Is “bule” a racist word?

This was supposed to be a box text for a book I’m currently working on, but I got a little carried away. I’ll be needing to cut it back by about nine-tenths, but before I do I thought I’d share it here, as it’s always an interesting topic…

Is the Indonesian term “bule” racist?

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Bareng sama bule…

If you’re a Caucasian foreigner and you spend any time in Indonesia away from the beaten tourist track and the expat bubble, you’ll hear it: bule. It might be an excited whisper between friends as you pass in the street – “Hey, look! A bule!” Or it might come with a grin and a wave – “Hello bule!” It’s just two simple syllables (the pronunciation is “boo-lay”), but it’s a word powerfully primed for controversy.

Let’s start with the logical semantics: bule originally meant “albino”, but in its modern colloquial sense it’s generally used as a term for Caucasian foreigners. Very occasionally it might be used for a non-white Westerner, but only when their status as a Westerner trumps their skin colour – when they become, in short, an “honorary white guy” (those determined to muddy the waters of the debate always also manage to find an instance of “bule” being used to describe a tourist from Japan or Korea, but I’m inclined to dismiss those instances out of hand as atypical irrelevances – because I can. Ya-boo bule!). I’ve seen some people try to translate it as “honky”, or even as the Hawaiian word haole. But those are unequivocally hostile terms, which bule simply isn’t. As far as I’m concerned the most accurate translation is nothing more than “whitey”.

So bule is unquestionably a racial designation, but is it actually racist? This is a question that has been stirring up endlessly furious debate on internet forums and in expat bars for years – debate which, incidentally, leaves 99 percent of Indonesians utterly baffled; as far as they’re concerned it’s just a word for a white guy or gal.

Some grumpy expats – and boy, can some expats be grumpy! – like to insist emphatically that if it’s a racial designation, then it must be racist. (These grumpy expats are generally the same ones who like to claim that “Indonesia is the most racist country in the world”, and who, as they warm to their topic, frequently back it up with all sorts of vicious slurs on the intellectual and moral qualities of the entire Indonesian nation. Grumpy expats don’t have a great sense of irony, it seems.) However, as those with a little more self-awareness like to point out, for most Caucasian Westerners, living in Indonesia will simply give them their first unnerving experience of being routinely identified, and indeed overtly addressed, in terms of their own skin colour – something which is, of course, a far less novel experience for Black Americans or British Asians. It doesn’t necessarily imply racism in the word bule, and it certainly doesn’t imply that Indonesia is “the most racist country in the world”.

Very few Indonesians are even aware of the idea that the word bule might be contentious – it’s used in newspapers and on TV after all. And if they do happen upon the expat debates they are usually bemused and defensive: “But it can’t be a racist word! We don’t use it as an insult,” they protest; “we love bules! It’s just a word for white people!” The response to this from those determined to be offended is that in 1900s Mississippi, in its average daily usage the “N-word” wasn’t consciously used as an insult either; it was just “a word for black people”. They have a point, of course, but my personal riposte to this is always that any white expat in 21st-century Indonesia who tries to equate his experiences with those of Black Americans in the Deep South a century ago probably needs to check his sense of perspective…

For all those who get offended, there are plenty of other foreigners who are quite happy to use the word bule themselves. I’m one of them. I like the word. It makes me laugh. And it makes Indonesians laugh when I use it. “I’ve reclaimed it!” I once glibly proclaimed to a work colleague. He was a cleverer man than I, and he eyed me sternly, then pointed out that the very fact that a white man from a former colonial power could so easily come trotting into a postcolonial Asian nation and start casually self-designating with a racial – and possibly racist – term with laughing ironic intent said something about balances of power in identity that ought to give any self-proclaimed liberal pause for thought. In any case, it was certainly a million miles removed from the idea of some Black Americans feeling empowered to “reclaim” the “N-word” out of a centuries-long heritage of oppression and exploitation.

Ah, bule – it’s a word to make your head spin…

For what it’s worth, my personal take is this: Indonesia is not “the most racist country in the world”, and bule is not, of itself, a racist word. It’s almost never used with insulting intent – and even on the very, very rare occasions when it is, it’s in the intent, not the word, that the insult lies. Indonesia is, though, a country singularly lacking in the concept of “political correctness”. If it wasn’t, then bule certainly would be an unacceptable term, and if things one day head that way, then it will be perfectly reasonable for Caucasian foreigners to complain when they hear the word (and what’s the betting that at that point the same grumpy expats will be bemoaning the fact that in Indonesia too, we’re now blighted by “political correctness gone mad”?).

For the moment, however, being called bule doesn’t bother me one bit; and I’ll keep using the word myself. It all comes down to the fact that to be happy as a foreigner living or travelling in Indonesia, to not exist in a permanent state of frustration and rage, you need to remember that you are a foreigner, that you do look different (and that, like it or not, even if you’re on a EFL teacher’s salary, you’re also almost certainly much richer than the vast majority of the people around you). You will also inevitably often be assessed and addressed on first sight according to your skin colour – and maybe it’s actually healthy for white Westerners to experience that once in a while.

