Racism in Indonesia

The first time I remember hating the colour of my skin I was 9. I remember being called out as dark-skinned – ‘hitam‘ as it’s said in Indonesian – by my fellow students. In the next few years, I would be called out more times for the way I looked; I would even be called a monkey – monyet – by lighter skinned peers. And this was all while I was living in Indonesia, the place I had lived all my life, there was no other place that felt like home more than Medan. But my experience is nothing compared to that of black people around the world, and of the Papuan population in Indonesia.

For the people saying that the BLM movement doesn’t affect Indonesia: racism is omnipresent in Indonesian culture. Racism is part of the fabric of everyday life. Indonesians have always been racist towards all people darker than them. You can’t address the issue of racism happening in America and not talk about racism in Indonesia and the sensitive topics related to Papua. We want Papua to continue to be a part of Indonesia: we want Papua’s riches and resources, yet Papuans are still being called smelly dirty monkeys everyday, and Papuan children are dying of malnutrition in the region with the world’s largest gold mine. Racism is not only name-calling though, racism comes in more subtle and complex forms. Some university professors still think that their Papuan students are slow and dumb. People still think that Papuans only make good labour workers.

Many Papuans tried to be exceptionally good, and to make sure other Papuans were exceptionally good too, so that local people would accept them and let go of their racist views. As my mother would tell me if I was ever upset about racism here in the Netherlands “Ade, diam-diam aja, kita ini di negara orang lain, tunjukin kalau kita itu orang baik” – Andrea, try to keep quiet, we are in another man’s country, try to show them we are good – basically saying I should not stir up trouble.

But this is not how racism works

“So long people believe that culture, ethnicity or skin colour determines capacity, behaviour, motivations, even way of thinking or lifestyle, then racism persists.” Jenny Munro’s words have stuck with me, and I find myself constantly thinking about all the implications that racism has on people of a darker colour. Their restricted freedom to move. Their safety in daily life. The jobs they aren’t hired for. The loans they don’t get. The oppression that is passed on to generations. This needs to stop.

But it’s not only that: we need to stop glorifying and obsessing with white people and white culture. We need to stop obsessing with every Bule – white person – or anak blasteran simply because they have white genes. We need to stop wanting to be white. Whitening skin products need to stop. Coloured contacts to make yourself look more ‘western’ need to stop. Obsessing with Western beauty standards needs to stop. Why can’t we celebrate the diversity of Indonesia? What happened to Bhinekka Tunggal Ika? Where is the unity in diversity? Indonesia is vast and rich in different cultures, why can’t we celebrate the differences rather than use them to push us further apart?

While I’m finishing this, I would be lying if I said I’m not afraid of the implications this will have for me and my safety. Most people forget that freedom of speech is a right not given to many. Look at the protests in West Papua in August. The government shut off all internet connection there, stopping them from being able to communicate with each other and the outside world. The government is a strong force, and they can use it for bad or good. The system needs to be shaken. Only then can big changes happen.

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