The widely dispersed members of the Fijian diaspora might take some comfort in a recent statement by Fiji’s Prime Minister that the country’s prosperity and, by implication, its future progress and stability hinged on its ability to extirpate the seldom-acknowledged scourge of racism. The question remains though: what is being done about it?
Fiji cannot wish away its past nor can it airbrush the imprecations of the British colonialism it had to endure for ninety-six years. What is most galling though is that the colonizer’s easy ability to whitewash Fiji’s history and distance itself from the charge of conceiving and restructuring Fiji’s society along its racial boundaries: in effect, a benign apartheid in all respects except on paper. There can be no denying that racism was one of colonialism’s central pillars and, on closer scrutiny, notwithstanding claims to the contrary, British legacy in Fiji is nothing to gloat about, as powerfully demonstrated since 1987. The elites had learnt well under the tutelage of their colonial masters, so political liberation hardly triggered a critical reevaluation of all that was seen as flawed during the British rule. The British had imagined Fiji as a ‘white society’ – a historical fact that is not widely recognized but should be.
The pretense that all was well in post-independence Fiji, and that it was some kind of a model of cultural diversity was one of the great myths perpetrated by the departing British and the powers that be. Their real agenda lay elsewhere: as long as it served their wider economic and geopolitical interests why disturb the colonial order, however factious or fractious? It might be an inconvenient fact but we can no more add oil to water and prevent it from rising to the top than create a bogus multi-ethnic society along racial lines, undergird its foundations with racist ideologies and expect to check the explosion from undercurrents of racism they will inexorably generate from rising to the top. As repeatedly shown in many countries, once unleashed, the stench of racism will inevitably permeate and consume all aspects of life: social, economic, political, cultural and even spiritual.
With goodwill amongst a few good leaders, post-colonial Fijian society managed to hold together for seventeen years.
Then, Fiji witnessed an irruption of latent racism, even as some in the commentariat continued to maintain their gauche denials that racism did not exist: it certainly was one factor, but not the only factor, contributing to the early demise of Fiji’s democracy. The country simply imploded in 1987 and it continued to leak prestige, whilst its international reputation was shredded due to the implementation of some overtly racist policies demanded by coup-plotters, nationalists, or the more covert coup sympathizers. The fallouts from the four coups are too well-known and widely-documented to warrant retelling here, so let’s us return to my central message.
Fiji was always a racist society under the British, who nurtured it and exploited it for their benefit; it remained a racist society post-independence during the tenure of Alliance Party for it, too,sought to emulate the discredited Malaysian model and its corrupting influences along racial lines; and, whilst Bainimarama’s admission is refreshing, it remains a covertly racist society today. The much-vaunted shibboleth that “Fiji, the way the world should be” provided a patina of complacency and fostered an appearance of deceptive calm.
Little had changed in the immediate aftermath of independence and pressing social and political reforms were put in too-hard-basket, generating a socio-political atmosphere wherein simmering tensions were allowed to fester; if anything, they were routinely inflamed during election campaigns by ill-informed interests to maintain power. Some of the policies adopted by the first self-governing regime (Alliance Party) turned out to be disastrous for Fiji. As a result, the full impact of race-centric policies shouldn’t come as a complete surprise to anyone. Luckily, though, due to the power imbalances, the racist rants of the nationalists, religious fundamentalists and some disaffected Chiefs during the four coups did not degenerate into full-scale civil or sectarian conflict. However, whilst some corrective actions have been taken in the wake of the most recent election, Fiji has a long way to go. It could only manage seventeen years of intercommunal rapprochement, which had to be jettisoned off to satisfy post-coup demands for ethnic nepotism and a re-modelled democracy to accommodate the need for indigenous hegemony.
