All over my various social timelines I see outrage over swastika graffiti, terror over Hail Trump nazi salutes, sadness over the hate being spat out against people of colour.
But a lot of what I’m seeing is also people urging everyone else to not talk about it. Let’s stop talking politics, let’s stop bringing up racism, let’s not look for fault in everything, let’s move on. Well, let’s not. The thing is, for people of colour, and I say this as a WOC internationally and a minority in Singapore which has a majority Chinese population, racism has been loud and clear through most of our lives.
When an unwoke Chinese friend tells you Singapore is free from racism and you’re all like
Racism is here in abundance, and it comes in many forms.
When I was little, a group of older girls went around the school bus classifying our skin tones to Singapore’s various forms of coffee. I was classified as kopi (coffee with milk). A girl further down the line was kopi-O – black coffee. Howls of (derisive) laughter ensued. It wasn’t hateful, but from a young age you’re made very aware of being different from most of the rest. Your skin colour is your whole identity whether or not you want it to be.
When I was about 10, I was casually sitting on a bench, minding my own damn business when a grandmother pulled her grandson, quite innocently sitting next to me away saying (in Chinese, which I understood jussst enough of), “Don’t sit there, she’s smelly.” A favourite among Singapore-level racist remarks reserved for darker people. Ouch, but sure. Okay. Don’t let the other kids near me, my pigmentation smells. Never mind that he was a pre-teen boy after school, and anyone who has ridden the bus knows that those are the stinkiest children of all.
A few years later I was in secondary school. For language classes, the majority of the class learns Chinese and stays in the classroom. Those of us who learn Malay would move to another classroom, along with girls from other classes. One day a relief teacher came in and said something I didn’t understand while we were on our way out. I later asked a friend and found out she said something like, “Still so many black faces!” referring to the group of us who came to school in our various shades of brown. And I hated that she had invaded our safe space and tried to separate us from the rest of our friends. We were in our own multicultural space, and we were of different colours and backgrounds. And a stranger came in and tried to us-and-them the class, and I hated her for it.
At sixteen, my best friend and I were seeking part-time work and we saw a sign at a clothing store looking to hire. So we popped in and asked, and we were told they weren’t looking for people at all. So we pushed for more, pointing out the sign outside, and were finally told: They were looking for Chinese people. They weren’t going to hire people like us. Today I would have had a lot to say and do about this. I would have whipped up a name-and-shame frenzy on social media. We would’ve taken them down or we would have at least tried. This was more than 10 years ago, and we left, upset and outraged. And this was the first time an opportunity was made outrightly inaccessible to me because of my colour.
Some years ago my sister, her husband and I were at a party mostly attended by expats in Singapore, my sister and I being the only non-white people there. Somehow we, presumably by existing, pissed off an awful American woman named Alicia, who then began saying all sorts of wonderful things about us (and my sister’s white husband who was guilty by association, naturally). “If we were in my country we’d tie you to the back of a car and drag you till you were dead,” she cried, drunk, angry and full of hate.
This was the most outrightly violent of the incidents that I’ve been thinking about, and the only one, I believe, that was said with directly hateful intentions. But because it was intentional, it is also the incident that has been the least damaging of all of the above. Yes, it was awful. But she couldn’t touch us precisely because she was hateful. She had nothing but her hateful untruths. You brush yourself off and stand up taller. That’s all there was to do. But as we are seeing today, hateful untruths in large numbers are dangerous. This is where it starts.
And this is why it hurts when people tell you that you that racism isn’t as rampant as you’d think, or that you’re being too sensitive, or that these issues don’t need to be addressed. This is dangerous. It’s dangerous when people close an eye to what goes on. It adds to the problem when people blind themselves to what’s been going on to people around them for years.
“The finest trick of the devil is to persuade you that he does not exist”.
Whether in Singapore or in the US, minority groups are painfully familiar with racism. And now, people are afraid. Of travel, of existing, of all the Alicias who were there all along but are now acting out in ways once limited to their own communities. Of stupid words from bad people who in large numbers can erupt into violence. Of having once safe spaces taken away from you.
Racism is at its most dangerous when we fail to see it when it happens, when we avoid calling it out, when we don’t want to be that person who’s always going on about what’s wrong in the world.
When it happens in a big, Nazi salute swastika way, it needs to be addressed in a big way. And when it happens in small, everyday ways over lunch, on the bus, in the classroom or the office, we need to address it in our own small ways, too. The voices of the majority are now more important than ever, and allies are key in this fight.
It’s as simple as calling it out when you see it. Identifying hateful speech and actions in our own communities and making it known that it isn’t okay. Speaking up for someone who’s afraid to. Removing yourself from situations that separate and segregate and choosing to not be part of it. Your presence can be a form of resistance. Your absence can be, too.
Speak up for those who are targeted around you. Get woke. Stay woke. Now is the time.