Let's fight racism in Malaysia with verbal hygiene

A #BlackLivesMatter march on June 21 in London. — Reuters

It’s good to know that more and more of us in Malaysia are showing support in many forms for the #BlackLivesMatter (BLM) movement that was sparked in the United States when African-American George Floyd was killed while in custody by a white police officer. But supporting America’s BLM movement while being anti-migrant and racist at home is simply contradictory.

The BLM movement should and must exist beyond a trend. And from this movement we should be able to recognise and acknowledge the issues in our own backyard. It is about time that we start to discuss issues that are neglected, issues that are inconvenient for some of us to speak about, and issues that are often swept under the rug.

It is imperative for us to learn and expand the spirit of the movement as a way to show our support. At least by not helping to normalise xenophobia and racism in Malaysia for a start. Our dream to live together without prejudice may not be realised in 2020 because we are still fed with the “we are all Malaysians, not Malays, Chinese or Indians” rhetoric. My question is, why force everyone to be colour blind if we can enjoy the beauty of all colours?

Now is the time to learn to accept the reality of Malaysia’s heterogeneity and really celebrate our differences without prejudice. Isn’t that what we keep telling the world about this blessed soil? Malaysia should be unique because we can continue to be Malay, Chinese, Indian or others and still live happily together. We should have races, without racism.

Racism comes in many different shapes and definitions. After decades, the Merriam-Webster dictionary has recently agreed to revise its definition of racism when Kennedy Mitchum, a 22-year-old American graduate, emailed the dictionary's publisher to let them know that their current definition of the word is inadequate in explaining the system of advantage based on skin colour in the United States. Mitchum asserts that racism is not only prejudice against a certain race due to the colour of a person’s skin as stated in the dictionary; she says it is both prejudice combined with social and institutional power.

Does this ring a bell?

Racism is what makes Us view the "Other" with suspicion. Racism makes us attribute negative characteristics to an entire group of people. So while decades of systemic or institutionalised racism may take time to dismantle, we can start with something that we can definitely change today, right now.

I saw this one meme that has gone viral on social media that calls out Malaysians who advocate for BLM but ignore racism and xenophobia at home:

“Some Malaysians: BLACK LIVES MATTER! Pung pang pung pang.”

“Also, some Malaysians:

> “When they speak to their children: ‘You naughty, later that Indian man will catch you, ha!’

> “When they speak among themselves: ‘Don’t rent your house to black people, they are dirty.’ ‘You are smelly like that Rohingya.’ ‘I can only see your teeth in this picture.’

> “When employers speak among themselves: ‘Don’t hire Malays, they are lazy!’"

For some, these are just jokes, albeit in extremely poor taste. For some, this is just a way to discipline children. But no matter how much we want to sugar-coat them, they are still toxic and totally unacceptable.

> Think also about those times when some of us women flinch and clutch our handbags when we see an Indian man walking by our table.

> Think about those times when we go to Kuala Lumpur’s famed Low Yatt Plaza to buy a laptop and think that the Chinese seller is going to cheat us out of our money.

> Think about when a Malay gets a scholarship to study abroad but that success is still racially associated – “boleh lah sebab dia Melayu, ada tongkat (he/she got it because he/she has an advantage)".

> Think about those times when we criminalise, dehumanise immigrants and refugees in Malaysia.

For change to happen, we must first recognise the problems. This type of casual racism is called microaggression; it has been casually internalised in many Malaysians’ linguistic repertoire. Microagressions are as dangerous as any overt racial slur because they help to shape our discourse, our reality, and thus help to strengthen racism, whether individual or institutional.

The next question is, how many of us feel uncomfortable when we hear something like these? How many of us are brave enough to interrupt this? How many of us simply brush this off, keep silent and move on with our lives? Or have we become desensitised?

Racism is bad no matter in what form, no matter in what sense. So speak up or be complicit. Mind your words and think before you speak. Let’s be more verbally hygienic: Stop overt hateful, prejudicial, stereotypical statements as well as off the cuff remarks with racist undertones. The process to de-normalise racism should start with us, right now.


Assistant Professor, Critical Discourse Studies (Linguistics), Department of English Language and Literature, International Islamic University Malaysia

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letters , racism , language , migrants


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