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Jakarta post

by Jennie S. Bev

One of the most common form of harassments experienced by a minority is verbal. Often it is so subtle that the targeted group doesn’t even realize. In Indonesia, it’s common that abusive and oppressive remarks are made by the media and even by academics. Stern language watch is key to uphold minority’s right to live in dignity and with peace of mind. Failure to address this issue is likely to prolong minority and human rights abuses.

All of us must work together to watch the use of language in media, by academics and among one another.

In recent the Bank Century and Corruption Eradication Commission (KPK) scandals, for instance, some Chinese Indonesians have been the target of derogatory and abusive language.

It is common knowledge that this minority group has for a long time carried the negative stereotype of being wealthy and corrupt. Thus, any incident involving big —or small— sums of money “must” have something to do with them.

When there is at least one guilty individual of Chinese descent, or whose physical characteristics resemble Chinese descent, then the whole group is blamed. Sometimes, such discriminatory blame occurs in the public, orchestrated by those who want to hijack the incident for their own agenda.

More subtle racist remarks can be found in print publications, even in major Indonesian-language daily newspapers. It is not uncommon to find phrases like pelaku bermata sipit dan berkulit putih or “an individual with slanted eyes and fair skin.” It is also common to find “this Chinese man or woman did such and such.” Usually describing unfavorable incidents.

On the contrary, whenever an individual of Chinese Indonesian ethnicity does something remarkable, a news article would usually refer him or her as “anak bangsa” or the “son or daughter of the land.” In the case of Indonesia, term Cina, which is pejorative for “Chinese Indonesia” was created with a political purpose during Soeharto’s New Order era. Thus, it is safe to say that it is a social construction rather than pure cladistical typology.

Regardless of the intention of that era’s policy makers and politicians, the currently accepted scholarly consensus on race or “ethnicity” is: human biological race does not exist.

It is a socially-constructed category as the so-called “biological race” has been considered an illicit progeny of classification system. However, a counter argument put forth by a philosopher of biology named Robin O. Andreasen claimed that human biological races grouped in clades do exist.

The typical human racial classifications have been based on similar facial, structural, and skin-color characteristics. These intrinsic similarities, however, were not the cladistic approach’s argument. The latter argued that “race” is very dynamic, thus similar characteristics are fluid. Andreasen argued that races are based on sequences of breeding populations that share a common origin.

The key element in race based on cladistic approach is historical origin, which acknowledges the variants based on cross breeding that occurs throughout the historical timeline.

Social constructionists argue that the classification of biological races is a fallacy because it is based on physical and biological similarities. Literally speaking, such argument is valid because similar characteristics do not guarantee similarities in DNA make up.

However, social constructionists’ argument came with an obvious weakness: they did not take history into account. This historical element is what made the cladistic approach stand out.

While biology philosophers are debating which theory is more valid, it would be best to refer to historical and political backgrounds of Indonesia whenever we need to address a minority group.

Indonesian economists, for instance, are known for looking at Chinese Indonesians solely on the basis of level of welfare and owned wealth, which are higher than average Indonesians. Using such a periscope might sound valid as the measurements are quantifiable.

It might be true that statistics don’t lie but using them without a balancing legitimate qualitative analysis is as poisonous as drinking arsenic.

Anthropological approaches, such as ethnographics, often provide different perspectives, which are vertical, in-depth, and case-by-case.

While economic statistics are likely to be horizontal and scientifically generalized, handling minority issues to ensure fairness requires a heightened level of awareness as each figure presented represents politically and socially marginalized individuals regardless of their net worth.

Thus, I would urge the media, academics and all of us to not be easily fooled by fearmongers and to use neutral phrases whenever referring to an individual or a minority group. Let’s leave the discourses of between cladistics and social construction approaches to biology philosophers.

We simply need to acknowledge that in the case of Indonesia, Cina is a pejorative political term. And we are too smart to fall into politicians’ trap.

The Jakarta Post, December 22, 2009

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