Why ‘Chinese (or Indian or Malay) only’ rooms for rent aren’t racist

FEBRUARY 4 — A landlord puts out a sign as follows: “ROOM FOR RENT: MALAYSIAN CHINESE STUDENT ONLY”. Is that automatically and necessarily racist?

Think about it. The criteria includes being Malaysian and a student. Do we on that basis conclude that the landlord “discriminates” against non-Malaysians and non-students? 

Assuming No — as in, it’s simply a preference by the landlord to rent his rooms out to someone sharing his nationality and, say, he understands students have a more urgent need for rooms — then why do we have a problem with the landlord preferring a Chinese?

Or take another common Room For Rent sign: “FEMALE ONLY”.

Would anyone conclude that the landlord is sexist? I’m guessing no because obviously if the landlord is a woman she may find it awkward or even unsafe to rent her room out to a guy. 

The landlord has probably read more than a few newspaper articles about sexual assaults, or is a rather shy person herself, or has had uncomfortable experiences with guys she doesn’t know, or whatever. 

The point is, very few people would go be up in arms over her “FEMALE ONLY” criteria and label her a sexist.

So — and this is the big question, of course — why do so many people get upset because a landlord prefers to rent his/her rooms out to a person from a certain ethnic background?

The most common response I’ve received is that there is no good reason for the landlord to prefer tenants from only one race i.e. it can only be racism.

There are a few problems with this kind of answer.

The first is already alluded to above. As in, why do we let non-racial “segregation” slide so easily, but get excited about racial categories? Why don’t people get upset about landlords being “anti-non-Malaysian” or “anti-men”, but go all Prosecuting Attorney when landlords say “Chinese Only”?

Maybe the landlord’s English or BM is poor and he enjoys chatting with his tenants, thus he prefers to have a Chinese?

Maybe he enjoys cooking pork and beef and found that, duh, Chinese tenants would have no problems with that compared to the non-Chinese? 

Maybe his house has a huge Chinese altar and he’s like, okay, better rent out to Chinese instead (to avoid unnecessary complaints)?

The point is, it should not matter what his reasons are. If you can accept a landlord preferring a Malaysian tenant over a non-Malaysian without asking why, you should be able to accept a landlord preferring a Chinese/Malay/Indian one.

The second objection (to the view that renting out with a racial preference equates to racism), which flows from the first, is that it conflates preference with discrimination.

This is the kind of mind-set which associates any kind of selection based on ethnicity to be prejudicial in nature. 

It is the (near fantastical) belief in a world in which my experiences, my beliefs, my “baggage”, my background, my tastes, and my culture must be practically erased in the name of an idealistic world in which ethnicity and race have no bearing on decisions whatsoever. 

By this logic, if I spent more weeks in a year eating only Malay food I must be “racist” against non-Malay food, regardless of the number of Chinese wedding dinners I’ve attended and no matter how many times I’ve eaten at McDonald’s (because by preference of Malay food am I not privileging Malay food vendors over those from other ethnic backgrounds? Am I not playing a role in ensuring Malay restaurants get more revenue over time?)

By this logic if my mother and aunt tells me they wish I would marry a Chinese girl, they must be “racist”, no matter how many Indian and Malay friends they have, no matter how well they treat their Malay sisters-in-laws, no matter how hard they’ve fought for their Nepalese friends (because shouldn’t all women from all ethnicities be equally eligible to marry me?)

By this logic, the European Union is racist towards non-Europeans; every country “discriminates” against non-citizens and if I, as a Malaysian, fly into London and can’t immediately get as high-paying a job as my e-pen-pal Emily Kingston who’s been living there for the past 20 years, it must be because the UK is racist, right?

And so on. I think you get the point. Preferences are inevitable in personal life and society. To insist these be wiped out entirely is to live in a delusionary utopia. 

This form of thinking isn’t only a recipe for being very easily offended (because there’s simply no way reality can align with such a worldview), it also misunderstands racism.

True racism involves a singling out of one particular race to be the systematic on-going target of hostility (e.g. the American civil rights era, South African apartheid, the Chinese persecution of Uighur Muslims, the Iraqi massacre of Kurds, the marginalisation of Jews in Middle-Eastern Arab countries, etc.). In other words, we hate people from a certain race so much (or fear them, same diff) that we can’t help cursing them and seeking their marginalisation and destruction.

This is why to label as racist a landlord putting up an “Indian Only” signboard — when this same landlord probably has lots of Chinese and Malay friends — could be a category mistake. 

The landlord simply has a preference for an Indian tenant living under his roof, just like he enjoys Indian food more than pork chops, likes to watching Tamil movies over Avengers, has gone on more holidays to India than other country and, uh, prefers to date Indian women.

* This is the personal opinion of the columnist.