The Daily Star carried this article of mine. Read on the Star website
“Bangladesh is the second most racist country in the world”, screamed the map of global racism. So to the list of ‘disaster-prone’, ‘poor’, ‘corrupt’ and ‘fundamentalist’ – the world will now add ‘racist’ when describing Bangladesh.
The map was color-coded and Bangladesh appeared in deep Crimson. Plus, it came with the powerful masthead of the Washington Post – stamped with majestic-blue moral and intellectual superiority of the proverbial West.
Max Fisher, Foreign Affairs Blogger and Worldviews page host at the Washington Post (WaPo) had picked up the scent from two Swedish economists examining if economic freedom made people more or less racist. After some manipulation and extrapolation – Fisher produced the compelling write-up and what he called the ‘fascinating’ map on 15 May, 2013. Fisher’s phrasing and caveats made it difficult to decipher or question results beyond the blue and red. Basically: blue was good (not racist) – red, bad (racist).
Hong Kong, Bangladesh, Jordan and India were the most racist countries – compared to say Pakistan or South Africa. USA, Britain, Canada, Scandinavia, Australia and South America were among the least racist. In broad strokes, the West was tolerant – the middle and south East, racist.
The post can’t be ignored, because: firstly, it’s the WaPo (read: 2nd highest circulation in Washington and 47 Pulitzers). Secondly, because major news outlets picked up the map and millions shared and reblogged it. Websites of HuffPost and The Guardian were abuzz with debate, personal experience of racist behavior and the occasional hate-speech: “what? India is worse than Pakistan? More racist than South Africa?” The posts gave birth to a new slew of racist remarks. One can’t afford to not take note of the fascinating map and engage in some soul-searching.
The question that immediately comes to mind is: why, in a country of mostly homogeneous, centrist people, would 72 percent respondents appear racist? To understand how we got bathed in crimson, three important dimensions of the map need to be reviewed: (1) what Racism means, (2) how it was measured and (3) how robust the methodology was.
Firstly, what are the origins of modern ‘Racism’? Race identities are rooted in physical features such as ‘skin-colour’ – White, Black, Brown and Yellow. It later evolved to include ‘ethnicity’ too. Expanded, it is stereotyping – “a tendency to assign people to ‘coalition groups’ and to use whatever cues are available, be they clothing, accent or skin colour, to slot individuals into such groups”, says Robert Kurzban, evolutionary psychologist at the University of California. Sociologists Noël A. Cazenave suggests it is a culturally-sanctioned group-privilege system.
‘Racism’ in modern discourse, is a social construct that emerged from the mass-scale juxtaposition of distinct peoples – notably, the enslavement of African peoples by Europe and North America. There, in dominant groups’ attempts to monopolise commerce, power, suffrage and culture, Racism is said to have been born. The modern notion of Racism – stemming from White Guilt – attempts to universalise, and compensate for, it. It mostly disregards regional and country contexts of caste, religion, ethnicity and tribes.
“Fisher and the Swedes picked this particular measure of intolerance because of their own cultural bias. Influenced by the expression of White Racism in the West, they assume that preferring a neighbor of your own race — i.e. not black, Latino, Asian et al — is an accurate barometer of prejudice,” wrote Lakshmi Chaudhury and Sandip Roy on FirstPost.
In fact, in most Western countries Racism is so taboo that many people will hide their intolerant views and lie to the questioners. Bangladeshi respondents, without any knowledge or guilt of the West’s ignominious history of Racism, perhaps felt no need to hide their neighbor preferences.
That ‘Bangladesh is 2nd most racist’ was ascertained through a single metric. The original data came from the respected World Values Survey (WVS). The part that Fisher relied on asked respondents in 80+ countries to identify kinds of people they would not want as neighbours. In fishing out race-related data, Fisher marked as ‘red’ those who chose “people of a different race” from the list that included ‘drug addicts’, ‘homosexuals’ and ‘unmarried couples living together’. The more frequently people in a given country said they didn’t want neighbours from other races, the more racist you could call it. And that put us at #2 with 71.8 percent declining a different-race neighbor!
“The WashPo graphic is interesting and provocative but not conclusive”, says Steve Saideman, Paterson Chair in International Affairs, Carleton University. It’s tough to gauge racial intolerance through just one metric. Other metrics (e.g. marrying children to persons of other race/ethnicity or hiring them at work) could’ve yielded very different results.
Even that single metric wasn’t adequately researched. People congregate with their own folks because it’s comforting and convenient. Similarly, when a typical Bangladeshi is asked about his/her preference of neighbours – it’s only natural that (s)he would choose another Bangladeshi – even a co-religionist too. This doesn’t make us racist – only eager to live in harmony with our own communities. A western frame of reference – familiar with a history of White Racism – often assumes that the reluctance stems from a racist attitude.
The third aspect of Fisher’s magic map is its methodology and this is where it gets interesting. Siddartha Mitter, an NY-based Journalist, wrote a damning critique on the Africa is a Country website: “the two caveats that Fisher offered in his post – first, that survey respondents might be lying about their racial views, and second, that the survey data are from different years, depending on the country – only scratch the surface of what is basically a crime against social science perpetrated in broad daylight”.
To make things worse (for Fisher i.e.), Ashirul Amin, a Bangladeshi PhD candidate in Development Economics at The Fletcher School, Tufts, decided to examine the two-years’ source data from the WVS. In his page, Ashirul wrote that he was baffled by the odd group of most racist countries and that Bangladesh being one of them, piqued his interest.
Ashirul Amin, a Bangladeshi, demonstrated that in the 2nd year of survey, “yes” and “no” got swapped. What this basically means is that actually 17.7 percent (and not 71.7 percent) Bangladeshis don’t want different-race neighbours. The racial intolerance map was subsequently changed to reflect this.
In a thorough analysis, Ashirul showed that from 17.3 percent (1996), racial intolerance had jumped to 71.7 percent (2002). He pointed out “the 54.4 percent (increase) involves tens of millions of people in a generally syncretistic society where appreciation for that heritage has arguably only increased with the younger generations”. He didn’t stop there. Ashirul went on to demonstrate that in the second year of survey, “yes” and “no” got swapped. What this basically means is that actually 17.7 percent (and not 71.7 percent) don’t prefer different-race neighbors.
A week later, Max Fisher’s post now has a rejoinder thanking Ashirul and featuring a link to his analysis. Bangladesh’s crimson has turned into a dirty pink on the racial intolerance map. Another similar claim from Hong Kong has overturned their unenviable champion status too. One netizen recently dubbed Ashirul’s work ‘one of the most intellectually intégre takedowns of faux science in a while’.
All this is not to say that we, Bangladeshis, have no prejudices. The WVS data shows an 11 percent increase in racial intolerance over six years. In anecdotal evidence: we venerate white expats, ridicule Biharis / Rohingyas, mock Calcatians, slight atheists, demean mullahs and perceive indigenous / tribal people as second class citizens. But more often than not, our squabbles are limited within ourselves – to the outsider, we are mostly a united, hospitable nation.
The Racial Tolerance map and subsequent episodes are interesting for two reasons. Firstly, it smacks of an imperial frame of reference that presupposes a universal concept of Racism. It’s the same with most global issues like development, governance and morality. We’ve never attempted national-level research on our own and are, hence, unable to foster a robust, home-grown discourse.
Secondly, the Washington Posts of the world are not always right. With free-flow of information and investment in research and analysis – it’s possible to invalidate uninformed, high-handed opinions of us. It is possible to positively influence global opinions and depictions without resorting to malice, creating anarchy or playing the victim. A new generation is doing just that. Lastly, let’s all give credit to Max Fisher and WaPo for admitting their appalling mistake.
We are, after all, quite a tolerant nation.
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