So what if you don’t mean it? The outcome is still racist
by Suhaile Md
This is the second of three articles on More Than Just, a closed-door series of three dinner conversations on race and racism in Singapore. Participants attend all three sessions and were chosen to reflect the diversity of Singapore. Names are withheld for confidentiality, to provide a safe, open space, for honest conversations. Read the first article here.
DAY two (Mar 31) of the dinner series and the stories streamed out. Of racism, in racially harmonious Singapore. Some spoke of the casual cruelty that springs from ignorance. Others lamented the broader sense of discrimination that permeates society at large.
But underlying it all, was the question: When is it racist, really?
A 28-year-old Indian male participant mentioned during the large group discussion that stereotypes do have some basis in reality, or “nuggets of truth so to speak”. He said, for example, that he found the various races can smell different. He thinks it’s due to cultural factors like diet for example. Not bad, just different.
So, when a child asks: ”Why you smell like that?”, it might just be innocent curiosity on the child’s part and the child just does not have the language or maturity to phrase it politely. Likewise for other observations, such as “why you so black?” or “why you so hairy?”.
In response, an Indian lady recalled the time in primary one when a Chinese boy refused to hold her hand. It’s something young students do when they line up during school assembly. “He said I was black… and I don’t think he meant it maliciously but it definitely affected me you know.”
He said I was black… and I don’t think he meant it maliciously but it definitely affected me you know.
Just like it affected her when “someone said my hair was so oily you could fry a fish”. And it definitely “affected me in secondary school when my classmates all spoke Mandarin, and for no reason of my own I was excluded from people with whom I could engage with”.
She said she doesn’t “attribute any malice to any of these episodes” but she wishes she was able to make her former classmates “understand that it hurts”. It’s cruel how casually ignorant questions cut.
The lady was hurt as a child because of her race. But by her own account, she did not think it was malicious. Would it be fair to call her former school mates racist? Well, the intentions may not have been racist, but the outcome certainly was.
On hearing the Indian lady’s story, a Chinese lady added: “Race really played a really big part in choosing a primary school for my daughter.”
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Why race matters in school choice
The Chinese lady is married to an Indian man. Their daughter has darker skin. Even though her daughter can “speak really good Mandarin”, the Chinese kids at the playground “just don’t talk to her at all and exclude her”.
When it was time to choose a school, the mother had three choices, a top Chinese school which was her alma-mater, a neighbourhood school nearby, and a convent school.
Following the advice of most people, she was thinking of either the top school or the school next door, “until a Eurasian mother came and talked to me and said… you want to put her in a Chinese school, you know she’s going to be so excluded from everything?”
You want to put her in a Chinese school, you know she’s going to be so excluded from everything?
Likewise for the neighbourhood school because she lived “in a new estate… with many new citizens from China and Malay(sian) Chinese.” Given her daughter’s experience at the playground, she realised it might play out the same way at school.
So she followed the advice of the Eurasian mother who had said: “Send her to convent, she’ll mix, she’ll blend in there with everybody.”
The Chinese mother’s sharing led to a discussion on how individual experiences might build up to society-wide stereotypes and consequently racial discrimination.
When a Mandarin speaking yet-not-Chinese-looking child is at risk of being ostracised on account of skin tone, what more the other races?
Furthermore, as another participant mentioned, his secondary school, a top Independent school, only had a handful of Malay students in the whole cohort of about 400. Let alone Special Assistant Plan (SAP) schools which only offers Mandarin as a second language. Are such schools racist? Do they end up allowing stereotypes to foment due to a lack of exposure to citizens of other races?
As a Eurasian man in his 40s put it, racial differences are visible. “You can see what the guy looks like but you don’t know his” background or who he is. This can lead to viewing everything through a racial lens.
When race becomes the only lens
The Eurasian participant brought up the example of the radio DJs who got into trouble a few months back. They were discussing a survey on the sleep patterns of Singaporeans. In the process, they made remarks that stereotyped certain races. They were subsequently fined by the G.
Said the participant: “They split (survey results) it according to racial lines. What is that teaching you? How is race even relevant? Let’s talk about what kind of jobs they are doing, which neighbourhoods are they living in, how are they getting to work, those are things that will teach you things that are useful that you can turn into policy or constructive discussion.
“At a certain point, even mentioning race itself becomes racist because if race has nothing to do with something, why are you even bringing it into conversation?”
At a certain point, even mentioning race itself becomes racist because if race has nothing to do with something, why are you even bringing it into conversation?
Expanding on his point, other participants said that the Chinese, Malay, Indian and Others (CMIO) categorisations in Singapore forces a racial lens on everything even if there’s no need to.
However, a Malay social service practitioner in his mid-30s felt there may be a “need to compartmentalise according to racial groups because members of a “particular community would know what works best… what will be culturally sensitive, what will not.”
That said, he added, after a certain point it blinds us. “Race is just a lens that we put on.” What about viewing the issues through another lens, like class?
Race is just a lens that we put on.
In his work, he found that a Chinese boy from a single parent household living in a rented flat has much more in common with the Malay boy with a similar background, than he did with other Chinese kids with more stable families.
At this juncture, a Chinese participant asked the Malay social service practitioner if he thought too much focus on race “hides all the other factors which are more important”.
“Definitely”, he replied.
Ghosts of policies past
For example, on the issue of drug abuse, when the social service practitioner visited prisons, he said, “for every one Chinese inmate I see, I see four or five Malays”. That’s a fact, “a reality my community is compounded with, but again we need to stop saying” it’s a Malay problem. It’s wrong to just attribute it to race.
Back in the 70s, a whole generation of Malay men were left in limbo because they were not enlisted for National Service (NS). Many of them could not find a job because they were not officially discharged from their NS obligation. Employers did not want to take the risk of hiring them. It was safer to hire someone who completed their NS.
“He can’t get a job, he just waits, NS never comes, nobody calls him, puts him in a difficult situation…” and that’s a contributing factor for the drug abuse cases. It’s a challenge the Malay Muslim community is dealing with.
This has an effect over generations, and we’re still feeling it now. Yet when the drug problem is discussed, it perpetuates stereotypes by focussing on race.
He added: “I’m not just saying this, this is actually based on academic literature I studied back in my tertiary days (as a sociology major). There are so many other structures that either work for you or against you.”
Another structural issue that came up during the discussions was on how Singapore’s elites might have blind spots when it comes to race.
Most participants, both Chinese and non-Chinese, acknowledged that a lot of top schools seem to have under-representation of minority races.
The trouble is, a participant mused, many top students and scholars come from the above mentioned top schools. They then proceed into the Military for example where it’s a predominantly Chinese background. Many parts of the Armed Forces – Army, Navy and Air Force – have little to no Malay Muslim representation especially. So it’s likely that many of these top leaders have little to no exposure interacting with minorities since their school days.
Yet, these same military leaders from lieutenant-colonels and above are channeled into various parts of the civil service or state affiliated companies where they influence policy making decisions.
Have they had the opportunity to examine pre-conceived and unchallenged stereotypes that might have calcified from their school days? Based on the stories shared, many minorities had schoolmates who had no racist intent, yet the outcomes of their actions were racist nonetheless. Maybe this is something that needs to be addressed.
TMG is the official media for More Than Just, a series of dinner talks to explore what Race and Racism mean in Singapore, and what we (as individuals, communities and society) can do to bring us to our common ideal state.
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Featured image by Sean Chong.
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