What every Malaysian needs to know about ‘race’.Part 2: Exploring and disaggregating ‘bangsa’

By Clive Kessler | February 15, 2012
The Malaysian Insider

FEB 15 — So important in private thinking and central to public discussion of Malaysia’s most fateful challenges, the word bangsa, it was suggested in Part 1, is inherently vague, complexly ambiguous.

It is a general, multi-purpose word that yokes closely together a number of related but ultimately differing ideas.

That is the strength and value of the word.

By bringing a number of divergent things together, it helps us to compress and condense out thinking and, then too, the verbalisation of our thoughts.

It makes possible all sorts of mental “short-cuts” around difficult issues.

It even enables us to imagine that the difficulties around which we make those tricky short-cuts are not there, that they do not exist at all.

The condensation of ideas that the word bangsa makes possible may be its great strength and benefit.

But also, in that same condensation, lies great danger.

Part 2a

The many faces of “bangsa”: “race” and “racial groups”

How is all this to be sorted out?

Let us begin at the beginning.

What different things, realities, phenomena and processes is the one Malay word bangsa routinely used to denote?

i. Race.

Encountering “strangers” of different “physiognomy”, or outward physical appearance — strangers coming from various geographical areas, all with their distinctive parts of the world’s human population — people immediately noted those visible differences.

Eventually, as they did seek to grasp and “make sense” of those differences, some people began to talk about “race”, meaning a “kind” or “sort” or “type”.

This idea was elaborated in various forms suggesting that the overall human “race” or “humankind” was, or might be, constituted of and sub-divided into several separate, and identifiably distinct, “races”.

There were many forms of this basic classification scheme. The most common recognised five such races: the African or “Negroid” (Black), the Oriental or Mongol, the Indic or Aryan, the Caucasian or “European” and the Amerindian.

These differences were generally seen as deriving from descent, as a matter of who an individual’s parents were — just as people saw that black cows or chickens generally tended to give birth to more black cows and chickens, and the brown to brown ones. In that way “race” or perceived “racial differences” came to be understood as basically a matter of parentage and “breeding”, and hence of biology.

In earlier times, when human populations were far more anchored and “localised” than they now are — in the time long before the era of mass intercontinental migrations — it also became common to associate, even identify, those physically recognizable populations with their various places of origin and development on different continents; and hence, too, with the conspicuously different and distinct ways of life — including ways of speaking and living, of language, culture and society — that people in those different places had elaborated and continued to maintain.

These differences of appearance, geographical origins and of “ways of life” were not unreasonably seen as somehow associated with one another. Apparently, they “all went together”. That was people’s experience of them, in their encounters with people of other backgrounds.

But there was no clear idea of what caused what, of what, if anything, was cause and what was effect. There was no firm view that “the biological level” — the “facts” of biology — was determinative.

More, these differences and understandings, in the time before the era of modern quasi-scientific ideology, were not “ideologized” in that way, as they would later come to be in the age of arrogant biology-centred “scientific triumphalism”. They then could not be. The option was not there.

Here we need to note just two things that modern science, especially research in population genetics, tells us.

First, despite what may appear to us as dramatically different and altogether distinct kinds of outward appearance, “deep down” the range of genetic variation within these so-called “racial groups” of humankind — even in times long before the age of mass migration, and widespread “racial” intermingling and reproduction to which it gave rise — was always far greater than the overall range of typical, or imputed or imagined, biological variation or differences between them.

In our time, in our world, there are no “pure” races.

What’s more, there probably never were.

Not even before the age of mass intercontinental migration and the huge “jumbling” together of people which that migration unleashed.

Despite appearances, despite and beneath all outward differences of physiognomy, there probably were never any such distinct populations. In their underlying genetic composition, the populations that are sometimes called “races” together simply present a single continuum: a great overlapping spread, or distribution, of genetic “traits” and features.

In this sense, at the level of deeper genetic facts, “race”, no matter how plausible it may have appeared, is and always was largely an illusion. Popular experience, the evidence of what many people said they saw “with their own eyes”, was deceiving.

And second, the other side of that same coin. It is an increasingly evident biological, and scientific, fact that the human “race”, or humankind, is one.

Humankind derives, and has emanated and spread, from one generative point or area of origin, in Africa.

This fact spells the end of the central notion so dear to the hearts of so many nineteenth- and early twentieth-century “racial theorists” and to the politicians who took up and rode upon their ideas.

This was the idea or view:

  • that there had been, from the outset, several different points of human origin, and several different distinct “races” of humankind;

  • that these different “races” were differently, meaning unequally, endowed and hence unequally suited for modern competitive life;

  • and consequently that, by undeniable “biological fact”, the members of these various “races” were differently and unequally entitled to consideration and dignity, including access to power, above all the power to manage their own lives as they themselves might choose.

