Racism is ignorance. And there’s no excuse for ignorance | Omar Rababah

Is Malta a racist country? According to anti-racism activist OMAR RABABAH, the short answer is ‘yes’; but it is a racism built on ignorance, and sustained by a policy of national exclusion. And on both those fronts, it can be countered

Omar Rababah
Omar Rababah

Racism is a global phenomenon; but different countries are underpinned by their own unique socio-demographic histories; and Malta is presumably no exception. As an activist involved in combatting local racism, at grassroots level… how would you yourself define racism, in the Maltese context?   

I think the main problem we have, in Malta, is that we don’t really understand what racism is. What is the definition of racism? Generally, it boils down to the belief that the humanity is divided into a number of different races, depending on what we look like; and that certain ‘races’ have different rights and privileges, compared to others.

It is an idea that has been perpetuated throughout history, for political reasons. For instance, the ‘scramble for Africa’. There was a drive to reduce all people of dark skin colour to the status of ‘negroids’: people who are physically strong, but who have ‘low IQ’. There was even a pseudo-science, involving measurements of the human skull, to ‘prove’ this theory. But it was all politically motivated. Today, any anthropologist will tell you that - while very minimal differences do exist, between people of different ethnicities - they do not exceed the threshold of what scientifically constitutes a ‘sub-species’.

Looking at it from a purely evolutionary angle: how are sub-species created?  It usually requires the geographical separation of a species; and over thousands of years, the two groups acquire genetic traits that are distinct from each other. But when you apply that to humans, you will find that the minor variations that do exist – from one side of the planet, to the other – do not even come close to the difference that is required to form a sub-species.

So the theory that humanity is divided into ‘different races’, simply isn’t true. The reality is that we are all members of the same species – homo sapiens – but we have adapted to different environments. Someone from Ethiopia, for example, has a very dark skin colour: because Ethiopia is close to the equator; and the human body needed to produce a higher amount of melanin. But when people started emigrating further north – where the sun is no longer as powerful – the amount of melanin began to decrease over time. Why are people in Sweden ‘as white as snow’, with blond hair and blue eyes?  Because they are much further away from the equator, than people in Ethiopia…

These are all scientific facts. I’m not making any of this up. And yet… it’s not something we are ever taught at school. I myself am 29 – almost 30 – but I am only learning about all this now: for the first time, on my own…

None of this is taught anywhere in our educational system. And this is why – to answer your question more directly – I feel that Maltese society is, in fact, racist, in the way we act, and the way we talk… but I still think that it’s not society’s fault. I would say that it’s because… we don’t know enough.

Part of your activism involves social work and community-building efforts;  but also engaging directly with people who post racist comments online.  Do you feel that – on both those levels – activists such as yourself are stepping in, to address an issue that is otherwise being ignored?

Apart from being a social worker, I also feel that I am an ‘educator’. The job of an educator is to engage with people, and try and lift them out of ignorance. And in today’s world – with the Internet at our fingertips – I really feel that there is no excuse for ignorance, anymore. With the exception of the very, very few who are perhaps illiterate… or who don’t have online access …  the vast majority has simply no excuse to persist in such ignorance.

Yet in the way we act and talk – both generally in society, and also on social media – we are, very often, behaving in a racist manner. To give just one random example: someone who complains about immigrants applying for social housing. [Imitating angry voice]: ‘What do you mean, social housing for immigrants? Social housing is for the Maltese. The Maltese come first…’

And right there – just by saying ‘the Maltese come first’ – we are already categorizing people; we are already assuming that there are different ‘types’ of people; and that some of those people have some kind of ‘divine rights’, when compared to others…

But let’s face it: the only difference between someone from Malta, and someone from Nigeria, is the luck with which they were born. I myself could very easily have been born in, say, North Korea…

Your last point – i.e., the presumed ‘difference’ between Maltese people, and other ethnicities – is the basic theme of MaltaToday’s online series, ‘Maltin Bhalek’. But there seems to be resistance to that concept, locally. It is as though there are certain ‘boxes’ that need to be ‘ticked off’, in order to qualify as being ‘Maltese’. Would you agree with that statement?

Yes. There is a tendency to ‘profile’ people along precisely those lines: and I think it is very dangerous. Why? Because this is not a ‘new’ phenomenon. It is, in fact, the same tactic that was used by terrorist dictators such as Adolf Hitler: who likewise decided on a ‘category’ – which also had boxes of its own: you had to be white, Aryan, and so on - and said: ‘These are my people’.

But… what happened to all the people who didn’t fit into those boxes? It didn’t start immediately with concentration camps. Hitler first started by isolating those people; by demonizing them, and telling them that they didn’t have the same rights as others. Then, he started putting them in [the equivalent of] ‘Hal Far’. Then he started shooting them. But when he realized that bullets cost a lot of money… he moved onto a more efficient system. And we all know what that was…

So yes: I feel that it is very dangerous, to start going down that path. Because we can never really say that we are ‘Holocaust-free’. There is no guarantee that the same thing will not happen again. As long as keep thinking of human beings in terms of different ‘categories’… the danger will remain.

