Thursday, March 01, 2007

Race Realities for Travelers/International Residents

Does Race Exist?

In the guilt ridden West there is now a movement supported by leading scientists that claims that race does not exist. All people, they say, belong to human race and then they show DNA tests that some human groupings that look alike have less in common in their DNA’s than people who look different. For example, I have read somewhere, that Negritos of South East Asia and the very black people of Papua New Guinea have very few common genetic characteristics with Africans; that some phenotypes of people that consider themselves races overlap with other, totally unrelated races and other such things.

Some of my British friends, who are now reeling under the weight of colonial remorse, come up with all kinds of liberal theories that claim that people simply have cultural mannerisms and clothes but if we remove those, some 50% would look very much alike.

However, living as an international traveler or a PT makes you highly aware of at least the visual aspect of race and convinces you time and time again that it is a very real thing.

For example, if you are a Westerner in Thailand, you are a ‘farang”, and you are treated as such. You are a rich guest and you will pay inflated prices on everything, be cheated almost on a daily basis and you will never be seen as one of the locals. Why? Because your face does not look like anything that the locals see among their own kind daily. Dress the way locals do, learn their language but still your face is different, your body is too hairy, you are too tall, your skin is of a color which is never found among the natives; you are not one of them. End of the story. The same goes for a lot of countries. Travel and you will see.

In Japan, they will call you “gaijin” and treat you as such. It is assumed that you are from America, that you cannot speak Japanese, that you cannot eat Japanese food, and no matter how you adjust to their culture, change your mannerism or become fluent in the languages, you are simply not a member of their people, their “race”.

Gypsies in Europe face the same problem. Most have adopted the names of the countries of their birth; have been registered by local authorities and given local citizenships. But to a local on the street, the shop owner, the kids at school, these people are gypsies and will always be such. They just look different- basically, in their majority, they look like people from Pakistan or Bangladesh. Sure, there are some gypsies that have intermingled with the locals creating somewhat of a “local look”, but these , again are not the majority, and most gypsies still have to catch hell on a daily or, if lucky, weekly basis.

In almost every place you go, there will be a “majority look”, a “minority look” and a “foreign” look and you will have to “fit” one of those. In many countries of the Americas, which consist of immigrant groups, your “foreign” look ( which is non racial, but cultural) can be switched to a minority look by adopting local ways of dress and behavior. In most countries in Europe or Asia, though, the foreign look cannot be eliminated no matter how hard one tries if the way you look physically, does not fall within the “range of acceptable deviations” of that society’s “membership conditions”.

For example, in most Arab countries, an African-looking man can be seen as an Arab, and a Mediterranean, southern Italian looking man will also be seen as one, but an East Asian or a Northern- European-looking man usually would not be. In southern Slavic countries, especially those colonized by Turks, a Mediterranean-looking man will fall into the acceptable range of “localness” and could be seen as say, a Serb with Turkish admixture. However, a black African could never fit into their parameters of what it means to be, a Serb or a Slovene. You just don’t look like one, meaning, your look is foreign, and not even a minority one.

For many travelers and international dwellers, especially those who reside in countries where people happen to be of a very homogenous and different from the travelers’ ethnic stock, realities of race are stark and very much in-your-face. Some people are overly nice to you and treat you as a guest, some are stand-offish and want to have nothing to do with you, and some are openly mocking and hostile. Adapting the new societies’ mannerism may have mixed effects- it may make you less obvious to some people and even allow you for a greater degree of acceptance, but, at the same time, it can irritate others that you are trying to fit in too much and thereby are insulting and invading the purity of their culture/race/nation. There are even countries on planet Earth where foreigners are not allowed by law to wear national clothes, believe it or not.

In some countries, people are less hung up on race, but are more hung up on religion. Changing one’s religion and openly displaying its symbols on you- such as wearing that religion’s symbols or garments identifying you as its adherent may gain you more acceptance, but not complete inclusion if your face is still what that nation deems to be “foreign –looking”.

So does race exist? I guess it often does, and it very much depends on where you are and who is observing and classifying you. It does if the locals decide that you are not a member of their group because your immutable physical traits ( skin, eye, and hair color, shape of the nose, height and hairiness, etc.) do not fulfill their requirement of what it means to be one of ” them” and will thus forever treat you differently.

Those pundits of political correctness and DNA takers should travel around a bit more, get overcharged a few times, get a few dirty looks and called some bad names and, in extreme cases, beat up, and then we will see what they have to say.

On a lighter note, if one lives among a very homogenous group because of job and other commitments and feels racial pressure on oneself all the time, one should try and periodically fly out to places where various human types are mixed and where one can be a local no matter what- parts of Brazil are like that and even parts of the US are like that. One can, of course, also go back to one’s country for recuperation if possible.

Staying among “another kind” is not always easy because even if people around you will come to accept you and treat you well, you may still have to take flak from strangers who do not know you there. You may be in a neighborhood for many years and all the neighbors and store owners will get to know you and like you, but all it takes is a new waiter who does not want to serve you and runs away, or a new neighbor who stares at you like you had just fallen from the moon (you may think of yourself as a veteran in that place because you had been there for twenty years, but these have other ideas) to make you again feel like a stranger. So, off you go on a “bathe-in-same-or multi- ethnos” vacation to recuperate from the very real racial biases which still very exist in our very complex world where race is still an important concept

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