Sunday March 27 2011

Race has no place in diplomatic dealings

Philip Bowring

Enthusiasm has greeted the nomination of Gary Locke as the next US ambassador to China. Sending an American of Chinese descent to Beijing will, it is avowed, make dealings with China easier because the mainland will have empathy with someone who looks Chinese, speaks Chinese and whose father was born in China.

Frankly, I am worried by the ethnocentricity of these comments, which reflect so much that is wrong with both Chinese and US assumptions on racial matters.

Locke is eminently qualified for this job, coming to it from the position of commerce secretary and before that as governor of Washington state. Like the incumbent, Jon Huntsman, he speaks Chinese. But his ethnic origins should be irrelevant. Making a point of them plays to all the worst instincts of a China where assumptions of the essential difference between Chinese and other people are widely held.

To suggest that the US should bow to assumptions that Chinese feel more comfortable with an ethnic Chinese not only accepts these prejudices but undermines US interests. Firstly, it is a denial of the multi-ethnic character of the United States, which should mean that ambassadors are chosen solely on their personal merits. Secondly, it implies that other countries should also get US ambassadors with ethnic links. Thus, Saudi Arabia would get someone of Arab descent, Israel a Jew, Greece a Greek, etc. In turn, this would lead to assumptions, true or not, that such ambassadors' judgments were influenced by their sentimental ties.

That does not mean that ethnic Chinese cannot be sent to China or Jews to Israel, simply that the US (and its friends) should always eschew the notion that ethnic connections are in themselves beneficial.

The US obsession with race is understandable enough given its history, but it often contradicts its own very real role as a melting pot - albeit one that may not have melted and melded as much as it should. Indeed, it is extraordinary how few people in the US are defined as of mixed ethnic origin. Thus, Barack Obama and Halle Berry are described as the 'first blacks' to have reached their particular pinnacles, despite the fact that their mothers were white. Of other celebrities deemed 'black', only Tiger Woods, with his Thai mother, has specifically rejected such a simplistic classification, the origins of which lie in the days of segregation when anyone who was not white was black. The US media perpetuates this division and the social apartheid it implies.

It is also dangerous in a wider context. Take Hong Kong, for example, where there are many people of mixed Chinese and European descent. If one follows the US example of classification, they should be described as Chinese when in Europe and European when in China, implying they are outsiders in both. The real dividing lines are linguistic and cultural, not genetic.

To illustrate the point from a recent visit to Cuba, in the last census there, 65 per cent of people described themselves as white, 10 per cent as black and 24 per cent as mixed. But the University of Miami's Institute for Cuban and Cuban-American Studies deems that 68 per cent of Cubans are black, presumably by defining mixed-blood people as black and assuming that all brown-skinned people have some African ancestry. Cuba, a former slave colony, has its own skin-colour issues but at least there is a common assumption that a significant percentage is mixed.

There are a few countries, like apartheid-era South Africa, where major groups are disadvantaged by the constitution as well as social practices. Malaysia and Israel fall into that category. There are others, like Japan and Korea, that are so homogenous that the issue of ethnic divides is marginal. But, for those countries that strive not to make distinctions based on blood, it is important to avoid simplistic categories or accepting the use of race in diplomacy.




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