Monday, August 3, 2009

Multi-racial Dynamics

Racial harmony is an ideal that we strive for. There are no shortage of programmes for community bonding, social bridging and forging consensus on key issues regardless of race or religion. Our leaders warn of social downturns and refer to recent examples, such the ethnic unrest in Xinjiang. This ideal of racial harmony has been promoted through dance (combining gyrations, music, rhythm and instruments of different races) and other performances. Yet if we probe ourselves, the truth is we will all continue to harbour our prejudices , our judgments of people and races, based on empirical observation, and very often through the work experience. Stereotypes inevitably develop, opinions form of others that discreetly pass on within the family circle and trusted friends. We derive certain vindication because they agree with us, and draw from their own experiences. Where does that leave us? We have been asked to strengthen ties with social superglue, and guard against a “social downturn”. But the reality is that racial harmony must be achieved through the sheer strength of will, to allow reason and will to transcend subjective preference. When our leaders speak of fostering trust and mutual understanding, these are sound bites that may make for good copy and may even resonate at a superficial level, but maturity in a nation is best shown through the conscious avoidance of all remarks that engender offence, racial hatred, and chauvinism. To be completely honest, it may come to not expressing what we clearly think as well as the obvious lines of criticism and dismissal that are foremost in our minds. At this level of abstraction, racial harmony may be as simple as forgiveness, and not saying something we may regret later. This is the reality.

But there is another dimension. I can never forget the benediction of Dr Joseph Lowery at the end of the unforgettable inauguration ceremony of the 44th President of the United States of America, when he concluded; “We ask that you help us represent Thee, when black will not be asked to give back; when brown can stick around; when yellow will be mellow; when the red man can ‘get ahead, man..’; and when white will embrace what is right; and all those who do justice and love mercy say Amen...” Great applause followed from all in attendance. President Obama was visibly moved by the prayer. To effectively bridge the divide between races and religions, quite apart from statutory deterrents, we need to call to aid divine power, so that at all times grace, sensitivity, and wisdom can be exercised and shown to one and all. Is this not the ultimate testimony to fellow citizens and all human beings?

No one can claim to be perfectly attuned to the complex world that we live in, and the human condition. We are all victims and slaves to our own proclivities and prejudices. It is such a natural part of us, that to deny it is folly. But during the occasional moments of lapse (and offence), timing is key when expressing regret and apology. Take the recent example of the US President’s comment about how a police officer, one Sgt James Crowley, in Cambridge Massachusetts had “acted stupidly” by arresting an African-American scholar/professor. The President appeared before reporters suddenly and conveyed “I want to make clear that in my choice of words I think I unfortunately gave an impression that i was maligning the Cambridge Police Department or Sgt Crowley specifically – and I could have calibrated those words differently.” A quick intervention is called for. The President has invited both Professor and Police Officer to meet in the Whitehouse, for a discussion over a beer. The President obviously understands the difficulties, and the racial overtones that surround the relationship between law enforcement agencies and African-Americans. What is important is that these relationships have to be tendered regularly, much like a high-maintenance plant in the garden.

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