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The skin color paradox: does it matter?

  • Interracial relationship serves as a positive sign and an indicator of integration in the society.

By Khoo Ying Hooi

In one of my working trips, I came to encounter a colleague from Bangladesh during breakfast. Sitting together was another colleague of mine from Malaysia. The three of us had conversation and this colleague from Bangladesh asked an interesting question to us, "How do you find yourself a Chinese and an Indian (referring to my Malaysian colleague) sitting together on the same table having a meal?"

My Malaysian colleague and me were instantly struck by that question and we smiled to each other, and paused for few seconds. Both of us then simultaneously responded that we do not feel we are different. That’s the beauty of being a Malaysian.

While we do not experience racial tensions in the country now, but racism takes place some times at different levels. Malaysia takes pride in being a multi-racial and multi-religious country where the government does its best to portray the country as one that has fully assimilated the people from various backgrounds. Nowadays, interracial marriage is getting more common in our society, although challenges remain in many couples. In my own circle of friends, there are quite a number of them whom are involved in interracial relationship or marriage. Some might be luckier than others as in facing the reactions by the families and friends.

For many foreigners, it is particularly intriguing for them to see a country like Malaysia that consists of people from different religious and cultural backgrounds with different languages but living under the same roof. It is always a wonder of how do we come together and persevered despite the challenges. While it is not a rare scenario, interracial relationship is not yet a norm in the country. Very often, people still tend to stare at these couples with curiosity or sometimes, personal prejudices and general stereotyping.

What is it like to be in an interracial relationship? How is it like to go against all odds to be together? Was it easy to break stereotypes? I spoke to a couple that has been married for a decade now. This Malay-Chinese couple first met each other due to work, however their similar interests have gotten them closer day by day that they ended up falling in love. While the friends around react rather positively to their relationship, they did not inform the family until when they decided to tie the knot. To their much surprise, the families did not take it badly although concerns occurred mainly due to different faiths and lifestyles.

As we know, in the context of Malaysia, anyone who wishes to marry with a Malay Muslim needs to be converted and that is a real challenge for many couples. The common hindrance normally comes from families whom are not keen for their family members to marry someone from a different race and converting. Very often, some did not end up to marriage like this couple that I know, as some were not as lucky as them for not needed to face huge objections from the families.

While interracial relationships are generally accepted, it is also common that society at times has difficulties in understanding how people from different cultural and religious backgrounds can actually share a life together. Similar as other couples, this couple too faces obstacles now and then. For example, it is difficult to communicate with a different community of people. Under adverse circumstances, certain racial stereotypes could form the basis for discrimination. They have however learned to accept the fact that it is not possible to stop people from making remarks that are at times unkind.

However not all things are bad, as this couple was telling me, such relationships have many advantages, for example you get to learn more than others in term of cultures and the dos and don’ts. As we are so used to doing things or thinking a certain way, in interracial relationship, you get to learn there’s more ways of doing things. It helps in term of widening the perspective in life. At the same time, their children enjoy the advantages of being fluent in more languages than the others and they also tend to be more acceptant, as they were brought up with values of tolerance and the belief in having freedom to choose as well as compromising.

Stories like this inspire us that sometimes; different races and religions are never a hindrance for us to live in harmony. Instead, it promotes and advances racial integration in a multi-racial country like Malaysia. Interracial relationship serves as a positive sign and an indicator of integration in the society as it contributes in narrowing the differences among the people. In the end of the day, interracial marriages are no difference than other couples, as it also requires the same amount of love and patience. Race and religion do not divide us, perhaps politics does.

(Khoo Ying Hooi is Universiti Malaya Senior Lecturer)



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