Let’s wear our skin colour lightly

May 30, 2017 01.18PM |

by Bertha Henson

SOME people who meet me for the first time are crestfallen when they think, based on my name, they should be expecting a Caucasian. They look even more flummoxed when a stream of quintessentially Singaporean phrases issues from my mouth. Quickly, they adjust their mannerisms and language. I think they feel relieved.

I couldn’t have faked an accent to save my life. That’s because I’m no actress. I did attempt an exaggerated version of myself in an episode of The Noose. I became a caricature of my character. I am not sure I succeeded.

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So it got me wondering when a young man started complaining on Facebook about having to be more “Indian’’ than he already is. He was auditioning for a part in Ah Boyz to Men, the Jack Neo comedy. He felt disgusted at having to put on an exaggerated Indian accent when he was supposed to be portraying a Singaporean Indian doing his military service. It’s amazing the wide variety of views that his post elicited, from the heinously disgusting to outright support.

I think about the movies and television shows that I have seen all my life. I don’t think I’ve ever wondered about American comedies that take the mickey out of a person’s race, language or religion. So an African American is always a rapper and a Chinese in America always runs a restaurant while Arabs are New York taxi drivers. Each will have their own “distinctive’’ accent. Then there’s the classic British comedy Mind your language, which I find hilarious. When the comedies are great, we laugh out loud. If not, we dismiss them as lousy slapstick.

Then again, these stereotypes are not about my fellow countrymen.

These days, we talk about casual racism and Chinese privilege. (Link to our three-part article series on racism.) Usually, the minority castigates the majority for not understanding its feelings, because the majority are so secure in their, hmm, majority. This, however, shouldn’t mean that the Chinese cannot talk about other people’s race, so long as it is done maturely and not in an effort to ridicule. The Chinese, despite being the majority, lost their dialects, Chinese-medium schools and had a whole generation of lost Nantah graduates as well. So let’s not use “Chinese privilege’’ to represent all the ills that we think have beset the minorities. All of us have lost something or other in the pursuit of racial harmony.

It’s easy to get prickly about race. There’s no rationality or reason for feeling what you feel about race. You get all sensitive – even over-sensitive – about slights, whether real or imagined. Like taking offence when a bunch of people yabber on in Mandarin while non-Chinese are in their midst. In such cases, I tell them to speak English, and they always do. That, I suppose is casual racism, which I prefer to describe as poor EQ.

But if someone calls me a half-breed or chap cheng, whether casually or in a derogatory manner, I will get upset. You cannot expect me to laugh it off. If I get it all the time, then I’m likely to explode at some point. That breaking point could be when I’m told to act a part I dislike for the umpteenth time. I can, of course, insist that the script should be more politically correct and decline to take part because it demeans my race. But I would be more cautious about castigating a movie-maker’s right to cast his actors.

Also, you know what? I will still be watching comedies which supposedly denigrates other people’s race.

I can hear people now saying that those who do not know about acting, shouldn’t talk about acting. But as I said, I watch a lot of TV, and viewers should be able to pronounce on the acting.

I believe the young man is trying to surface the bigger issue of the paucity of minority roles in local productions that don’t descend into stereotypes. You can complain about the movie-maker’s lack of imagination or the script-writer’s inability to go beyond using race as a gag line. If so, it is a reflection on the quality of artistic work – or the audiences’ low-brow appreciation of slap-stick comedy. We’re moving now into the territory of artistic licence and even community norms. I’m not sure we want to go there and invite more restrictions on expression.

While I don’t stress my brain over comedies, I’ve always wondered what the Germans and Japanese, including immigrants in the US, say about Hollywood productions of war movies. So many years have passed and they still keep popping up as the villain of the piece. These days, the Chinese and North Koreans are the Americans’ favourite bogeymen – and man, their caricatures are too funny for words, even though they are not acting in a comedy. Perhaps, they’ve sent private diplomatic protests or, as the prosaic Chinese have done, invaded Hollywood to buy up movie studios.

When I think about the young man’s feelings about having to caricature himself for a role, I think about how Singaporeans react when the country’s name pops up in a television series or a movie.

I ask you: don’t you perk up when you hear Singapore mentioned?

You even wonder if the movie makers have got the Singapore skyline right… Then there’s the slight discomfort when we’re portrayed as some exotic place amid Chinese and Hindu temples or a place where hi-tech pirated software are illegally sold. That’s because an image of Singapore is being broadcast to the world – and movie-makers should get it right! Frankly, my favourite is Singapore, the pirates’ haven, in Johnny Depp’s Pirates of the Caribbean. I don’t think we can get upset about an outrageous portrayal or Singapore’s past, especially if we don’t know if it’s fact or fiction.

Perhaps, it’s because we are small in the world, so we get prickly about our place in the world. Just as members of the minority community feel insecure in the larger place called Singapore.

I suppose it all depends on the context of the supposed racial slight, and the extent of political correctness we want to achieve. Take aside race, language and religion, there are many ways to “offend’’ people in comedies. Like having someone in a handicapped role fumbling about the house or making fun of forgetful old people.

There will be people who will argue that whether or not the portrayals are comedic, these groups are unreal or segments of people have been put in a bad light. Racism is not used in such cases; the word is “tasteless’’.

Perhaps, the road to harmony is for minority members to stop thinking of ourselves as a minority – and for majority members to remember that they are in the majority.

We all have to think bigger on this little red dot – and laugh along, together.

Featured image by Sean Chong.

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