I recently had the unfortunate experience of being at an event which was attended by people of many different races who spoke a variety of languages. Halfway through the event, the language of the show was casually switched to Chinese. No one seemed to bat an eyelid.
In my frustration, I looked around and my eyes landed on two groups of girls made up of non-Chinese people. Thy had a look of resignation on their faces. I knew that look. I have had that look many a time. I have perfected the look. That was the look of helplessness; that look when you do not have the courage to call people out for their privilege, but at the same time, you are feeling the rage inside. That was a look that asked “Should I rock the boat?” That was a look that recognised privilege and a look that the privileged would not recognise.
In the midst of recent conversations about racism in Singapore, I found myself being unpleasantly enlightened. Not because many people felt that they were marginalized in society (that I already knew) but more dangerously because, I realized how much of the racist behaviour against me, I had internalized, justified and put up with for a good twenty odd years of my life.
As a minority person having lived all my life in Singapore, I have experienced my fair share of racism. This could range from the intentionally racist slurs to the less malicious (but nonetheless painful) casual racism. When I look back on all the racist behaviour that I had been a witness to during my school years, I discovered something rather disturbing.
A lot of the discourse surrounding racism in my life was targeted at convincing and equipping me with the skills and ability to ignore these actions and words. I have no doubt that many of the people who gave me such ‘valuable advice’ had the best of intentions; to spare me from the hurt and humiliation or to prepare me for the real world. But the fact of the matter remains that no one encouraged me to challenge the racists or their privilege, to call them out or to fight back.
Everyone just wanted me to tune out that alienating song and continue on with my life. Everyone wanted me to accept it as part of my life.
My first encounter with racism was when I was about eight or nine. I cannot remember exactly when it was. But what I do recall was that we were visiting one of my mother’s friends. I only have two memories of that day.
The first one was of my mother telling me not to touch the curry because it had beef in it and the second memory was of me crying because the other kids (who were of a different race) did not want to play with me because I was Indian. They kept speaking in a language that I did not understand and till today that moment of frustration and hurt haunts me.
I recall crying to my mother but what she did next was not memorable at all. I could only guess that she tried to appease me and probably reminded me that group harmony was far more critical.
I am sure that a lot of people who have had first-hand experience with racism would agree with me that at some point in their lives, someone in power or older than them would have told them any/some of the following:
- It’s okay. You know that it is not true. Just let it go.
- Don’t bother about what others say.
- There will always be people like this. You just have to accept it.
- We/You are the minority what. What do you expect?
- You keep saying this kind of things? No one will be friends with you.
- Don’t need to be so sensitive lah.
And for the longest time, I believed in this narrative. I have been blessed with a friendly disposition (at least that’s what those closest to me say) and therefore I had no trouble making friends of all races and religions and there were instances when they would make racist remarks. I would brush it off as their naivety and when it became too much, I would convince myself that it was just a one off incident.
And so, I began to make excuses for these people. I began to justify my friendship with them to my own conscience. The bottom line was that I was afraid that if I voiced out my unhappiness against casual racism or institutionalized racism, I would be viewed as uncooperative, disharmonious and generally a trouble maker. So I kept quiet and for the longest time, the deafening silence was all I heard.
It wasn’t easy, but over time I began to be more vocal about my grievances. I cultivated the habit of calling my friends out when they casually made racist remarks. Some of them saw the error of their ways while others accused me of being petty and sensitive. Consequently, I lost some of my friends along the way but I gained valuable knowledge about how and why I should choose my friends carefully and I am a better person for it.
There has been a lot of talk in the media about how we should address the problem of racism in Singapore. In my humble opinion, it begins with shifting the focus from the victims to the perpetrators. Instead of trying to police when the victims should take offence and how the victims should react, perhaps we could focus on encouraging them to speak up and speak out. This is very vital as many a time, the privileged are blind to their privilege. Unless they are explicitly told, they might not realize that there is a problem at all. After all, how do we solve a problem unless we allow for it to be acknowledged?
No, I do not dream of a Singapore where there is no racism. Instead I yearn for a Singapore where I can voice my feelings about being marginalized without being ignored or even worse, corrected.