Racism, or just plain ignorance?

Peter Kammerer tells how a chance interaction with someone outside his social circle taught him a lesson on racism - and ignorance

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 11 June, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 11 June, 2013, 1:44am

A white guy with half-Asian kids, a local girlfriend, living in a city that's 95 per cent Chinese - no way would anyone think that I'm racist. To boot, I'm blind, which takes away the possibility of visual stereotyping. Yet there I was the other night, fresh off the bus around midnight, wanting nothing at all to do with the man who had struck up a conversation with me. His accent was South Asian and when I heard it, I assumed he was Pakistani and therefore about to rob me.

Now that would seem to be racism with a good dose of stereotyping thrown in. A policeman patrolling the neighbourhood a few years back had told me never to talk to Pakistanis as they had a reputation in the area for crime. He was wrong to say that, but it's often been remarked to me that whenever police are doing identity card checks, there's always a majority of South Asians in the line. That was in the back of my mind as soon as I heard the accent, my hand burying into my wallet pocket.

He walked beside me, not getting my "please go away" vibe, asking me where I lived, where I was from - all the questions I assume a polite mugger asks before striking. Then he began talking about himself - how he worked in an Indian restaurant in Central, what his day in the kitchen had been like and how I should drop by some time as the food was quite good - and I relaxed. An Indian cook, not a Pakistani thief; I even shook his hand as we parted. Only later did I realise the implications, though: that, deep down, I appear to have racist tendencies.

Those feelings came flooding back last week when it emerged that some supporters of the Hong Kong soccer team at an international friendly against the Philippines had behaved deplorably. There was booing during the playing of the Philippine national anthem, the rival fans were derided as being "slaves" and abuse and plastic bottles were hurled after the visiting team won 1-0. Local matches are generally polite affairs, even when the greatest rivals of all, Kitchee and South China, take to the pitch, so it was shocking to learn of the disrespect shown. But it seemed all in keeping with the recent World Values Survey showing that almost 27 per cent of residents would not want a neighbour of a different race.

I'm not so sure that racism is at the bottom of all this. Rather, I believe it's more about ignorance. That, after all, is at the root of avoidance of people who are in some way different - a lack of understanding or misinformed views. It's why the disabled find it so hard to get a job, a woman with brown skin is assumed to be a domestic helper or why the elderly are treated as if they have lost their mind. It was why I jumped to the conclusion that a person I believed to be a Pakistani had ill intent towards me.

The behaviour of those football supporters can never be condoned, but they would have been more tolerant had they been better educated about the Philippines and its people. The Hong Kong government is partly to blame for the flawed perceptions by unjustly keeping in place a black travel alert against the country, despite almost three years having passed since the Manila hostage-taking and shooting. But I also have learning to do. I sense it's not just Pakistan I need to brush up on.

Peter Kammerer is a senior writer at the Post