About being racist and being human

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By Natalie Tan

There has been a lot of dialogue recently about the many shades of racism in Singapore. I’d like to think that Munah and Hirzi started the ball rolling because it makes for an almost romantic story arc – comedic duo launches an incendiary music video parody and trail blazes a discussion on race, but unfortunately the rational part of me (which is like probably 2% of me) says that the voices have always been around.

They just haven’t been given due attention, and maybe the public majority only entertains uncomfortable issues on race when the issues are, well, entertaining.

We don’t like to talk about race because it’s immediately personal and accusatory. We all have a race, and by extension we all are implicated in the downward-spiraling privilege bingo game.

There’s Chinese privilege and white privilege and able-bodied privilege and male privilege and cis-gendered privilege and straight privilege and privilege privilege, and before you know it, you’ve won some lousy travel Scrabble set you never asked for. This is a shit game nobody wants to play. That’s the thing:

Nobody thinks of themselves as racist. Nobody thinks they are an asshole.

How could I possibly be racist? How could I be privileged? My life has been so difficult.

Well, as always, the truth resists simplicity. Racism is more than a few off-colour remarks between two individuals, it’s not just hatred between people who happen to be of a different race. It’s most certainly not something inherent in the word “black”. It’s also not a card a minority can play when they get in trouble, neither is it a fun online debate that one engages in on the weekends. It’s an entrenched social problem, built on thousands of years of conflict, and for many people, it’s their lives.

Racism is systemic.

Let’s look at an example that’s close to home (Singapore). If you’re a Chinese person and someone from a minority race says you’re being racist, it would be tempting to conclude that all is fair in love, war and in racism, because everyone has equal footing to be nasty about skin colour. It’s an inconvenience and sometimes a necessary evil in a dog-eat-dog world. If someone points out that they’ve been mislabeled and degraded as a  dark-skinned Ah Neh their whole lives, you could point out that sometimes Indian people would say things about Chinese people being money-obsessed con men. Aiyah, life is like that one. Live with it lor. What to do. 

But we’re not just isolated individuals making mean comments from time to time – we all belong in a society and we are wired into the corresponding set of sociopolitical circumstances. Take for example the job market in Singapore. It is often a requirement for job-seekers to be fluent in Mandarin Chinese to apply for positions, and these range from menial positions to high-skilled professions.

On the lower end, with an influx of Chinese nationals doing the lower-paying jobs that Singaporean Chinese people don’t want to do, it would be more productive for everyone in the team to speak Mandarin. It’s difficult for people to pick up functional English in a work environment, and it’s socially disorienting for the Chinese nationals to be placed in a foreign place and made to speak another language.

On the higher end, the powers that be have prophesied that China would be an economic powerhouse, and businesses are scrambling to get a foot through the China door. We need Chinese speakers, grunts the middle-aged Senior whatever Director. He furrows his brows. All this isn’t too much of a deal to Singaporean Chinese people because we all pass the Mandarin-speaking requirements (or so we think, but that’s another issue for another day). But what happens to the people who don’t speak Mandarin?

I don’t know about you, but it’s incredibly difficult, and almost impossible to pick up a language if you don’t grow up around people who speak it, i.e. your family isn’t Chinese. And also, suspiciously and conveniently so, the burgeoning Indian economy doesn’t seem to have the same effect on Singaporean businesses. India follows closely behind China in terms of population size, and sometimes overtakes China as the fastest growing economy. Where is the mad scramble to learn Hindi and Tamil and other Indian languages? What about the neighbouring Malaysian and Indonesian markets? Wouldn’t Malay speakers be a huge untapped resource?

Perhaps (and by perhaps I mean I’m pretty damn sure), Singaporean Chinese people get to be comfortable in Singapore, and we’re not required to go out of our way to learn new languages because we’re the majority.

Simply put, a Malay person could hold a grudge against a Chinese person, but a Malay person’s grudge can only go so far. They will still have to bow their heads to the rules Chinese people set up in this country if they want to get by, but a Chinese person will never have to do that. There are so many doors open for us to leave if we feel racially alienated.

If you’re a Chinese person reading this, when was the last time you had to learn Malay or Tamil to fit in?  

Maybe a minority gang of kids made fun of you in school, but chances are that the teacher was Chinese, most of your classmates are Chinese, the Discipline Master would be Chinese, the principal would be Chinese. You have people who will identify with you and support you everywhere you go.

Here’s a personal story: A really quiet Indian girl joined my secondary school’s drama club and I couldn’t pronounce her name, and I gave her a nickname that she did not have a hand in choosing, and everyone just went with it because almost everyone else was Chinese too. There was nothing she could do or say about it, because in this racist society, the convenience of the majority outweighs the personhood of the minority. We were bratty Chinese children who got away with it because she couldn’t fight back. If she reported this, it would have been met with the usual “Aiyah life is like that what.”

We all have the capacity to be mean, but we’re not the same size. A minority person’s snarky comment can hurt a Chinese person’s feelings, but a Chinese person’s comment can effortlessly cost someone their job.

Which brings me to the next point.

 

Cumulative Disadvantage

It seems trivial to be arguing about things like pronouncing someone’s name correctly or not having a wide enough range of BB creams for your skin tone. It’s something that a person should be able to stomach, right?

