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Sunday, 20 March 2011

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Day and week against racism:

Equality for all

Do you call yourself a Sinhalese, a Tamil, a Muslim or a Burgher? Or do you prefer to describe yourself as a Sri Lankan? The existence of man-made divisions such as 'races' or 'ethnic communities' has been detrimental to our national development.

The crux of the matter is that we are all humans - black or white, Sinhalese or Tamil, Chinese or Japanese. Worse, there are instances when we give preference to one 'race' over another. That is the phenomenon called racism.

Racism is a belief that race is the primary determinant of human rights and capacities and that racial differences produce an inherent superiority of a particular group. Put into practice, racism refers to relationships in which one group has more power than another and in some instances, suppresses other races.

Unfortunately, it is a worldwide problem. Even in this modern, so-called civilised world, there are people who discriminate against others on the grounds of race, language, caste and even religion. Racism or racial discrimination is a practice that must be shunned. People all over the world should struggle against racism and racial discrimination.

The week starting from March 21, the Week of Solidarity with the People Struggling Against Racism and Racial Discrimination is an opportunity for doing just that. The week brings into focus the acute need to fight against this injustice on a worldwide scale for multi-culturalism to work in the true sense of the word.

The event presents on opportunity to reflect on how to deal with all forms of bias and to reassert the importance of respect for others regardless of their religion, culture, political beliefs, or race.

March 21 was declared International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination by the General Assembly of the United Nations as a reaction to the murder of 69 demonstrators in Sharpeville, South Africa in 1960.

Not ancient

Contrary to popular belief, race is not a very ancient concept. Classifying people by skin colour and some minor facial features and calling the categories "races" is an idea that was conceived a few hundred years ago. In other words, "races" do not exist as distinct biological groups with significant genetic differences among them. Skin colour is biologically a trivial difference.


A slave being 'branded' at a slave auction

There have been many recent examples of racism. Adolf Hitler believed that only 'Aryans' should exist in Germany and Europe and ordered the annihilation of Jews and a host of other social groups.

The black/white racial divide was common in the US and South Africa's 'White' governments followed an official policy of Apartheid, whereby the black community was completely marginalised in every sphere of life.

'Racial profiling' of certain communities and religious groups has become a common practice in the wake of 9/11 and other terrorist attacks. Here in Sri Lanka, there have been communal riots inspired by political groups with vested interests, though the people themselves never harboured such sentiments.

The LTTE chased out Muslims and Sinhalese from the North in a clear act of 'ethnic cleansing'. The latter phenomenon was witnessed in countries such as Rwanda in Africa on a massive, genocidal scale.

The truth is that all humans are equal. No human being can be 'superior' to another. In the 58 years since the adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948, the international community has made important advances in the fight against racism and racial discrimination.

As a recent UN document points out, while progress has been made in this direction and technology has brought the peoples of the world closer together, the aspiration to free the world of racial hatred and other forms of intolerance or bias remains only half fulfilled. Racism still exists today in all parts of the world, though it may not be institutionalised.

Firm commitment

People are disadvantaged, excluded, limited, and mistreated systematically on the grounds of race. On the other hand, a firm commitment to human dignity and equality reverses the influences of racism and racial discrimination and creates a more humane, just, and peaceful world.

However, we need to respect the fact that different peoples have different cultures, languages and aspirations. An attempt should be made to understand and respect these features of a particular community. As one prominent African-American woman said, "If you only see I'm black, you don't see me. If you don't see I'm black, you also don't see me."

It is thus important to recognise the unique attributes of each community and create harmony among different communities. This is why the Sri Lankan Government is striving to create a truly trilingual society.

If every Sinhalese knew Tamil and if every Tamil knew Sinhala, our country would not have had to face a three-decade long conflict. The same theory applies to any country where divisions have been created due to language, community or religion.


An Apartheid era signboard in South Africa

After all, it makes sense for people of all communities to be connected to each other in our globalised world. Life is richer and more interesting if you have friends from many racial backgrounds.

Such differences need not cut us off from other people. It is better to catch them young - a school where children from all backgrounds and communities learn together, studying each other's languages, is the ideal way to start.

Harmful attitudes

Racism is not only a social phenomenon. There are many examples of personal racism - ideas and feelings held in the minds of individuals, and individual behaviour. These include feeling superior to another race, stereotyped views of one or more races, fear of people because of their skin colour and hatred of a particular race.


Martin Luther King Jr (L) and Nelson Mandela: Icons in the struggle against racism

Personal racism also includes individual behaviour that mistreat other people based on their skin colour or language. This is the malady easiest to treat - we should leave no room in our hearts and minds for communal feelings.

Indeed, no one can be blamed for harmful attitudes that have been instilled in them or for lack of awareness. Everyone is responsible for changing those attitudes, developing awareness, and committing themselves to treating all people with respect. We must all build bridges among different communities and mend fences.

This is indeed the main challenge facing Sri Lanka today. Ethnic reconciliation has become a priority for all after three decades of discord and rancour. There are many lessons to be learnt from the conflict and the root causes that led to it have to be addressed.

The Government has appointed a Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission with this aim in mind. But the people themselves should take the initiative in forging national unity - and a collective national identity. Many other countries have successfully undertaken this onerous task and there is no reason why Sri Lanka cannot.

The struggle against racism and racial discrimination worldwide will be a long one. But it is a struggle that has to be won. The right to non-discrimination on grounds of race of community is a fundamental human right that all governments recognise.

But governments cannot do it alone, if people do not change their attitudes on race, language and skin colour. We must make a concerted effort to efface such thoughts from our minds to create a world that is not divided on the lines of race. From March 21, people around the world can embark on making this dream a reality.

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