Keeping this all in perspective can be hard if you spend your time entirely in tourist or expat hotspots. But I know that when I’m riding my motorbike through some small town in the hinterlands of Java and I spot another incongruous foreigner on the street, strangely dressed and twice the size of everyone else, even I find myself staring. In fact, I sometimes have to fight the urge to shout out as I pass – “Hello mister! Hello bule!”

© Tim Hannigan 2015

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9 thoughts on “Is “bule” a racist word?

  1. Jakartass

    A few years ago, I was walking past a new father in my neighbourhood, one I’ve now lived in for some 28 years, who was sitting on his step with his baby. He said to his son, “Lihat, ada bule” (“Look, there’s a white man.”). I went back to him and politely told him that I found the term offensive, but didn’t mind being called an ‘orang barat’ (westerner) or ‘orang jangkung’ (stork-like – I’m 6ft+).

    A nearby ibu also remonstrated with the young man, obviously a newcomer, and told him in strong terms that I was ‘orang Indonesia’ (Indonesian).

    I do find the word inherently racist because it is solely based on my (skin) colour. However, once I was accepted in the community, until recently I very rarely heard it.
    …………………………………..
    In my street there are Chinese, Javanese, South Sumatrans, and Bataks (inc. my wife.) We’ve rarely had problems as a community, but resentments grew against a very loud Bugis family who moved in for a short while. The house opposite has recently been turned into the Jakarta office and occasional dormitory for a company which hires seamen. The Papuans are pleasant, but the Ambonese are even louder than Bataks and intimidating in their behaviour.

    Ergo, ethnicity is a major factor in an Indonesian’s sense of identity. I see the shouts from strangers across the street of “Ada bule!” and “Hello mister” as confirmation of a general sense of lower status, an inferiority complex, engendered through its colonial past and as reinforced by Soeharto’s ‘Pancasila democracy’ which the elite behind Jokowi continue with their nationalistic programmes.

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  2. Vino

    Some Caucasians indeed can be grumpy. Lol. “Bule” is a slang word, a corrupt of “bulai” which means “albino” and or “white”. When an Indonesian say you’re a “bule” it is most likely that he has never look the word up in KBBI (state-approved Indonesian Dictionary) nor has he intentions to use it as a derogatory remark. So, chill out people. Peace! 🙂

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  3. T. Gray Machetero (@jahkarta)

    I don’t know what bule might mean in the abstract. We all know a bit about the different ways it can be used. And I’m not aware of any basis for comparing these different meanings. Cruising through the village with sidecar and surfboard, you might care less what they call you. If you’re half Indonesian, studying in Indonesia, and a teacher singles you out for somehow looking, acting or being bule, you might care more. It’s possible, difficult and only partially satisfying to try to map all these bule identity issues here onto black-white ones in USA. As I was trying to do on my crime line. I’d be real into a comparison of gringo, farang, haole and how all that maps out, though.

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    1. Tim Hannigan Post author

      “I’d be real into a comparison of gringo, farang, haole and how all that maps out, though.”

      Me too. I’d say “gringo” has a rather different heritage – including both much closer “home territory” proximity, and direct political conflict. (I’d love to get some insight on the history of the word “bule” – when did it first come into common usage? “Londo” I’ve always assumed was an older word. I wonder if anyone knows what slang terms were in common usage for white people in, say, the time of the Indonesian Revolution.

      As for “Farang”, it comes from “Ferringhi”, which means “Frank”, and originated in the MIddle east/Eastern Mediterranean, and had particular currency during the Crusades. It then travelled eastwards. By the time it reached Southeast Asia, its origins, and its connotations of military conflict were long lost, so I’d say it is very comparable to “bule”…

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  4. empressnasigoreng

    Not a huge fan but don’t let it bother me too much. I just accept that Indonesians don’t feel the same way about descriptive personal remarks. I remember returning once after 10 years away and my old friend’s first greeting to me was a joyous “My friend! What has happened to your body?” (in reference to the fact that I had packed on a few pounds since we had last met). I am about to go back again soon and have gained even more weight so fully expecting lots of comments about that. I just hope I am not described as “bule yang gemuk”.

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  5. Bruce Pohlmann

    I’m another one (probably a cranky old man as well) who isn’t fond of the term. I first heard it from Papua kids when I lived in Papua. It wasn’t in my limited Indonesian vocabulary then, and an Aussie friend told me it meant “honky” but in a good way. Never had any non-Papuan Indonesian call me bule until I moved to Sumbawa in 2003. The TV show “Bule Masuk Kampung” was popular around that time so I tended to let it slide, although occasionally (when feeling old and cranky) I was make a point of letting people know that I didn’t like the term. And offered orang asing as an alternative.

    It’s only in the past few years that I’ve heard the term used (in relation to me) in Bali. When it’s done on the street, I just ignore it. On a few occasions some neighborhood kids tried it out on me. I dragged them off to their parents to let them know that I found their children rude and uneducated (I get some slack here as I’ve been in the kampung for 26 years). The kids never do it again.

    I do occasionally enjoy getting called a bule, when it’s by some visiting twit from Java who will call out to my neighbors (their relatives), “Look it’s a bule!” As soon as I stop and turn, I see the neighbors start laughing as they know their relatives are in for a long (and long-winded) lecture on how to address foreigners and their elders.

