All around the world, there are people trying to build walls.

Over the last 3 months, I’ve been watching the U.S. Republican party elections with a mixture of what could only be described as revulsion and horror.

What troubles me is neither the reality TV veneer of the proceedings, nor the schoolyard slurs being slung about by the candidates. It’s the hate-filled rhetoric that’s being spewed at Latino migrants, many of whom cross the border between Mexico and the United States undocumented by authorities, and the climate of hostility that has led to one of the candidates espousing the sort of surveillance of Muslim communities once found in fascist regimes.

This is not a phenomena that’s geographically restricted to the United States. From Austria to Slovak to Greece, far right, anti-immigrant political parties are espousing racism and cultural prejudice in thinly veiled jargon, campaigning on the platforms of ‘security’ and ‘patriotism’.

This is due, perhaps, to a growing cynicism towards globalisation, and the shrinking of spaces between migrant and local communities. The traveler, the wandering merchant, the trader: These were once individuals who were constantly adrift, out of place, anomalies when compared to populations that were largely sedentary. They were strangers in a pre-modern world, where borders were fluid, and vast expanses of space were unmapped.

But in our world of globalisation and nation-states, every square foot of land has become territory, belonging to countries that defines themselves – and their people – as different, as unique, possessed of a certain manifest destiny. These days, we bridge thousands of miles in hours on red-eye flights, visit cultures that are alien to us,  jostle against the perceived differences of migrants, which become more amplified as geographical space becomes increasingly irrelevant.

Over the last two decades, the language of globalisation has shifted from ‘opportunity’, ‘growth’ and ‘the global market’ to ‘fear’, ‘danger’ and ‘insecurity’. And therein lies the language of racism.

The Language of Dirt

I studied sociology in university. If you’re going to tell that joke about sociology graduates, rest assured I’ve heard it before. For those who haven’t, it goes something like this:

The business graduate asks: “How do we monetise it?”
The engineering graduate asks: “How do we make it work?”
The sociology graduate asks: “Would you like fries with that, sir?”

The biggest mistake in that joke is that Sociology doesn’t necessarily equip graduates with the skill-set or tenacity to operate in a kitchen.  Sociology won’t teach you how to analyse the stock market, pitch an investor or even come up with an Excel spreadsheet.

But if there’s one area where my discipline is useful, it’s in challenging convention. Sociology dispels the myth of the commonsensical; it helps us to understand that everyday phenomena are neither common nor sensible.

Here’s a seemingly peculiar question: How do you define ‘dirt’?

Those with an empirical bent of mind would find this question obvious: Dirt is dirt. If you eat something, and it’s bad for you, your body rejects it. Whether something is dirt or not is self-evident.

Mary Douglas, pioneer in the field of social anthropology, had a vastly different definition: Dirt is matter out of place. To use the analogy that a professor at my alma mater once employed to explain this peculiar statement: ‘Hair on your head is perfectly normal, but hair in your soup is unacceptable’.

Dirt can only be understood in relation to its context. Dirt is only ‘dirty’ when it exists in relation to a foreign environment. Mary Douglas was speaking, quite specifically, about ritual taboos and religious purity, but perhaps there are correlations to be found in the way we speak of race.

Racial prejudice is couched in the language of dirt and danger. It is perhaps interesting to note that racially charged language often centers on the binary between dirt and purity, danger and security, ‘us’ and ‘them’. Slurs and stereotypes are based on the rhetoric of fear towards contamination: ‘Chinese people eat disgusting food’; ‘Indians are smelly’; ‘Europeans don’t bathe’; ‘Mexicans are drug dealers’. Dirty Pollack, Greasy-haired Spick. The anger that immigrants face is couched in their perceived differences, in their being out of place.

In the 19th century, American colonialists would regulate the bodies of Filipino natives, drawing a distinction between the ‘civilised’, white body, and the unsanitary conditions of the ‘less civilised’ indigenous population. During the Mau Mau rebellion of the mid-1950s, tales abound about the Kenyan populations engaging in ‘murder, blood-drinking, cannibalism and necrophiliac bestiality’.

When people resort to the language of dirt to explain cultural difference, the subtext is: You are different. You are ‘dirt’.  We don’t understand you, and therefore we fear you.

The Language of Danger

Here’s another bizarre-sounding theory: Race doesn’t exist, but racism does.

It’s strange when an idea is real, but the thing itself is is illusory.