It was a wise man who, when challenged on this matter, said “Racist? Sure I am a racist! I believe that there is just one race, the human race, and that we are all part of it.”

ii. “Racial groups”, “race relations” and “race conflict”.

Those who give credence to the views of those nineteenth- and early-twentieth century “racial theorists” like to think that “the facts of biology”, as they understand them — or, in other words, the supposedly inherent and immutable antagonism, struggle and conflict between the different human “races” — are the primary facts, the “rock-bottom” elemental level, the determining cause and supposed “driving force” of human action and history, the substance in which it is both fated and then later written.

For them “race” is the force and stuff of history itself, the material from which the human story is made.

This, of course, is not true. But men such as Adolf Hitler and those who came before him, the Count de Gobineau or H.S. Chamberlain, wished —by propounding, promoting and then acting upon that false and crude view — to make it true.

It is perhaps a view that — though only at a terrible price, as Hitler’s failed attempt above all demonstrated — can in fact be made true.

Fortunately, so far none of those racial ideologues or politicians has succeeded in making it history’s own demonstrable and objective truth, its guiding script and subsequent transcript. But it has at times, especially between 1933 and 1945, been a “close run thing”.

Yet people these days still talk of certain real problems that do exist as matters of “race conflict” and “racial antagonism”, or at times, more benignly, of bad yet remediable “race relations”.

To clarify simply what is involved in all these situations, let us take the clear-cut case of “pre-liberation” apartheid South Africa.

In South Africa, especially from 1910, and certainly from 1948, there was conflict “along racial lines”. That was inescapable. The entire country was set up on that explicit basis. All official policy was built upon and promoted that view.

Conflict was not just unavoidable but endemic. It was inherent within the innermost structure and character of South African society.

But was this conflict “racial”?

It was not — as in the theories of de Gobineau and Chamberlain and Hitler — a total conflict born of the inherent biological nature and historic destiny of the peoples of South Africa. It did not express any innate “biological imperative”. It was not the localised outbreak of an inherent and worldwide biologically-based conflict of the entire white or European “race” against the entire African “race” and the Aryan-Indian “race”.

It was a conflict, specific to South Africa, between the locally resident “segments” or “fragments” situated in that one place of people drawn from those vast global categories of human beings loosely known as Europeans, Africans and Indians.

Theirs was not a conflict expressing — and giving view and vent at the explicit level — to some immanent, fundamental and irresistible pan-historical war or struggle for domination of between those entire “races”: of the Whites against the rest, the Blacks.

It was not an imminent conflict of races driven by biology but a local political conflict that was born of a cruel local social history, of the local working out of world historical processes and events.

It was a conflict born of, and bequeathed by, the earlier history in the southern part of Africa of the European drive for world domination — especially economic and political but also cultural — from the sixteenth to the early twentieth centuries.

That terrible, brutal struggle of “White against Black” in South Africa was political, and historically based, not trans-historically “racial”, not biologically driven.

More will be said later, in Part 4 of this commentary, about the origins and nature of the kind of ideas and ideology, and also regime, of “racial domination” that, among other places, was implemented and sustained in South Africa for much of the twentieth century.

Here it is enough to state, most emphatically, that it is a terrible and potentially tragic mistake in such situations as South Africa, and also elsewhere including even Malaysia, to see such conflicts and antagonisms — such differences and matters of contention — as somehow “racial” in nature, as involving matters of “race”.

To the extent that the habitual use of the term bangsa may imply or encourage that attitude, to that extent it is insidious and dangerous.

That is part of the reason why the Malay term bangsa needs to be “disaggregated” — its various uses separated and taken apart — and more precise and specific conceptual terms devised and brought into general public use.

* Clive Kessler is Emeritus Professor of Sociology and Anthropology at the School of Social Sciences, The University of New South Wales, Sydney, Australia.

In this series:-
Part 1 – Words and the world, or ‘bangsa’ in question
Part 2 – Exploring and disaggregating ‘bangsa’
Part 2b – Exploring and disaggregating ‘bangsa’
Part 2c – Exploring and disaggregating ‘bangsa’
Part 3 – Distorted reasoning — or thinking ‘bamboozled’ by language
Part 4 – Race and history

  1. #1 by dagen wanna "ABU" on Thursday, 16 February 2012 - 8:55 am

    You are both right and wrong. Race does not make good sense and the distinction between “races” really does not stand any close inspection. Accepted. Agreed. So no problem there.

    But why wrong?

    You see, we are currently witnessing the birth of a new grouping of people in the world – going by earth-time 40-50 yrs must be counted as current. And that group of people now has in fact gained sufficient charateristics to become recognisable and distinctive. Recognition and distinctiveness as a group in the normal course of societal behaviour and relationship would demand a name. They proudly labelled themselves the umnoputras – the supreme race of the entire universe, whose rights and words even God must listen and respect.

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