Racism in a Multiethnic Country

There is a very interesting new essay by Victor Mambor at Indoprogress entitled “Mass Media, Structural Racism, and the Legitimation of Violence in Papua.” Mambor describes the recent Indonesian media coverage of two Indonesian soldiers who were apparently held hostage briefly by an armed group in the highlands of Papua province. He notes some Indonesian press coverage indicating that the two soldiers had been “cooked” [= sudah dimasak], which implies that they had also been eaten. Apparently none of that is true.

What I wish to highlight is the use of the term racism [= rasisme] to describe how the Indonesian press covers Papua. Indonesia is of course a multiethnic country. Yet in common parlance, at least in my experience, nearly every kind of distinction among Indonesia’s diverse population is one of ethnicity [= suku bangsa] or religion [= agama]. The exceptions are three: Westerners, Chinese, and Papuans. In the common Indonesian understanding, these are racial, not ethnic, distinctions.

Does this matter? I think it does, both practically and for how we think about race as social scientists. Recently, a commenter on this essay objected to my use of the term “racism” to describe Papua in Indonesia, suggesting that race is uniquely American obsession. I don’t think that that is quite right. I agree that “racial categories” have no biological foundation. And it is plain that phenotypes vary less between Papua and neighboring islands than between those eastern islands and, say, Sumatra. Yet the very fact that the Papuan/non-Papuan distinction is described as a racial difference tells us something very fundamental about what it means to be Papuan in Indonesia. It calls for comparative investigation.

Why is it, for example, that the popular West Papuan band “Black Brothers” took that name? My hunch is that such a thing would be simply impossible in Timor or Ambon (although if I’m wrong I’d love to know that). I propose that if we refuse to entertain the possibility that ethnic cleavages and racial cleavages really are distinct kinds of cleavages, and that that is not just an “American thing,” we miss something essential. Not just about Indonesia, but about the human condition.

(For related points from Southeast Asia and further afield, see my discussions of the racialization of communal differences in Malaysia, and of the racialization of Islam in the West. And don’t forget this oldie on Indonesians in blackface on local TV.)

Comment 1

  1. dwayne woods June 2, 2015

    BTW: Jared Diamond when he was talking about Indonesia and Papua made a similar point. Also, the notion that race or racism is an American (USA) creation is silly. Just travel to Brazil!!!

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