Beyond a few notable exceptions, scientists, anthropologists and geneticist have largely concurred that there is no genetic basis  to back up our current notions of race.  There is no genetic sequence unique to blacks, whites, East Asians or South Asians. What we refer to as ‘race’ is merely a set of random distinctions based on two vastly different factors: phenotype – perceived differences of skin tone, eye colour, waviness of hair – and the cultural ethnicity in which a person was brought up.

While scientists have found genetic differences in population, researchers of the US Genome Project has unearthed the fact that genetic diseases – Sickle Cell, for example – has more to do with ancestry and geography than it does with our commonly understood categorisations of race.

If race is an outdated concept, why then does racism still exist?

Jane Elliot, an anti-racism activist and former school teacher, conducted an experiment in 1968, to highlight how arbitrary our prejudices are. She divided a classroom of third-graders based on whether they had blue or brown eyes. Blue-eyed children were given benefits: Extra recess time; a second helping of food; greater attention during class discussions. Brown-eyed children were told that they were less intelligent, were scolded for the same type of behavior that blue-eyed children managed to get away with and were forced to sit at the back of the classroom.

It took less than a day before discrimination between blue and brown-eyed students started to occur.

While racism itself is learned behaviour, the fear that drives us to stereotype based on arbitrary differences is quite possibly based on something more ingrained.

The human brain likes patterns: It allows us to categorise the world into neat groups. It is far easier for our minds to process and organise new information when we can use a shorthand to assess individuals and collectives.

Our brains also tend to try to make meaningful patterns out of random data. It’s an adaptive trait, one that allowed our evolutionary ancestors to perceive and make sense of patterns in the world around them. Some of these patterns helped us to survive in hostile surroundings, but pattern recognition is not a rational process. Which makes sense, seeing that it wouldn’t be very useful if our ancestors had to philosophize about danger every time they saw a large predator, red in tooth and claw, barreling towards them. 

The problem is that pattern recognition can be a blunt tool, one that can be manipulated based on the conditioning we receive from our surroundings, and the input that we receive from the people around us.

Racism is a learned pattern of behaviour, one that is driven by our baser instincts, our tendencies to try to make sense of a world that is diverse and complex. Studies have found that oxytocin, the chemical responsible for love, also contributes to intolerance and intergroup violence. When we resort to the language of fear and pollution, we are hardwiring our brains – and the brains of those around us – to perceive patterns that are not really there, to make distinctions between groups there are like ‘us’, and groups that are like ‘them’.

When we indulge in the language of stereotypes, we are amplifying the differences between ‘us’ and ‘them’, feeding beliefs about patterns that exist only in our minds.

The Language of Change

All over the world, walls are being built to keep out dangerous elements. These walls are not just physical, but conceptual in nature. Walls can seem alluring: They keep us pure from the pollutive elements of difference; they keep us safe from those we don’t understand.

The language of policy and politics can have the effect of making us fear the differences that we don’t understand.  I don’t mean the overt racism of a Donald Trump or a Golden Dawn; regardless of intent, the language of policies and institutions have an impact on both migrants and minorities. A policy meant to fight crime can cause the incarceration of an entire generation. British colonial policy from the late 19th century – which separated the diverse ethnic population of the Malay Peninsula into the racial categories of Chinese, Malayan and Indian – still has an impact on Singapore and Malaysia today.

Perhaps I’m naive, but I believe that these social institutions do not wholly define us as individuals. We all have the capacity to be prejudiced, to fear superficial differences, to slur and shun and fear those who seem different from the tribe we grew up with.

We don’t need politicians to build walls for us; when we edge away from a migrant worker on a train, alienate a foreign student for speaking in a different accent or use racist language that amplifies our differences, we are building walls of our own. I believe that the words we speak – and the ideas we espouse – are crucial in shaping our understanding of the world.

We can choose to accept prejudice, indulge in the language of stereotypes, and amplify the differences in easily-discerned patterns.

Or we can choose to reject these walls.

We can choose to understand instead of discriminate, empathise instead of stereotype. We have the universal capacity to empathise, to understand the differences in our cultures, and the similarities we share beneath them.

All around the world, there are walls being built.

But if we understand where our fears come from, perhaps we can – in our own small ways – begin to dismantle them.

Raphael Lim

about Raphael

Raphael has interviewed Superman, gotten choked out by mixed martial artists, and sworn off food for a week without ending up looking like Gandhi. Yes, truth can be stranger than fiction. You can read his scribblings primarily in the Disrupter and Storyteller sections. He can be reached at

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