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?
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