But if you ask me, the real concern is that nothing is really being done about it. Let me give you an example: as a social worker, I am involved in community-building projects in places like Marsa. I meet people from Marsa; I talk to them; I listen to them; and I can confirm that: yes, those people really are concerned. The problems they complain about are not imaginary; they are real.

But what is being done, to try and find a solution to this problem? What effort is being made, so that the people of that locality get to understand each other, and find a way to live together? Nothing….

That raises the question of what can, in fact, be done. You’ve already made it clear that more education is needed in the long term; but what sort of initiatives can be taken, today, to address the problems at street-level?

Personally – and this is a proposal I have already made; and which was very well-received – I believe we have reached a point where some form of ‘means-testing’ should be introduced: so that people who have lived for a number of years in a certain locality should be given the right to vote; at least, at local council level.

Why? Because we cannot carry on with a situation where individual candidates simply ‘pick and choose’ which doors to knock on, and which to ignore. We even have councillors who do not hesitate to say: ‘we are here only to serve Maltese constituents’. I mean… how can you possibly have a ‘united society’, when people who live in the same locality – and to be clear: I’m talking about those who have lived there for some time; long enough to set down roots in the local community – are so blatantly excluded?

To stick to the same example of Marsa: how many local council candidates ever bother going into any of the shops owned by foreigners? What is even the point of going there, when there’s no chance of gaining any votes? It’s a waste of time…

But there is another problem with social exclusion. When we talk about ‘Malta’ and ‘the Maltese’ – and especially, when politicians refer to ‘the people of Malta and Gozo’… who are we really talking about? We tend to forget, it seems, the diversity of the Maltese and Gozitan people; and how much each of those different nationalities, or ethnicities, contribute to society’s well-being as a whole.

This is why, for instance, it bothered me to hear Prime Minister Robert Abela’s Christmas message, where he thanked the people for the national effort against Covid-19. ‘How proud I am, of the Maltese and Gozitan people’…

Excuse me, but…  the national effort against Covid-19 was made by all the residents of Malta and Gozo; and that includes nurses… most of whom are foreign. Besides: while I understand that politicians may feel they have to say certain things, for political reasons… they are still politicians, at the end of the day. They do not exist only for the benefit of ‘the Maltese and Gozitan people’. They are responsible for the welfare of all the people living in this country; because the decisions they take affect everybody equally.

If it were the case that taxes are only paid by ‘Maltese and Gozitans’, I’d understand. But everyone who works here, has to pay taxes.  And if everyone has the same obligations, they should also be entitled to the same rights and privileges.

This is why I believe that the right to vote should be extended to all residents, who have a clear connection to the country. First of all, it would be a recognition of the contribution those people are actually making; but it would also give them visibility. And that is what is needed most: visibility.

On that subject: there has been a drive, recently, to address the gender imbalance in parliament; as well as other areas such as LGBTiQ rights. But there hasn’t been any comparable drive to address the imbalance concerning ethnic minorities. Do you think the time has come to introduce comparable measures to ensure fair representation for minorities?

Yes, I certainly do agree with that; but not just in politics. Because visibility works both ways: it’s not just where you don’t see people… but also, where you do see them.

For instance: how long are we going to continue only ever seeing black people running after garbage trucks in the street? When are we going to go into a police station, and see black people in police uniforms? When are we going to have AFM soldiers of different ethnicity? Or employees within the Civil Service?

This is why I feel that exclusion is also discrimination. If you’ll remember, former Prime Minister Joseph Muscat had even said: ‘I don’t want Maltese people to collect garbage’. And that, on its own, automatically creates a distinction between different categories of people… there are those who are good to pick up the rubbish, and those who are not…

And yet – not to dispute your view that it amounts to discrimination – isn’t that also just a reflection of Malta’s current socio-economic realities? For let’s face it: someone does, at the end of the day, need to ‘pick up the rubbish’…  so won’t that level of discrimination always exist anyway?

Not only does ‘someone need to pick up the rubbish’… but in Malta, I would say the job of a garbage-collector, or street-sweeper, is just as important as the prime minister. For let’s face it: if the prime minister chooses to spend a couple of days in bed… OK, there’ll be problems. But if no one collects garbage for more than two days… there would be a crisis in the country. Malta would become one giant skip…

So don’t let me be misunderstood: I am not a Utopian; I understand perfectly well that there has to be a category of people to do that kind of work… but it doesn’t also mean that they have to be paid at two or three euros an hour. It doesn’t mean they have to be stripped of all human dignity. We could at least start trying to restore dignity to those people; to elevate their standard of living.

And besides: just as there are many Maltese people out there who don’t like the fact that there are foreigners in Malta… there are just as many Maltese people who want those foreigners to be here. Because they’re making money out of them.  One person I spoke to recently, even complained about the amount of foreigners in her own neighbourhood…. while at the same time, admitting to renting out an apartment to foreigners, at E700 a month.

It all ultimately boils down to the same thing: that there is a category of people who have special rights and privileges – including the right to decide, on everyone else’s behalf – and another category that exists only to serve, or work for, the other. How long can this realistically go on?