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Ethnic political parties

February 25, 2010

Personally I like the idea of racial/cultural diversity, and don’t have a particularly strong bond to my “people”. I guess I’m too much of an individualist to worry much about a group identity, unless I’ve voluntary chosen that group.

But I understand that many people do feeling strongly about their “people”. Fair enough. Around the world there are many political parties that play “identity politics” and aim to represent the interests of a “people”. For example, in Malaysia UNMO is for Malays, MCI is for Chinese and MIC is for Indians. In South Africa the Inkatha Freedom Party was set up for Zulus, in New Zealand there is the Maori Party, in Israel there are parties for Jews and for Arabs, in Canada there is a party for Canadian aboriginals, in Iraq there is a party for the Kurds, and in the UK there is a party for British people.

Playing identity politics raises the difficult issue of who belongs to a “people”. There is no easy answer to this. The reality is that groups evolve over time. At one stage being British excluded Anglo-Saxans and Normans… but today both of those groups would be included. Indeed, according to the party for British people, even Jews are now included as “British people”.

In Malaysia, the race-based parties allow members who are 50% of that race, allowing Mahatihir to join the ruling Malay party while he was half Indian. For the Jews, you are a member if your mother was a member — irrespective of your race, culture or preference. For Australian aboriginals, you are included if you can prove ancenstory or if you are declared aboriginal by a tribe elder (and you also self-identify).

Because it is difficult to determine an exact definition of a “people” some people claim that the concept is useless and should be abandoned. This is particularly true when discussing people from Europe, where declaring linking yourself to a people can sometimes invite the accusations of being racist. But this “anti-racist” stance is rarely extended to Chinese, Indians, Malays, Zulus, Maoris, Canadian aboriginals, Australian aboriginals, Tibetans, or Jews. (Ironically then, the “anti-racists” would seem to be racist.)

Clearly, many people still find the distinction valuable and so the concept of a “people” will remain.

But this doesn’t solve the problem of how to define membership of a “people”. I suggest that it should be a mix of ancestory, culture and self-identification and there should be continuity. This is similar to the rules for aboriginal Australians except that I think there should be ancestory and culture, not ancestory or culture. But borrowing from the Jewish tradition there should be an exception to the ancestory requirement if people successfully go through a long (and painful) joining process.

By continuity I mean that membership of a people can only be dormant for one generation. If your grandparents and parents have given up on a people, then you have no continuity with that old group. Your links now are with the people of your parents and grandparents. In this way, it is possible to create a “new people” within three generations.

Clearly this doesn’t provide a purely racial definition of a “people”, as members of the same race may diverge over time into different groups (eg British & Euro-Australians), and members of the same group may become racially more diverse over time (eg the many races of Jewish people). But at the same time my definition is not purely geographical, in that different people will be able to live side-by-side without necessarily merging into the same people (eg the Chinese and Malays of Malaysia, or the Euro-Americans and African-Americans of the USA).

So what am I? My grandparents were British. My parents were Rhodesian and then Euro-Australian… and I am currently Euro-Australian.

I understand that many people closely identify with their “people” and I respect their right to form or join an ethnic community or political party. But that’s not for me. It’s not that I’m against British, Rhodesian or Euro-Australian people. I certainly recognise the valuable contributions made by those three groups and I’m aware that I’m Euro-Australian… but personally I get more enjoyment from diversity than uniformity and given the choice would like to live in an ethnic melting pot.

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