Notes on interracial and (post)colonial traveling

Some interracial couples may have some misgivings about traveling abroad together, particularly to places that are reputed to be intolerant – Saudi Arabia, Dubai and a host of other predominantly Muslim countries are quick to come up as examples. I can kind of understand why. The ghost of anti-miscegenation laws, racism, and the effects of migrant sex work and pornography (I know, Muslim countries don’t necessarily have these issues, all at once) have a role to play in society’s ugly perception of interracial relationships, but I don’t think couples have that much too worry about as long as they stay respectful of the places and peoples they visit.

But while traveling in my own country Malaysia as one half of an interracial couple who is female and of darker skin tone, I was struck by the patriarchal attitudes and imperialist nostalgia/longing that exist at the heart of tourism.

Some things I noticed:

1.Everybody ignores me. In shops, restaurants, and hotels, I become invisible. Unless I open my mouth no one is going to give me a second look much less acknowledge my presence. Perhaps as a woman I am viewed as the insignificant, meek and mute half. And perhaps as a local, a native, I am unimportant and someone not worth to impress. But it’s also likely that I am often viewed as the gold-digging Asian stereotype, but without the mini skirt and platform shoes. Crudely put, the White man is viewed as the one with the money, making him a worthwhile object of attention and reverence.

2.“Good afternoon, Sir!”, “Can I help you, Sir?”,”Yes, Sir!”. Going to places with my boyfriend and being greeted with “Hello, Sir” and “Good afternoon, Sir” makes my blood boil. Never would the complimenting “Ms”, “Madam” or even “Ma’am” be accorded to someone like me (See 1). Again, the White man is revered as a most valuable and esteemed customer, adding a kind of prestige to the establishment, “See, a white tourist has walked into my shop, he must have been reading Lonely Planet. How my heart swells with pride.”

3.We started seeing ourselves as “squirm-inducing” subjects. Being a product of conquest and racism, specific combinations of heterosexual couplings (Older, larger, White man/Younger, smaller-built, Asian woman) have mushroomed across the post-colonial, developing world. Southeast Asia sees no shortage of this classic combination. And so it doesn’t help that in Malaysia, local women are meant and made to be fetishised. Airline companies built their image upon the looks and curves of their female flight attendants (Malaysia Airlines and Air Asia, I’m talking to you), who are the first in line to welcome visitors from abroad (“Before you feast your eyes on the beauty of our country, feast your eyes on our women first!”). Which brings to me the trickier issue of coming to terms with being complicit in perpetuating the myths about women of “the Orient”. Ourselves fitting the stereotype, looking at other interracial couples like us can be a discomforting experience.

4.Many tourists depend on imperialist nostalgia to inform their interest in the places they visit (yes, sometimes former colonised subjects, too). English cottages, once homes of British officials of yore, which have been opened to the public as hotels and restaurants in hilltop destinations in Malaysia recreate the delights of colonial high-living, are obvious examples of such places. Coined by anthropologist Renato Rosaldo, imperialist nostalgia is defined as longing for the culture that their colonial ancestors have destroyed while at the same time making racial domination seem innocent and pure. In Yogyakarta, it came as hardly a coincidence that the Dutch represented a significant proportion of tourists from Europe. However, compared to Singapore and Malaysia, traces of Indonesia’s colonial past appear to be have been greatly diminished. Other than the odd word in public spaces that can be recognised as Dutch, colonial memories exist in more subtle ways. So I wondered what was drawing many visitors from Holland to Indonesia?

Traveling is a privileged act of observing and of vicariously experiencing the lives of others. Once a preserve of the elite few, travel has become democratised to allow the rest of the world to wield the power of the gaze, brush against the Other and come out unscathed, and be a conquerer of the unbeaten path. But what of travelers who are self-conscious of how their presence impact on the observed? Macon D’s blog Stuff White People Do catalogues some thought-provoking writings along these themes. But what about the power-relations that impact on non-White tourists? I have to admit, my thoughts on this are still pretty undeveloped, so comments would be most appreciated.

Book review: Race, Space, and the Law

First published at Feminist Review


Institutional racism: we all know it exists, yet many deny it does. In this book, Sherene Razack, author of Looking White People in the Eye, edits a set of deeply disturbing accounts of racially-motivated public policies and resultant public consciousness in North America. Beginning with the premise “Race is Space,” Race, Space, and the Law unearths half-forgotten history of racial injustice and challenges the romanticisation of European settlement which is so deeply embedded in Canadian and American folklore. In other words, it seeks to unpack and debunk the notion of the peaceful collaboration between settlers and the aboriginal community, and the idea that the Native peoples have “always accepted, and to some degree, were willing to agree that being the possessors of a land need not necessarily be the only source of legitimacy of its use.”

Razack’s book brings together disparate laws and fragments of history—laws on drinking establishments, the ban on “unparliamentarian” language, midwifery, mosque-building, a murder of a sex worker, and inner city slum dwellings—to subvert the “universal” values of justice upheld by the law. There are far too many examples in Race, Space, and the Law that illustrate these modes of subversion and resistance in brilliant, infuriating colour to fit into this review, so I will only be able to share a few.

In “Keeping the Ivory Tower White,” Carol Schick sets the predominantly White University of Saskatchewan as a stage for the maintenance of White privilege by exploring the responses of White students to multicultural education. The course, which focused heavily on Aboriginal culture and history, brought out feelings of discomfort. As members of a respectable and intellectual domain of the university, students founded their discomfort and racial insecurity on rationality to side step racist or non-PC misgivings about the content of the course. Schick argues that by making disclaimers and claiming credentials as a feminist sympathizer, students can project themselves as utterly reasonable people—especially as ones who understand the necessity of civility and self-control as they secure White privilege and entitlement.

Renisa Mawani’s “In Between and Out of Place” describes the situation of biracial individuals who symbolised the destabilisation of colonial power through the blurring the racial boundaries in mid nineteenth-century British Columbia. Racial categories, often a product of British colonialism, were crucial to maintaining the “racial order of things,” that determined who had certain rights to land and citizenship. Biracial men and women were perceived to be troublemakers and untrustworthy, and hence there were strict laws on alcohol purchase and distribution for this group. The logic behind this was motivated by the fear of interracial mixing because it might result in, quite simplistically, more biracial people.

Perhaps the most recent challenge to Whiteness is the growing presence of Islam in the West, particularly after the September 11th attacks. In Engin Isin and Myer Siemiatycki’s essay “Making Space for Mosques,” xenophobia and Islamophobia emerged from behind the cloak of neighbourly respectability when the building of new mosques in Toronto was met with resistance. The level of restrictions placed on the Muslim places of worship, particularly on those built on sites of formerly Christian worship, was unprecedented. Suddenly, the “change” a mosque would bring to the look of the neighbourhood became a prime concern for the surrounding residents that resulted in the physical curtailment of the mosque’s development, including the reduction of the minaret’s height and in some ways, its potent symbolism.
These essays reiterate the fundamental premise that space, particularly a public one, produces identities of privilege and degeneracy. I highly recommend this book to people interested in marginalised history and its place in institutionalised racism today. Perhaps a dose of history will give naysayers of institutional racism some food for thought, too.

Why do I find this so disconcerting?

Meeting Nicole Kidman up close, I realised that she looks like a beautiful doll.

I have never met any woman as tall as her. I thought all the women from my slum would be so small in front of her. But her skin, lips and hands, they were all perfect. I thought if I touched her, she might get dirty. [More troubling stuff here]

What sounds like a heart-warming story of a girl meeting a world-famous starlet and wishing to be as beautiful as her (white, blonde, and very thin), is the stuff of fairy tales. But the meeting between Australian Hollywood actress Nicole Kidman and the child star of Slumdog Millionaire, Rubina Ali, recalls to our postcolonialist mind the history of imperialist worship and testament to a racist standard of beauty that sees women of the subcontinent subject to the alluring promises of skin whitening creams. What’s even sadder is that at a young and impressionable age, Rubina Ali has already formed the view that her skin, her race, her caste, are dirty and contaminating.

Update: Gareth alerted me to the new advert for Schweppes that Rubina and Kidman collaborated on. It’s just a little more than a minute long, but it’s long enough to hurt my eyes from rolling.

“What did you expect?” Orientalism, Miss Kidman.

Mother of all sins: the caning of Kartika Sari Dewi

They say that money is the root of all evil. At times, I couldn’t agree more. But now I hear that alcohol consumption is the “mother of all sins”. I’m not going into detail about which sins are worse, but more on the earthly consequences of such sins as defined by the male religious elite.

Kartika Sari Dewi Shukarno from Singapore had apparently committed the “mother of all sins” last week and now faces a sentence by the Shariah court of six strokes of the cane. The part-time model and mother of two was reported to be caught drinking beer in a hotel lounge in the east Malaysian state of Pahang. Two others have been charged as well, but their cases are currently pending appeal. Many are outraged by the severity of the punishment, while some find it fitting for the gravity of the crime.

The shock over Kartika’s decision not to appeal elicited a media frenzy over how her punishment will be meted out. On Sunday, Malaysian newspapers analyzed in great detail the act of whipping, comparing the differences between criminal whipping and Shariah whipping, and even the dimensions of the “Shariah” cane (it happens to be 1.22 m long and 1.25 cm thick, in case you’re wondering). One report even claims that Shariah whipping hardly inflicts any pain on the offender’s body, and that it is also much more merciful than civil corporal punishment, with the headline that reads, “A sentence not all it’s been whipped up to be”.

Uncoiling faster than a snake striking, the whip lunges forward, tail singing in the air. Its journey ends with a crack as distinct as lightning, punctuated by a scream so profound it rips the sound barrier. Could this be the syariah whipping that theoretically awaits part-time model Kartika Sari Dewi Shukarno, sentenced to six lashes for consuming alcohol?

Er… no.

The reality of whipping under syariah is that it is actually rather light. In fact, the term “whipping” is inaccurate, because in Malaysia it is done with a rotan (rattan cane). It is not flogging or flaying, and broken skin is not allowed, says Wahid (not his real name), who metes out 100 strokes every week as a Kajang Prison whipping officer.

Under the Criminal Procedure Code, caning is physical punishment in the strictest sense and the officer must use as much force as he can muster. So, the power behind an ordinary criminal whipping (in civil law) comes from the wrist, arm, shoulder and the swing. But, for syariah offences, it comes from a fairly limp wrist.

A number of uneasy issues emerge from reports of Kartika’s case. First, there seem to be a tendency to trivialize Shariah whipping as simply “not painful” and mainly as a means to deter other Muslims from consuming alcohol. And so it appears that Kartika’s psychological torment is not worthy of consideration, as far as many are concerned. In fact, that is exactly what she deserves, says one prison whipping officer:

“Syariah whipping is more like caning naughty schoolboys. In syariah, the punishment is not in the force of the whipping, but to bring shame.”

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