[OPINION] Injustice anywhere is a threat everywhere
These were the words of Martin Luther King Jr when he defended his participation in nonviolent demonstrations against segregation. Today, they are the rallying cry of people all over the world participating in mass gatherings in protest of racism and police brutality. Major cities in the United States of America have been engulfed by daily protests, but these extraordinary events can still feel so distant from us. (READ: Thousands mourn George Floyd as accused officer appears in court)
African-Americans have long suffered a history of prejudice and violence. Like their forced subjugation via the transatlantic slave trade and the legal racial segregation, among others. It is understandable to feel a sense of uncertainty – or even guilt – in lifting the banner of the Black Lives Matter movement as an Asian. But we are no longer afforded the luxury to stand idly when systemic oppression and abuse are accepted as the norm.
Race is a myth
Robert Sussman explored how race emerged as a social construct in his book The Myth of Race. He traced the roots of modern racist ideology to the Spanish Inquisition, where they used racial degeneration to justify Western imperialism and enslavement. In the 19th century, these theories fused with Darwinism, eventually coalescing to produce the pernicious eugenics movement.
The truth is that biological races do not exist – and they never have. Those who preserve the narrative of different races seek to enshrine one above the others. This ignorance breeds a narrow understanding of people, which results in generalized and oftentimes damaging perceptions.
Another problem with the conversation of race is that the term is usually used to refer to skin color. The difference in skin color is attributed to our evolutionary adaptation to sun exposure. Our ancestors’ proximity to the equator was the main determinant for the pigmentation in our skin. Being near the equator makes darker skin an advantage to shield against ultraviolet radiation; while being nearer to the poles led to lighter skin to promote the production of vitamin D. (READ: [OPINION] What is racism?)
Variation in skin color is merely our bodies’ response to our environment – nothing more.
The colonial mentality
In the Philippines, we see subtle manifestations of racism. We see it in routine interactions with our family members. In memories of relatives berating our sunog appearance, and advising us to shade from the sun to protect our complexion.
We notice it in the emphasis and prominence of artists whose skin is on the lighter shade. It is present in the codified language of advertising, when products that lead to whitening are regarded as “necessities” to embody beauty.
Juxtapose the terms barok and conyo; where the former refers to when the Filipino accent leads to mispronouncing an English word while the latter occurs when a Western, oftentimes American accent, delivers a Filipino word with an incorrect intonation. On the surface, both terms are just instances of idiomatic dialogue: where your primary accent isn’t conducive for the language. But why are there attachments of socioeconomic standing and power behind them? This implicit bias towards what is in proximity to whiteness and to what hints at Americanization is faint but permeates all parts of our society. (READ: [OPINION] How the Philippines can repair its culture)
Racism is a silent virus
Racism operates under similar rules with the pandemic we face. Its spread and reach are dependent on the ignorance and selfishness of individuals.
How did we learn these biases? We might be surprised to realize that these tendencies were merely passed on to us: byproducts of casual conversations and perceptions rarely based on any sound data. Unaware that these impulses have been assimilated into our being, we become the perpetuators of prejudice.
Racism is a learned response, a symptom of a disease to our consciousness. And the cure to it is justice. The tools needed to enact the remedy are empathy and compassion. To recognize our ailment, we have to be willing to question the certainty of our thinking.
From ignorance to oppression
Building upon how racism is subconsciously developed in our psyche, we should realize just how susceptible we are to apathy towards those different from us. This can be seen when we dismiss the predicament of the marginalized in our country.
How many times have we looked at the poor and said that their “laziness” is the cause of their condition? How many times have we complained when the indigent’s protests create traffic jams that “hassle” us? When we subconsciously believe that these people’s pleas don’t concern us and that they have no right to bother us, we become complicit in quieting the powerless.
When our labels of people replace their humanity, we reduce people’s worth to how they benefit us. We start viewing them as means instead of ends in themselves. We end up justifying measures that harm them without understanding their circumstances in the first place.
Orders from the top
To enact lasting change, the cries for justice need to be heard by our leaders. But how can we expect change when these very people are the ones who perpetuate narrow-mindedness?
The “War on Drugs” encapsulates how ignorance distills to lethal consequences. When President Duterte exaggerates the drug epidemic and incites violence against suspected drug addicts, he only succeeds in further demonizing people who look to him for help. When he spews directives to the Philippine National Police that invite impunity and abuse, he becomes the model of indifference for everyone to follow. Instead of investigating the deeply rooted sources of these problems, he administers superficial and excessive action. Without a voice of reason from people in positions of power, the oppressed will remain unheard.
There is only one race
Don’t dismiss these events as isolated cases that don’t concern us, because it is when the unbothered by injustice do nothing that evil persists. Remember the words of Martin Niemöller.
“First they came for the socialists, and I did not speak out – because I was not a socialist. Then they came for the trade unionists, and I did not speak out – because I was not a trade unionist. Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out – because I was not a Jew. Then they came for me – and there was no one left to speak for me.”
We are all part of one race: the human race. And it is our shared duty to look after one another. Let us eschew the labels that seek to further divide us; instead, let us focus on how to cultivate and preserve our shared humanity.
Silence = Death
We have to be better; because the voiceless need to be heard. It will require constant vigilance to be able to unlearn our prejudices. We need to be aware of how our privilege has allowed us the comfort of not being affected by injustice. If we have any hope of achieving justice that is meant for everyone, we need to speak out to amplify the voice of those being shunned.
I write this in the wake of the decision of the House of Congress to pass the Anti-Terror Bill. I fear its capacity to further silence the people calling for reform, all within a legal framework. The destitute are already crying for change, the last thing we should be doing is shutting them up.
We are at a turning point in history wherein our brothers and sisters are telling us of their pain – and we are hearing them. If we can find the strength to be united in fighting for healing, understanding, and lasting change, then we will all enjoy the sunshine of a new and brighter day. If we stay quiet, and if we persist in remaining in the shadows of the past, we can expect the darkness to remain. – Rappler.com
John Cheng is a businessman and former International Baccalaureate economics instructor. His interests include philosophy, streetwear, and searching for the perfect slice of pizza.