Saturday, January 16, 2010

The race and ethnicity divisions.....

The recent public discussions following upon the recent government rulings on double-barreled listings of race, have unfortunately been confused by the lack of distinction between what are generally accepted ideas about race and ethnicity.

Race (see Wikipedia), generally refers to a set of external physical characteristics which are heriditable. So we can arbitrarily think about a 'Caucasoid' race, or a 'Mongoloid' race etc. This is a notion that has become quite obsolete. Although, it is true that external physical characteristics can be largely heriditable, the limits defining racial groups are extremely fuzzy. Think for example, how impossible it is to define the limits of what the Caucasoid race is. Similarly, there are no real limits to the definition of a Chinese race. In fact, contrary to what some people may think, Chinese-ness is not a 'race'. To push the point, neither are Indian-ness and Malay-ness.

Ethnicity is however, a rather different concept (see Wikipedia). The concept of an ethnic group refers to commonly agreeable ideas of what constitutes a community, or grouping of people. This does not depend on heriditable physical characteristics, but will include characteristics related to culture, language, religion, etc. Hence to say we are ethnically Chinese, or Indian or Malay would be appropriate. In fact to be more correct globally, the identifier should be Singaporean Chinese, or Singaporean Indians etc.

We should therefore drop all reference to a 'race' identifier, and just restrict our definitions to that of ethnicity. This way we will avoid the unfortunate 'genetic' or 'biological' connotations of categorizing people according to racial groups.

It should also be clear that ethnicity is largely a social construct. It is necessary because everyone in the world defines himself or herself as part of some sort of grouping. This is an important part of how societies organize themselves and allocate resources. Our government is correct that the idea of ethnicity will never go away. We ignore it to our own peril. Every government in the world resorts to some sort of ethnicity definition (even if they deny doing so) because governments need to allocate resources according to various groupings of people. The better we are able to do this, the better we can equitably allocate resources. The trick in doing so is going to depend on how we make sure such ethnicity definitions are affirmatory and not discriminatory. This will come down to good governance and a good constitutional protection of ethnic minorities.

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