    So, yep, I’m not fond of it, but I generally avoid getting into discussions with other foreigners about it (with the exception of this time, of course).

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    1. Tim Hannigan Post author

      Hi Bruce, thanks for dropping by!

      I do, of course, understand the fact that many people find the term slightly irksome. In fact, though I didn’t say as much in the piece above, even I can feel a slight sting at times, particularly when the word comes in the form of a particularly banal yell from some slack-jawed teenager on the street. Bule juga manusia tauuuuu! I tend to want to shout back.

      But, after giving it a good deal of thought over the years, I’ve come to the conclusion that such a sense of outrage, real though it may be, simply lacks the broader legitimacy to make it stand up to proper interrogation.

      First up, the most significant factor, as I mention above, is that “political correctness” when it comes to racial designations just isn’t a widely understood concept in Indonesia; it just isn’t. The tentative shift to “Tionghoa” from “Cina” might be an early step towards “PC-ness”, but it’s a very small step on a very long road, and in the meantime to complain about the “un-PC” use of a racial designation which in itself is not directly racist would be akin to complaining about Indonesians’ uncouth habit of eating with a fork and spoon instead of a knife and fork – that is, utterly incomprehensible to the targets of the criticism, and smacking of a certain amount of cultural arrogance.

      The other thing is this: us Caucasians – particularly Caucasian men, and particularly Caucasian men from western Europe and its colonial offshoots – simply cannot truly comprehend the vast, almost limitless, nature of our privilege, no matter how right-on we are in our own liberal attitudes, And naturally, we’re even less equipped to grasp the true nature of the counterpoint to that same privilege.

      Being a “white guy in Indonesia” does not, for a moment, do anything to undermine that privilege, though it might occasionally undermine our own perception of it. And that’s where “bule” comes into it.

      The feeling of affronted outrage that swells in us when we get called bule (and I know it, as I admit above I feel it myself from time to time) in no way equates to the feeling a black guy in the US would have when called “n****r” by a white American. In many ways it’s actually its polar opposite. “Bule” is simply a neutral (in terms of “racism”) designation in a country without a concept of political correctness. And yet being addressed by it feels wrong and outrageous – precisely because it is an assault on our sense of privilege (though not on the privilege itself).

      (It would be wrong to say that Western Caucasians have no historical-cultural experience of being addressed by explicitly racial terms – it’s just that those terms happen to be things like tuan, sahib and bwana, which only compounds the potential sense of outrage when we get called by a status-neutral racial designation like “bule”.)

      Our privilege – both internally felt, no matter how hard we might try to resist it, and externally awarded – is not undermined by removing ourselves to a place where we become a minority; in fact it may actually be further inflated by that process. Think, for a moment, about your anecdote above about your giving the cheeky local kids a stern lecture on the use of “bule”. Then imagine some black kid on the street in America being called “n****r” by a racist white guy, and in response having that white guy up by the ear and giving him a strict talking to on the nature of political correctness… see what I mean?

      I guess my ultimate point is that, on the one hand, in a country without political correctness, we have nothing to complain about in the use of “bule” – literally nothing to complain about. And on the other hand, given our unassailable privilege it would be churlish to do so anyway…

      Ah, I can see why you don’t get into discussions of the term bule! It’s one that can run and run and run and run… :))

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  6. batuhijaupodcasts

    Hi Tim,
    Seems like this got posted twice. Sorry about that.I guess related to a WP login from one of my school podcasts (that I thought was long gone). Anyway, I think you’re overthinking this – well at least as far as my objection to bule goes. it’s not any racial connotation that bothers me, or a sense of PC. I wasn’t comparing it to a US scenario with a black kid and a racist white guy,

    Just simply a sign of a less polite society these days. Something like when a local naughty boy called one of the kampung elders “kau.” The old man looked shocked and mom gave her son a good ear twist.

    You know the old days when you kept your feet to yourself, wore a shirt in a restaurant or a public street, excused yourself when you walked past someone. The kinds of things that we old folks (Indonesian and foreign) still do, but that we see less of these days from younger folks. (I have several daughters who use the term bule freely.) I’m an elder and expect kids (and adults from outside the kampung) to refer to me in traditional ways – mister, pak all are ok with me.

    Maybe it’s just the sense of depersonalization that the term implies for me. When my kids used to (and now with my granddaughter) shout out “tourist, tourist” at tourists passing through the neighborhood, I used to give them lectures as well about it being rude. Call them Mister or Miss or just no name them (one of my tricks picked up from a linguistics professor). But, like i said, maybe I’m just getting to be a grumpy old guy, or maybe I’m just overthinking things.

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    1. Tim Hannigan Post author

      Ah-ha, I see! Well, if it’s about basic politeness then I’m with you all the way.

      I must say, though, there are still limits. Whatever annoyance I might feel when some yobo on the street bawls “Bule!”, it’s nothing to the cultural cringe when an old nenek humbly folds her hands and addresses me “Tuan”…

      (I got rid of the double posting, by the way).

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