People are Strange

A peek into alternate forms of racism. First published in The Sunday Leader, 16th May 2010 –

Racism in Sri Lanka has been honed into such a finely perfected art over the years that it has paved way for the formation of some rather peculiar sub-genres to manifest in the process.

Internal racism may not be a new concept, but we don’t tend to look at our actions in terms of a behavioural genre and in that sense may even be ignorant of our own behaviour at times. As much as we like to fit into dusty boxes, we don’t open them up and air them out once in a while. So close upon ‘V day’ celebrations, with Galle Face Green turning a distinct shade of militia green, it maybe time to clean out our closets, open up the cobwebbed shoe boxes on the top shelf and sift through our lives as a result of the war, the newly born post-war syndrome and general Sri Lankan ignorance in most other spheres as well.

Internal Racism as a concept can be divided into subsections based on how we basically think of ourselves vis-à-vis our own kind.

Sometimes we hold people who speak with accents in much higher esteem irrespective of what actually comes out of their mouths. “If you use a foreign accent, I think it’s easier to get things done in some places” says Pradeep. Coming straight from the horse’s mouth, Ganga, a Sri Lankan Sinhalese living overseas, vehemently rejects this behaviour. “Even if you’re Sri Lankan, people notice you and treat you better if you have a British accent. Even though this is kind of matter-of-fact for some people, they just sit there and take it and I don’t get that”. A hotel I was staying at recently refused to offer something as mere as butter to paying locals, but didn’t think twice about offering tubs of it to those who were white-skinned or spoke with an accent. The tendency to treat your own kind on a lower scale is a tad ridiculous sometimes because it amounts to the old axiom of looking up and spitting.
Other types include the homes that speak English as a first language and tend to look down on people who don’t do the same, even if they belong to the same race. This racial uppishness turns some of us into believing that our own race is split into levels from the English speaking Sinhalese to the primarily Sinhalese speaking households. Aren’t we segregated enough without having to turn into bigots in the process? On a completely different note, there are the Sinhalese, the Tamils and even at times, the Muslims and Burghers who literally hate themselves and their accident of birth. A very Sinhalese, Buddhist acquaintance is ready to condemn the race and religion she was born into with regular statements like ‘typical Sinhalese Buddhist behaviour’ and she didn’t mean it in the nice way either. She, like the newly forming species of internal racists, hates the attitudinal actions of her race although she embraces the heritage and culture.

Irrespective of the many legislative add-ons, our penal code still essentially remains arcane and is a result of colonialism but we still embrace the virtues passed on by our previous ‘owners’ as though they are our very own. Women can’t sell alcohol in a country that has the highest per capita consumption of alcohol in the world for instance, but that it another topic altogether.

Another person has similar views and sites an example. He said that ‘typical Sinhalese’ behaviour could be observed by how we think the whole world is our backyard – and in this case our bathroom. “Have you noticed how women walk out of their homes early morning in their nightdresses, with toothbrushes stuck in their mouths and walk about the neighbourhood as though it were the most natural thing in the world?”

Irrespective of whether these opinions are right or wrong, they still exist. Many have long drawn out near-justifiable reasons for their attitudes towards their own race that stem from years of disgust, a history book of facts that started long before 1983 and their own eye witnessed events over the years. Some others have no explanations, simply believing that their own race is an inferior species to certain others’.

In essence, if we don’t respect ourselves, how do we then respect each other’s differences in a unified Sri Lanka when we are on the verge of celebrating a year of that supposed state of being? And on the flip side, how do we not look at ourselves to discover the mistakes of our individual races and the silent propaganda that we have left to manifest and breed in our systems over the years without bothering to give it a second thought?

Jim Morrison put it simply and perfectly: “People are strange.” Indeed, Mr. Morrison, indeed.


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