I officially learned about race while sitting in my elementary school classroom years ago when I was taking the Pennsylvania System of School Assessment, a state test that begins in third grade. Before then, color and ethnicity was how I distinguished myself from my siblings and friends. But in that moment I was given 5 categories of races to choose from. A look into the way the question of race is approached in a non western perspective is presented in the book Race and Multiculturalism in Malaysia and Singapore (2009) by Daniel Goh and Philip Holden. The authors point us to new views of the construction of race in these countries but also allow us to see how they are similar to the wider world through institutionalization.
The authors clearly show how the current “state multiculturalism” that exists in both countries are rooted in the colonial past that has framed them (2). It is not just present in a political sphere, but also has a significant effect in the way people see and interact with one another. The authors discuss how this influence creates a “common sense” among the people in a multicultural nation. In critiques of this institutionalization, people see “limits” in “the recognition and interrogation of cultural difference,” which questions how people today can escape a colonial legacy that perpetuates a narrow view of the demographics of the nation (3). The authors say, “the institutionalizations of identities has foreclosed commitments to cultures other than the official categories of Chinese, Malay, Indian and Others (CMIO) inherited from the British colonial administration.” (3) This shows how the decisions of colonizers can directly influence the prioritization of groups in the distributing of resources. It lives on in the forms that people complete, and in turn informs the lives they get to live in their multicultural state.
I find it interesting how the categories seem so fixed and known to be referred to as the CMIO acronym. I think about my experience as a young kid having to choose between the categories of White, Black, American Indian, Asian, and Native Hawaiian or Other Pacific Islander. I don’t believe there was even an ‘other’ option my first time taking the PSSA, as I remember having to choose a race I have never identified with on several occasions over the years. But even if and when I had the chance to chose other, I knew I still didn’t belong. Even when I answer yes to the ‘Hispanic or Latino’ question today, I still feel out of place when it comes down to race. And so I wonder what it must be like for a child, adult or anyone being a descendent from immigrants having to choose between CMIO. I wonder how my experience gives me a different world view from someone my age in Malaysia or Singapore trying to make sense of their place in institutionalized multiculturalism.
Goh, Daniel P.S. and Philip Holden. Race and Multiculturalism in Malaysia and Singapore. New York, Routledge, 2009