But Fiji is not unique and most contemporary societies suffer from the canker of neo-racism because ‘racism’, as we knew it, has changed its essential character. It has morphed into varieties of racist tendencies with fancy labels intended to diminish the level of opprobrium felt by the victims. If racist outbursts no longer jar our collective conscience, it is because of the sophistry of its elitist discourse. For example, neoracism is increasingly examined in terms of less dysphemistic categories of ‘casual racism’ or ‘soft racism’ or ‘culturalist or differentialist racism’ or ‘racism without races’, etc. But racism is racism; irrespective of the labels we give it to defend the indefensible. Just as we cannot justify violence and rape against women by degrees of acceptability, we cannot justify racism at any time, under any circumstances, for any reason, from anyone. It is wholly unacceptable, regardless of the categories; whenever or wherever it occurs; or by whomever it is perpetrated. It is simply inexcusable, inherently wrong, unjust, and an utterly odious conduct based on faulty reasoning.
The war on racism has not been won because new labels can make us feel good but they can never stamp out obnoxious behaviour. To change behaviour we have to change our thinking to bring about a whole new way of perceiving and understanding the reality of racial differences. There is only one race; the human race. Racial categories are man-made and racism and all its sub-categories are learned behaviours. Unless we live in an apartheid state committed to institutionalised racism, wittingly or otherwise, all forms of racism are learnt in our homes, in schools, at workplaces and through our peers.
Scholars have a particular fondness for new words and the study of racism has given us yet another word for more subtle racist proclivities: microaggressions. According to psychologist Derald Wing Sue, “Microaggressions are the everyday verbal, nonverbal, and environmental slights, snubs, or insults, whether intentional or unintentional, which communicate hostile, derogatory, or negative messages to target persons based solely upon their marginalized group membership. In many cases, these hidden messages may invalidate the group identity or experiential reality of target persons, demean them on a personal or group level, communicate they are lesser human beings, suggest they do not belong with the majority group, threaten and intimidate, or relegate them to inferior status and treatment.” Thus, microaggressions can allow one to assume that an indigenous person was accepted for a position because of affirmative action; or argue, vacuously, that an Indo-Fijian is not a ‘Fijian’ and has lesser rights even if he/she was born in Fiji. Unfortunately, microaggressions often foreground more subtle prejudices without overtly relying on racial profiling and, thus, attempt to sanitise casual acts of racism.
It takes a lot of courage to spend political capital and risk confronting such a divisive issue in a fractured polity like Fiji’s, so kudos to the Prime Minister. Despite cultural boundaries, the dominant ethnic communities in Fiji offered hope and lived cheek by jowl in relative peace until 1987. The major casualty of an assertive coup culture was the loss of more cosmopolitan values and the dissolution of ethnic identities through cultural assimilation and intermarriages, utterly sabotaged by rise of ethnonationalism.
The PM is absolutely right in his assessment that this scourge is holding the country back. Racism in Fiji originated as ‘white racism’ that sought to preserve a form of an artificial tri-national identity but after independence it rapidly transmuted into insidious and contemptible neo-racisms found even amongst the people of colour. It is doubly odious because, not only does it negate their arguments against ‘white racism’, it exposes all racists for who they really are, regardless of their colour. They often fail to understand that all forms for racisms are based on specious logic, faulty arguments and ignorance. Racism amongst people of colour inadvertently turns ‘white’ into the colour of power. In aping whiteness they denigrate their own identity and demonstrate the residual after effects of the colonisation of their minds.
It will not be easy to reclaim Fiji’s much-lauded diversity and cosmopolitanism. In a sense, Fiji has to start all over again; government must introduce enlightened policies to rebuild trust among its diverse communities and embark on adult literacy programmes to dispel ignorance amongst the ill-informed. Most importantly, its education programmes at all levels must inculcate respect for and tolerance of diversity. The best place to start making a change is at home. If the parents and schools appreciate cross-cultural interactions and constantly reiterate that respect for cultural nuances is the best way to foster dialogue and assimilation, half the battle will have been won.
Government policies will have to reward and buttress all attempts to engage and promote diversity. Racism has little to do with colour-blindness. It is about dispelling ignorance, promoting acceptance and treating each other with respect, regardless of status, class, background or position in life. There are no easy answers but only education can ultimately change human behaviors. Education ought to be about producing goodall-round citizens, not educated ignoramuses. Human nature being what it is, the permanency of racism is evidence that most societies continue to produce their share of ignoramuses.
Gopal Nair PhD is a Sydney-based writer, researcher and commentator. The opinions expressed herein are his and do not in any way represent the views of the publisher(s). Sydney, May 2016