King Jr dreamed - by the content of their character.

The Senate leader's choice of words was flawed, but positing that black candidates who look 'less black' have a leg up is hardly more controversial than saying wealthy people have an advantage in elections. Dozens of research studies have shown that skin tone and other racial features play powerful roles in who gets ahead and who does not. These factors regularly determine who gets hired, who gets convicted and who gets elected.

Consider: Lighter-skinned Latinos in the United States make US$5,000 (S$7,000) more on average than darker-skinned Latinos. The education test-score gap between light-skinned and dark- skinned African-Americans is nearly as large as the gap between whites and blacks.

The Harvard neuroscientist Allen Counter has found that in Arizona, California and Texas, hundreds of Mexican-American women have suffered mercury poisoning as a result of the use of skin-whitening creams. In India, where I was born, a best-selling line of women's cosmetics called Fair and Lovely has recently been supplemented by a product aimed at men called Fair and Handsome.

This isn't racism, per se: it's colourism, an unconscious prejudice that isn't focused on a single group like blacks so much as on blackness itself. Our brains, shaped by culture and history, create intricate caste hierarchies that privilege those who are physically and culturally whiter and punish those who are darker.

Colourism is an intra-racial problem as well as an inter-racial problem. Racial minorities who are alert to white-black or white-brown issues often remain silent about a colourism that asks 'how black' or 'how brown' someone is within their own communities.

Colourism may live underground, but its effects are very real. Darker-skinned African-American defendants are more than twice as likely to receive the death penalty as lighter-skinned African-American defendants for crimes of equivalent seriousness involving white victims. This has been proven in rigorous, peer-reviewed research into hundreds of capital punishment-worthy cases by the Stanford psychologist Jennifer Eberhardt.

Take, for instance, two of Dr Eberhadt's murder cases, in Philadelphia, involving black defendants - one light-skinned, the other dark. The lighter-skinned defendant, Arthur Hawthorne, ransacked a drug store for money and narcotics. The pharmacist had complied with every demand, yet Hawthorne shot him when he was lying face down. Hawthorne was independently identified as the killer by multiple witnesses, a family member and an accomplice.

The darker-skinned defendant, Ernest Porter, pleaded not guilty to the murder of a beautician, a crime that he was linked to only through a circuitous chain of evidence. A central witness later said that prosecutors forced him to finger Porter even though he was sure that he was the wrong man. Two people who provided an alibi for Porter were mysteriously never called to testify. During his trial, Porter said the police had even gotten his name wrong - his real name was Theodore Wilson - but the court stuck to the wrong name in the interest of convenience.

Both men were convicted. But the lighter-skinned Hawthorne was given a life sentence, while the dark-skinned Porter has spent more than a quarter-century on Pennsylvania's death row.

Colourism also influenced the 2008 presidential race. In an experiment, Dr Drew Westen, a psychologist at Emory, and other researchers shot different versions of a political advertisement in support of Mr Obama. One version showed a light-skinned black family. Another version had the same script, but used a darker-skinned black family. Voters, at an unconscious level, were less inclined to support Mr Obama after watching the advertisement featuring the darker-skinned family than were those who watched the ad with the lighter-skinned family.

Political operatives are certainly aware of this dynamic. During the campaign, a conservative group created attack ads linking Mr Obama with Mr Kwame Kilpatrick, the disgraced former mayor of Detroit, which darkened Mr Kilpatrick's skin to have a more persuasive effect. Though there can be little doubt that as a candidate Mr Obama faced voters' conscious and unconscious prejudices, it is simultaneously true that unconscious colourism subtly gave him the advantage over darker-skinned politicians.

In highlighting how Mr Obama benefited from his links to whiteness, Senator Reid punctured the myth that Mr Obama's election signalled the completion of Dr King's dream. Americans may like to believe that they are now colour-blind, that they can consciously choose not to use race when making judgments about other people. It remains a worthy aspiration. But this belief rests on a profound misunderstanding about how our minds work and perversely limits our ability to discuss prejudice honestly.

The writer, a Nieman fellow at Harvard University, is a Washington Post reporter.


[And some naivete and idealism...]

Ethnicity no longer dominant in defining S'poreans

MR LIANG Kaicheng's letter on Tuesday ('Double race option checks racism and develops national pride') wrongly attributes several instances of ethnic conflict to nationalism without preservation and protection of racial identities.

In fact, it was the very emphasis on such identities that led to these conflicts.

The race riots of 1964 (Singapore) and 1969 (Malaysia) are possibly the most familiar examples of the potential of the promulgation of a system of racial identities to divide rather than unite.

The herd mentality of which Mr Liang writes is not as natural as he thinks because racism depends on how intensely race is defined as a category.

It follows from a narrow view of the CMIO (Chinese, Malay, Indian and Others) system that, for instance, every individual native to China would be part of a herd, when the 'Chinese' category may easily be further sub-divided.

It is inaccurate to privilege any one system of ethnic classification over all others. Thus, even the new system of hyphenated racial categories cannot be said to properly describe anyone, as Mr Liang asserts.

My knee-jerk reaction was to wish to have my nominal race changed to Andhra Pradeshi-Cantonese-Hokkien to reflect my ancestry, but even that would not do justice to the deeper history of the people of China and India.

Most importantly, Mr Liang assumes that ethnicity, regardless of the system by which it is defined, must be the dominant feature in the construction of one's identity.

Perhaps, when Singapore was a fledgling immigrant community, policies which defined people according to their descent, such as the Raffles Town Plan, were a quick and easy way for the colonial administration to handle the diversity of a group of unfamiliar peoples.

However, the insistence that ethnicity should continue to be the defining feature of identity today goes against what Singapore has accomplished as a nation-state in building a common identity.

As a citizen of a mature nation, I do not need to be rescued from the cracks of our CMIO template because I have never seen the need to define myself in terms of such a template.

I am disturbed that such a template exists and that my identity card defines my race as anything other than Singaporean.

Benjamin Joshua Ong

["Singaporean" is not a race. That's a nationality. Racism is an expression of natural tendencies to help in group members as part of natural selection. Even within Singapore and between Singaporean, there will be discrimination. The way to overcome discrimination is to get to know individuals as individuals, not simply as a member of a race. The stupid defence against allegation of racism - "I'm not racist! Some of my best friends are <fill in the race here>" - is actually an intuitive understanding of how to overcome racism. In our minds, we have come to accept that a person is friend - someone we know and trust - and it has nothing to do with his race or colour.

When you get wary when you pass a group of foreign workers, that is a form of racism. Your brain engages stereotypes and makes snap assessment and you expect some difficulties or potential for difficulties simply on the basis that they are foreign workers. We can idealistic wish away racism. But that is not the Singaporean approach. We can try to do away with race or racial profiles officially, but mention low income or poor education and we can picture in our minds over-representation by the minorities.

Heck, when I read the newspapers about a father or step-father sexually abusing his daughter/step-daughter, I look for signs or hints as to the race of the family, and even if I find none, I will have strong suspicions that the family is a particular minority. That's stereotyping at best and racism at worst.]

No comments: