By Millenial May Thu
Anyone who has studied and lived outside of Myanmar has returned to find that their culture is – and maddeningly, has always been – an inherently racist culture. Most days we are subject to casual conversations wherein any person who happens to have dark skin is immediately condemned as “evil”. Furthermore, anyone who is not Burmese is actively shunned, despite their superior abilities: “Oh, no, that doctor is Indian, they’re dirty, we can’t go there.” “No, that teacher is Chinese, everyone knows they’re greedy.” And in every case scenario, it is the Burmese who are better than everyone else, in every perceivable way.
This casual racism reigns in every Burmese household. Third culture kids have learned to dread family reunions, for fear that their ill-informed relatives will deliver racist tirade upon racist tirade, and all that they will be able to do is stand by, with clenched fists and gritted teeth. The more outspoken of us attempt to debate their ideals, but the debates tend not to last very long – we are consistently told to be quiet, and not to be rude. Even if you manage to corner your racist uncle and confront him about his racist (and often sexist) remarks, the answer will invariably either be, “You just don’t know better,” or “You can’t blame me, this is how I was raised.”
Being raised racist is an excuse most older Burmese people tend to cling to. Perhaps they do have a point. Most of our parents and our grandparents have led sheltered lives under the military regime, when opportunities presented to us (to study and to work abroad) were not available to them. They have also been bred and fed on highly manipulated narratives of the outside world. Therefore, they have lived out their lives believing in and endorsing stereotypes, nursing prejudices to the point where any mention of anyone decidedly not Burmese possesses faults beyond redemption.
What astounds me is that most of the Burmese people I know, who have on occasion let loose their racist side, are devout Buddhists. How does a country whose major religion is one that preaches goodwill and compassion to every living thing hold such narrow-minded predispositions towards other human beings? –This issue in and of itself begs its own essay so we’ll save that for another column.
When enough people endorse it, it expands out of proportion, this manifests as institutionalized racism, which then becomes overt racism. It is the latter two kinds of racism that have brought Myanmar into the global spotlight over its ethnic cleansing of the Rohingya people. The repercussions have included the rape of women as well as the assault and murder of Muslim men, women, and children.
This mire of old-age mentality that is rampant in our society is what we are struggling to navigate. But how can we, as individuals who are not given authority, as young people who are still perceived as “children”, combat this problem?
The answer is slightly less simple than people might believe. While education is one of the top contenders to combat this issue, here’s the clincher: most of our family and relatives are already educated. They have degrees from local universities, and they will use this to validate their racism.
Perhaps the answer lies in exposure, but introducing your parents to your multicultural friends is no easy feat. The most narrow-minded people will still find superficial fault with your friends, and I don’t think that’s going to end well for any party involved in that meeting.
But there is still hope. By cultivating multicultural communities in our neighborhoods, social circles, and schools, there is a good chance that we will be able to move towards a more inclusive society. The more people interact and relate with persons they usually deem “foreigners”, the more the Burmese will begin seeing them as first and foremost individuals. In time, the stereotypes will be shed from their minds, and in time, we may yet convince our racist uncle that there is no place for his xenophobia here.
So stand up, speak up. Keep fighting the good fight. Perhaps one day, we can come back to find a home that is welcoming to all of us.