Thursday January 31, 2013
Stop prejudice and stereotyping
By MARINA MAHATHIR
HAVING been brought up always to be polite, I can be quite shocked when people are rude and direct.
Once many years ago, an American woman asked me how it felt to be an oppressed Muslim woman.
After getting over my shock, I put it down to sheer ignorance.
Not long after, a Russian man, ostensibly well educated, asked me why Muslims liked to cut off their enemies’ heads.
I’m not sure how I managed to contain myself but it did give me an insight into how some people have no idea how their words can sound to others.
Since those days, I have managed to develop much better shock-absorbers and few things manage to rattle me as before.
I have heard people blithely ask me why we don’t simply kill all people with HIV as a way of containing the epidemic, as if they were giving me a bright idea to solve a simple problem.
In all seriousness someone also told me that the reason why black people don’t excel at swimming is because their skin pigments are so heavy it is difficult for them to float.
All these people genuinely believed that they were imparting wisdom.
It never occurred to them that they might sound totally out of sync with the times, where racist and genocidal ideas no longer hold currency.
Still, it is rare for me to hear anything so shocking any more.
Most people I know would never stereotype or judge others by the colour of their skin, their race or their religion.
We take everyone as equals and value them for their talents, skills and ethics.
It thus becomes a major shock to me to find that outside that circle, the world is different.
Reading headlines in some local newspapers I find myself disturbed by the blatantly racist stories that pass for news.
While such outright racism towards fellow Malaysians is not yet considered de rigeur, foreigners are easy targets, especially if they don’t come from countries more developed than us.
Whole continents of people are deemed criminal with impunity and racist epithets trip off tongues and pages as easily as praise for politicians.
When I remark on this, people defend the racism. The media, they say, are just stating “facts” about some people whom “we all know” tend to commit crime.
It never seems to occur to anyone to question these “facts”, any more than it occurs to right-wing Americans to question the “fact” that Muslims are all terrorists and spend all our time stoning people.
To say that the media is only reflecting what people think is to hide behind a disingenuous bush.
The media both reflects and creates stereotypes.
Indeed, it reinforces them, and then refuses to take responsibility for any violence that may result.
An Indiana man who was charged with setting fire to an Islamic centre said the only Muslims he knew was what he saw on Fox News, a channel that doesn’t bother to hide its prejudice against Muslims.
Similarly highly distorted news on the LGBT community in Malaysia has resulted in some of them suffering violence at the hands of thugs.
Let’s not even mention the things that some Malaysians get away with saying on social media.
There are those who claim to belong to a religion of peace, yet happily spew the most vicious anonymous diatribes against those of other faiths.
Worse, this is done in the name of their own faith.
The result is a lot of counter-prejudice and stereotypes.
My people, the people I knew growing up as infinitely polite, gentle and considerate, are these days labelled uncouth, intolerant, aggressive and hypocritical.
Just because a few people are intemperate in their language, all of us are labelled thugs and louts.
Worse still, those who strut around with an air of unwarranted superiority claim to represent all of us.
If my fellow citizens feel hurt by the actions of these few, I feel hurt too.
My people are being labelled haters and bridge-burners when throughout history we have been the most accommodating and hospitable of people.
Because of a few bad examples, all of us have to suffer from sometimes barely-concealed condescension.
And racism breeds racism; some people only know to respond to hate with even more hate.
Since our leaders fail dismally to delineate between what is right and what is so patently wrong, it is left to civil society, especially young people, to find ways of making a peaceful point.
Last Sunday, we sat under shady trees and read books to enlighten our friends and ourselves.
And with that, we rose above the muck and saw one another clearly for the human beings that we are.