Racism: Looking for solutions

May 05, 2017 09.14PM |

by Suhaile Md

This is the final article on More Than Just, a closed-door series of three dinner conversations on race and racism in Singapore. Over 20 participants attended 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, and second one here.

AFTER the many stories shared in the past two sessions, it’s clear not everything’s hunky dory in Singapore when it comes to race. So what can we do about it? That’s what the final dinner on April 21 was all about.

The evening started with participants suggesting an issue they wished to tackle, after reflecting on the problems raised in previous sessions. Responses were then organised thematically and participants grouped themselves according to the themes that resonated with them the most.

The search for solutions ensued. Most ideas were not fully formed: You can’t solve decades long issues over dinner, can you? Still, the various groups presented their thoughts to everyone after. But by the end of the night, it was clear there were two ideas participants were excited about.

1. Get em young! 

Issue: Often the majority fails to realise racism exists because they are not at the receiving end of it. As a result they don’t see the disadvantages minorities face.

Solution: Organise an inter-school camp for secondary two student leaders. The core activity would be the privilege walk, followed by moderated discussions on race.

The walk starts off with participants standing abreast. They take a step forward or backward in response to questions on whether their race affected them positively or negatively. The aim is to visually represent the gap between the racial experiences of participants. Of how people of different backgrounds get different advantages regardless of merit.

The privilege walk was also done in the Channel News Asia documentary on race last year. Minister of State Janil Puthucheary was the host. Here’s the video.

The participants chose to work with Secondary two students because the 14 year olds would have had a year to settle into their schools. And should the student leaders want to, they will have a few years before their O-levels to work on creating impact within their schools.

Interestingly, four out of the five dinner participants who discussed this issue and thought of the solution were Chinese. It was also a Chinese participant who raised the issue of the dominant race not realising racism exists in Singapore. This solution was also the overwhelming favourite amongst dinner participants.

2. Attack racism with the funnies 

Issue: People tiptoe around the racial issues far too much. While sensitivity can be good, it should not get in the way of honest conversations. How do you tackle the issue if you’re too scared to talk about it?

Solution: Eh you racist ah? card game. The idea is that if you could lighten the mood around taboo topics, people would be more willing to talk about it.

It’s similar to the popular Cards Against Humanity (CAH) game. CAH has two decks of cards: One question deck, one answer deck. Every round, someone plays a question card and everyone else provides the funniest answer card from their hand. Except that the humour works because it violates social norms – most answer cards are highly inappropriate, taboo even. It’s funny because it’s transgressive.

Cards Against Humanity. Image by Flickr user Tom Bullock. CC BY 2.0.

Eh you racist ah? decks will be filled with statements that range from the blatantly racist like “X race is _____” to the subtly racist like “you are pretty for a X race”. The “winner” of each round will wear the cone of shame. This will be followed by a discussion on why the answer is racist. Essentially, said a participant, “the game is an icebreaker to talk about these taboo issues”.

The trick is that all the cards have racist answers. As players engage in the game, they will let their guard down and in choosing answer cards, they will have to tap into their existing racial biases. But because players can only use cards they are dealt with and not invent their own answers, no one can point an accusatory finger. It accords people a safe space to realise the racist stereotypes they have.

This of course assumes that reflective people will play the game and that they are generally ignorant, not consciously racist. It’s hard to say what, for lack of a better term, hard core racists would take away from this game.

3. The best of the rest

Most of the remaining ideas centred around raising awareness at the individual or society-wide level.

At the personal level, one group suggested creating safe spaces for victims to have a frank discussion with the person who made the racist remark. The group also pooled various suggestions on how to react during a racist encounter. For example, if the perpetrator is aggressive, just leave or it may escalate the matter. If someone holds on to racist or ignorant views, engage the person another time instead of vilifying. The aim is to change mindsets, not demonise.

At a broader level, one group thought of media campaigns. Another group decided to zoom in on educating the public on how to critically assess the online content they come across. For example, being able to distinguish fact from opinion, or being able to see issues beyond a racial lens, or being equipped to recognise and deal with their own biases.

Interestingly, throughout the night, there was only a brief mention of removing the Chinese, Malay, Indian, Others (CMIO) classification. Neither was there any chatter on affirmative action for greater representation at leadership levels nor was there talk on the Presidential Elections later this year, which is reserved for a qualified Malay candidate (read more here).

Instead it seemed there was an almost unconscious decision to work on solutions the individual could act on. Maybe it had to do with the question posed at the start of the dinner: “How would you tackle the issue?”

Not the G, not schools, not community leaders, but YOU. Maybe that’s a question we should all think about.


Featured image from TMG file.

Missed the dinner conversations on race and racism? Join the public sharing session on 20 May, 1pm. You will get to hear the stories from participants who attended the dinner series and explore race issues. Sign up here.

Also, join the facebook group to be a part of the online conversation. Click here.

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.