By Alexandra Goh and Foo Siew Jack
With rapid globalisation in the works, our world has growingly exposed us to people of different races and cultural backgrounds, especially with gradual societal integration through immigration, government campaigns, positive media portrayal of interracial relationships, and more. In fact, Malaysia – a country known for its unique cultural diversity – is one of the best hallmarks of integration, with its broad variety of ethnic backgrounds (breakdown pictured below).
Data source: The World Atlas 2018
Thus, you can imagine the vast richness of cultural traditions that exist within Malaysia – festivities like Hari Raya, Chinese New Year, Deepavali and Hari Gawai, as well as the “rojak” language we collectively refer to as “Manglish”, come to mind. The question is: do our friend groups and relationships reflect these socio-ethnic varieties present in our society? Or are we more inclined to identify with – and thus, befriend, those who share a similar background?
As such, we have interviewed a number of students of different ethnicities to gain an insight into their opinions on the extent to which races influence their friend-choices as well as interracial relationships.
When questioned about the ethnicities of the majority of their friends, most respondents described their friend groups as a combination of racial backgrounds. Primary reasons cited were that some enjoy the sense of diversity and the ability to learn of other cultures. It could also be due to environmental circumstances (such as having the experience of living in different countries, according to one respondent) or the fact that some simply felt comfortable mixing with others regardless of their ethnicity (as long as they genuinely enjoy their company, they’re happy; a respondent said).
However, there were also respondents who prefer to interact with peers of the same race. According to these interviewees, this is stimulated by the ease of conversing with each other in the same language, having more mutual topics to talk about and finding common ground through the same sense of humour. A couple of respondents replied that they find mixing with friends of the same race generally easier as they share similar mentalities, social behaviours and understanding.
Once again, surroundings also play a part in this as well. For instance, one interviewee cited the fact that she was raised and educated in a largely same-race environment as the reason for not having much opportunity to interact with others from different racial backgrounds.
In response to the inquiry of the level of difficulty socialising with people of distinct cultures, a variety of answers followed suit. Some encounter no difficulties, whereas some struggle to mingle, especially when there exists a prominent language barrier. In fact, a respondent said that difficulties naturally occur in the beginning due to differing backgrounds and viewpoints in life – but, he emphasises, soon enough it ceases to matter as friendships form naturally with time.
Indeed, there are many factors which influence our choice of friends. As we explore the different perspectives of students on this matter, many have answered that they often look at the personalities of individuals first. Others cited that family upbringing and school environments have considerable impacts on their choice in friends as well.
Meanwhile, common interests and good communication also significantly affect who we choose to mix with, along with similar values and core beliefs. Not only will it be easier for us to express our opinions and thoughts; it also develops a sense of mutual understanding. As one interviewee said, “I think we look for people who resemble us in some way or another, and who have characteristics we value. Therefore, I don’t think it has much to do with race, but rather what we value as a person instead”.
Interestingly, when it came to relationships it was almost always a lopsided affair towards same-race couples. It is of no surprise that the older generations and those that came before them were stifled by even a mention or a whisper of interracial dating; this is especially prominent amongst Asian households. However, it may not be an extrinsic problem per se, but a more intrinsic issue that plagues this taboo. What this means is that it is often not a matter of how a person’s physical attributes differ along the racial spectrum, but how culturally different we are in the context of whether the compatibility will be at risk or not.
To put this into perspective, one respondent said, “In my opinion, attractiveness is not influenced by skin colour. But I may find it difficult to date a person with different religious views,” whereas another states, “My parents would prefer I find a same-race partner, but if I introduced them to a partner of a different race, they’ll still try to accept it despite their surprise”. This is very interesting because it supports the notion of a decline in sexual racism in today’s youth as compared to decades ago, where the media has been known to portray certain races (in this case, Asian males) in an effeminate manner – leading to the creation of a stereotype.
On the other hand, the judgments faced by those engaging in interracial relationships could sometimes be too much for them. One respondent wrote, “I’m not sure if I can ever ignore everyone’s judgments about my interracial relationship”. This indicates that society (even the youths) may still be very primitive towards the idea of interracial dating and that the fear of what others think could be one of the major reasons why this mentality still persists in the 21st century – that people will always be judgmental.
This further strengthens the hypothesis that this form of dating is limited by an intrinsic factor. Alternatively, it is important to note that many of the respondents were happy with the fact that they could learn more about other cultures and perspectives if they dated a person of a different race; as one respondent states, “It will be a great experience as it provides us with the opportunity to see the beauty in different people”.
With the information at hand, we can agree on the consensus via public opinion that dating and friendship circles are not dependent on artificial barriers but cultural differences – whether it be racially-stemmed cultural backgrounds or otherwise. As a highly diverse country in every sense, Malaysia represents a community of people understanding of one other – almost with a “rojak” kind of love and friendship. This fusion of cultures that span more races than is countable on our two hands shows that while the mentality of those before us may be controversial to the millennials of today – at least we know that the youths now are making an effort to progress and transcend into a more integrative society that champions tolerance over stereotypes and knowledge over ego.