There’s a song in the musical comedy Avenue Q called Everybody’s a little bit racist, and I think there’s some truth in that, at least with me. I crack racist jokes as much as the next guy, and, sometimes, I make subconscious assumptions about people based on where they are from. But am I really racist?
I don’t think I can be, because I’m a mongrel. Both my Tibetan father and my English mother were born in India and my wife is a Sri Lankan-Australian; I live in Colombo. When my children are old enough, they will have no idea what race they are because they are almost everything. They couldn’t be racist even if they tried, because they will say “we” more often than “you” and “they”. Being mixed race means that, like me, wherever they are, they will not be deemed to be the same as other people. But they will also not be completely different.
In Sri Lanka, I love people asking me where I am from because I have an unusual answer. A freelance local gangster (who is not the sharpest thorn on the pineapple so I doubt he will read this), baffled by my little eyes, once approached me at a nightclub in Colombo and inquired of my heritage. When I told him, he said he had just met someone of the exact same mix as me and made me wait where I was till he found said person. It turned out to be my brother.
In South Asia, we rightly call out racism in other countries, but more often than not, we expect our children to marry people of the same race as us. If we’re not trusting of another race with our children, isn’t that racist? We can dress it up as tradition or whatever we like, but we are making choices based on race and shortchanging our children by depriving them of the exposure to other cultures, ways of life and values. As a mongrel father, I will never judge my daughter’s future husband based on race and will be completely fair, and hate any man she brings home, regardless of his colour.
Sri Lankans are the friendliest people on earth and are so ridiculously hospitable to tourists and expatriates that they almost practise reverse racism. Being foreign is a key that opens all doors. I have never been stopped from entering a block of flats, for example, whereas my Sri Lankan wife (not that I have others) claims that when she goes to the same places without me, she has to produce her ID card, tap dance and sing the national anthem. This is likely an exaggeration, but it has got to the point that if my wife wants to get “fair” treatment at a shop, she takes our white baby with her. So foreigners get special treatment in this lovely country, but yet, a large number of Sri Lankans would not allow their children to marry them. Why is this?
I wonder how many people would be religious without their parents teaching them to be so at a young age, and, likewise, I wonder how many people would be racist without a similar influence. Older generations have thoughts that border on the racist without knowing it. For example, when the sewage pit overflowed at our home, one of my wife’s Sinhalese relatives, trying to be helpful, said, “I will find you a Tamil to clean it.”
“A Tamil?,” I asked. “Why a Tamil?”
“They are the only ones who clean sewage pits.”
I tried to explain what was wrong with this statement, but to no avail. I illustrated my point by refusing to do the washing up because I was half-white, but the relative just nodded her head as if to say, “Ah yes, of course, sorry.”
When I first met my wife Samantha, she showed me her Australian school photograph in which she was surrounded by 30 people so white their sweat could have been used as Tippex. Samantha admits she felt different than the other students but she loved it. And I love her, I am sure, partly because she is so worldly. Had we met at school and she was the only non-white in her class, I would have gone straight to her anyway, as it is much more interesting speaking to the person with the different story to tell and picture to paint. I love to learn from such people: taste new food, hear new jokes, pick up new mannerisms. I mean, I don’t know where the hell I would be today without my Sri Lankan head wobble.
To understand people of other races, it helps to be able to wear their shoes and mixed-race people have tried on more pairs than anybody else. Sure, we can never feel what victims of hate crimes go through, but we respect their difficulties enough to want to learn about them; to want to make sure our kids never perpetrate or are subjected to such mindless evil. Mixed-race people are exposed to more diverse narratives than the likes of Donald Trump and, thus, we understand the consequences of racial slurs.
Of course, it is not just about being mixed race, it is about embracing other cultures. I manage an international school in Colombo, that has had students from over 70 different countries. In my time, I have taught a lovely young Iraqi who happened to think Saddam Hussein was the greatest man of all time. I have worked on university applications with a Tamil boy from Jaffna who admitted he hated the Sinhalese until he actually spoke to some who were not in army uniform. I have taught a Korean daughter of a missionary who did not believe that gay people existed. When I convinced her that they did, she asked, “Do they have physical attributes by which I can identify them?”
“Do you expect them to have pointed ears?” I asked.
“Something like that,” she said.
For young people such as these to be exposed to different races and ways of thinking allows them to grow as people and know more about what is right and what is wrong, and not worry so much about who is white and who is Wong.
Not everyone has such chances. My brother went travelling on a house-boat, ending up in the middle of nowhere in England. A lady on a passing boat asked him where he was from and when he said he was half-Tibetan, she said, “I’m having such an interesting week with foreigners. Yesterday, I met a negro.” Despite her suspect terminology, she was genuinely thrilled to have had the chance to meet different people.
When I help students apply to universities around the world, I urge them to consider places which are not popular with their fellow nationals so that they are forced to mingle. I tell them of the time in London when I was the only non-black at a Zimbabwean friend’s wedding and I never felt unwelcome or different. That is, until the music started and everyone got up to dance. It was only then that I stuck out like a turd in a punchbowl, because all the Zimbabweans danced bloody brilliantly, and let’s just say I didn’t, and leave it at that.
At that wedding, I tried to remember all the mixed-race people I knew and I could not think of one who was half-Sri Lankan or Indian and half-African and I wondered why that was. I don’t know but all I can be sure of is that if either of my children wanted to marry someone black, I would be absolutely thrilled because then my grandchildren would be able to dance brilliantly. Even that thought, I guess, is a little bit racist.
Chhimi Tenduf-La is the author of The Amazing Racist and Panther.