Race, winning a losing battle

americanahFirst published on 25th August, 2013 in The Star

I’VE just finished reading Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. It’s a book that’s about many things, but primarily about race. I loved its humour and seriousness; its sharp wit and its sensitivity. I loved the love story at its centre. And I loved that it was about race.

Race is nothing – it’s a social and political construct, so I believe – and yet it is everything. In Malaysia, certainly, race is both a strength and a weakness. Our racial diversity is one of the things I love about this country, but race has been used to divide us and our ignorance of one another’s beliefs and cultures continue to cause misunderstanding and friction.Race is about difference. You are different, our forefathers were told … it would be a good idea not to trust one another. That message persists to this day (and not just in Malaysia). Many of us have risen above the suspicion and distrust, but we’ve all experienced problems connected with and caused by our differences. Denying that these problems exist won’t solve them, but focusing only on the divisive and negative aspects of race isn’t the solution either.

I dread to think of a colour-by-numbers approach to writing about race in children’s books. I can imagine publishers deciding that x number of boxes must be ticked: The three main races should be represented; harmony and tolerance must be emphasised; a scene in which everyone celebrates a cultural festival dressed in their respective ethnic costume has to be included. In a certain popular children’s TV series, various races are portrayed in an extremely stereotypical manner, with hairstyles, accents and mannerisms that are cringe-worthy and offensive. Race, in this series, is used a comic device and that, too, is insulting.

An honest, human approach is what we need. That is, we need strong, complex characters and their stories, not issues around which we cobble scenarios. We need different of perspectives. We need different lives. We need happy endings, sad endings, bad endings, and open endings. I think we need to write in a way that makes people question, and think, and change their way of thinking. All this is very vague I know, but ultimately, authors have to figure out the sort of stories they want to tell and the best way to tell them.

I can imagine many wanting to avoid questions of race for fear of offending or even getting into hot soup, and I admit that I’m not sure that I could be brave enough to write candidly about the subject. It would take lots of thought, sensitivity and skill to be forthright yet subtle, honest yet tactful. In fact, if we write the truth, it’s only inevitable that some will be offended by it. The truth is difficult to face and to negotiate. It’s pretty uncompromising if you let it have its say, but the wonderful thing is it has many facets and voices, and it welcomes itself in all its forms. That’s really as good as it gets, but it takes some getting used to look the truth in the eye. Most of us take a lifetime before we manage it. Once you get used to it though, it’s a wholly liberating experience.

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