Photo courtesy of The Conversation

Language, according to linguists, is what makes us human but the fake identities it creates can urge us to form imaginary barriers between us that have been the bane of humanity. Among the walls language has erected, unwittingly of course, is the illusory concept of race, which an overwhelming majority of us believe to be a fact. However, we will see that race is not real or concrete but pure fabrication. It has created in our minds a sense of self and other based on the different languages we happened to acquire as children. Which language a child acquires as the first language is quite fortuitous and has no necessary link with our physical selves. Our first language does not give us a distinctive biological signature which determines a so-called racial identity, which can be identified by means of any empirical test.

Consider the situation of two children – one born to Sinhala speaking parents (let’s call him Saman) and the other born to Tamil speaking parents (Arul). Suppose, by some mishap, the two babies are interchanged during the first couple of days of their birth. Now, Saman would grow up with the Tamil speaking parents forming a so-called Tamil racial identity while Arul would grow up with the Sinhala speaking parents believing him to be racially Sinhala! Suppose in their twenties Saman and Arul are persuaded to join two chauvinistic groups; Arul would be a Sinhala chauvinist and Saman a Tamil chauvinist. This situation tells us about the hollowness and the insanity of our so-called racial identity. Is it difficult to see that the labeling of these two children is equally hollow and senseless even if they are not interchanged? In either case, the racial label on them is attached not because of one’s Tamilness or Sinhalaness but purely on the language they pick up from their parents.

In fact, no scientific test would be able to identify the so called race of any infant. It is the first language they acquire and the cultural milieu in which they grow up will give them the fake identity they are forced to live with till death. Dr. E.W. Adikaram, one of our free thinkers, has this to say on the issue, “Please think over the fact that you become a Sinhalese not because you had something naturally Sinhalese but because of the belief created and imposed on you by the environment and society including your parents” (“Isn’t the nationalist a mental patient?”). It is clear that this acquired unreal racial identity can make perfectly sensible people act insanely.

The previous example shows that everyone identifies himself with the family that speaks a particular language and lives with the assumption that he belongs to a unique race that is named after the language he speaks. As he grows up, various other factors reinforce the sectarian feelings triggered by the distinctiveness of his acquired language. For example, even slight differences in clothes, customs, rituals relating to festivals, greetings, weddings, funerals and religion contribute in no small measure to further alienate human beings from one another and confine them to so called different racial groups with illusive and culturally constructed fault lines.

When we are monolingual, naturally, we will not be able to understand those who speak another language and we wrongly perceive them to be belonging to a different species. Incidentally, speaking is a bodily act and much more individualized than writing. One’s voice, tone, facial expressions, gestures and mannerisms become inseparably connected with the message and also the intent of the speaker. All these aspects are perceived by others as a significant part of his personality. In other words, they are what make him the person the others perceive him to be. Moreover, speaking is the most effective way in which humans can immediately link with one another which, by the way, makes us way ahead of the animals. Perhaps, this is why we generally voice the idea that we tend to suspect a person who is reserved in speech. We usually cannot help feeling, rightly or wrongly, that one’s speech significantly reflect much of what he is.

Just imagine how embarrassing it would be for two or more people to meet and not speak even for a few seconds. A few people meeting somewhere would be like dumb animals if they at least don’t greet one another in the first few seconds and would feel a slight hostility that would keep rising if they were to remain silent further. Thus naturally we, more or less, identify speech with the whole individuality of a person. This is why we immediately feel a sense of otherness if we don’t understand the language a person speaks. Although, this is only a communication failure, which has nothing to do with any intrinsic difference between one human being and another, we unwittingly attribute this linguistic difference to a more fundamental distinctiveness. Hence, the idea of race and racial difference.

The clothes we wear, different rituals we practice on important occasions in life, different religious figures we keep at home, differently structured holy places, different festivals, different customs, religion and even different shades of skin color have continuously strengthened our belief in a so-called racial uniqueness. Dr. Sharad Paul, New Zealand based skin cancer specialist, social entrepreneur and author says, “We have biology and we have bigotry. Now, what does biology tell us? Biology tells us that hundred thousand years ago we were one human race which came out of Africa and migrated into Europe…”

A cursory glance at human history will show that mythical beliefs have been the cause of most deadly conflicts, be they small scale or large scale clashes, resulting in genocide. Belief in itself is not destructive. Believing in something on the basis of evidence hardly leads to bigotry or intolerance. However it is belief without evidence, which is often the result of inescapable cultural conditioning of racial identity, faith in miracles, unfounded claims on the beginnings of the world, afterlife and of long established superstitions that begets unreal divisions and ignites violence.

As we have known for decades, politics has a way of accommodating and exploiting anything and everything. Politicians thrive on the nurturing and continuation of myths that create a false sense of self and other between individuals and groups. The best anyone can do to prolong eternal deprivation is to create as many walls as possible between us and them. Self-serving politicians would love it. Our own blood-spattered 30-year war is another sad evidence for the ways in which a culturally established myth about race could poison the minds of people and become politicized with catastrophic consequences.