Individually yes, but these things are not random mishaps. These things are events in a long chain of disturbances based on race, and compounded, these disturbances can have an adverse effect on someone’s life.

Let’s say a Malay kid starts out in life. The Malay kid goes through school hearing how she’s not supposed to be very smart, and that her people are lazy and unreasonable. The teacher doesn’t give her as much attention.

She’s disheartened and she can’t concentrate very well, she slips a bit in her PSLE and ends up in a lower-ranking school. She’s interested in writing but there aren’t as many programmes for writing in Malay, so she doesn’t get very far with it.

There’s only three other Malay kids in her class and those people become her friends because she doesn’t feel right with the Chinese people. They keep cracking jokes in Mandarin and she can’t understand them.

She graduates from secondary school and goes to the prom but she feels out of place because everyone dresses differently, and she overhears someone making a comment about her headdress.

Meanwhile her mum tries to find a job but the bakery won’t hire a Malay person.

She needs a recommendation letter, but her teacher seems to like her Chinese classmates better – he laughs at their Mandarin jokes.

She gets financial aid for her tertiary education but her classmates make comments about how it must be because her parents are lazy and have too many children.

She goes online to shop for work clothes but the models are all Chinese girls and she doesn’t know if the clothes would look nice on a darker-skinned person.

She has a crush on someone but he laughs, he won’t date a non-Chinese.

She goes downstairs to order food but the lady at the counter insists on taking the order in Mandarin. She goes to work and her colleagues go for lunch and don’t invite her because they don’t want to go to a Halal place.

Her boss doesn’t consider her for a promotion because she doesn’t seem to have a good rapport with the rest of the team, and besides, don’t Malays settle easily in lower-paying jobs?

On and on.

It’s tiring, it’s everywhere. Everything is slower, everything is harder. A Chinese and Malay/Indian person could start out on the same foot but end up in very different places because Chinese people don’t have to jump through hoops to get by.

 

Visibility is power.

You might think that we’re not stupid enough to confuse reality with the images we see in advertising and on TV, but you’d be wrong. Humans are precisely that stupid. We started dreaming in colour only after colour was introduced to television in the 60s – it didn’t matter what our lives actually looked like, the TV scape took over to form what we thought of the world.

What we see on billboards and posters are representations of ideals which are influenced by consumer decisions. It’s a cycle where the market responds to what people are buying and people respond by absorbing the images of perfection. Condominium ads, magazine covers, blogshop models etc constitute this phenomenon. When we see something, we want to buy it, and when we buy it, we support it. And what do we see?

(Apologies for the pixelated pictures, I didn’t care enough to find high-res shots.) These are the past covers for Her World in the last year or so. Bonus points for you folks if you google the covers for Female magazine. Her World Singapore only circulates in Singapore by the way, it’s not “international” or whatever.

Is it proportionate to the demographic spread in Singapore? Hardly. If it were there would be at least one Malay or Indian person. And I know for a fact that the fashion industry is very explicit about excluding certain races from modelling jobs. The casting calls state plainly and matter-of-factly that they only want Eurasian or Chinese models. Their prerogative is to craft a lifestyle for people to covet, and the Eurasian Chinese look is part of that lifestyle. We think lighter-skinned people are prettier, and the magazines put them on covers, and we think that we must be right because the magazine placement confirms it. It’s all arbitrary, but it has such debilitating effects on the real life individuals in our society.

I don’t think there’s a real objective standard to measuring beauty, especially on the grounds of race. If you want to go all Darwinian on me, people with darker skin and eyes (greater amounts of melanin) would do better in the sun. Logically, they should be viewed as healthier ergo more beautiful when we’re right smack on the equator. (So sorry boys, the survival-of-fittest theory doesn’t apply here, you’re going to have to admit that you just don’t like girls with darker skin, and you’ve been influenced by the media and the people around you to think that way.)

Empathy (and the Lack Thereof)

The title for this post is precocious, but I really think the issue needs to be somewhat addressed. It’s what makes the topic of racism so tricky, because it grips at problems like what it means to be human and to see humanness in another person.

Ok, so I’ve explained just a little about what racism is, and the question that remains is,

So?

Maybe any given set of people would abuse their power and exploit their position if they’re in the majority seat. This could happen with any combination of population numbers or historical incidents. We will never know because it’s something we can never test. And what’s the point of ruling a nation unless you can extract benefits from it for people like you right?

When a minority has something to say about racism, it’s hard to listen because we aren’t used to caring about something that doesn’t benefit us. There’s almost nothing in it for Chinese people to do something about the racism in Singapore, and maybe general society would be better off and general society includes Chinese people, but that’s just a maybe, and besides, I don’t think that should be our incentive. It’s selfish. We only want to intervene when we get something too.

But that’s the thing isn’t it, the world is so huge. There are 7 billion people on this earth, and there are so many stories and lives that don’t involve you at all. You have to get used to the idea that not everything is about yourself or your experiences, and start genuinely caring about other people, because we’re all human. We all have childhoods and aspirations and memories. And we are all just trying to live. I don’t know, I just think it’s basic human decency to help someone out when they’re not doing so well.

So if you’re Singaporean Chinese, do us a favour and try to act against racism k? Maybe you can start by spelling your colleague’s name correctly, and it wouldn’t kill you to hire an Indian Gongcha cashier.

This article was first published by Natalie on her blog, tskheragain.com and reproduced with permission