I have been away from home for a while now but this week, home feels a little further away.
For those who have managed to miss it or who aren’t from Singapore, here’s the gist of it. Local actor Shrey Bhargava wrote in a Facebook post how he was asked to exaggerate an Indian accent when auditioning for a role in Jack Neo’s Ah Boys To Men 4, which is a local film about army life for male Singaporeans. He was offended, but he did it, and felt disgusted after.
Side note: I’ve been asked to ‘perform’ a Singlish accent among foreign friends before. I did it once, everyone laughed in delight, and I felt that same disgust immediately after. My ethnicity, my nationality, the way I speak in the company of friends and family, is not a party trick. An exaggeration of your identity is not for anyone else’s amusement. Even among foreign friends I sometimes spontaneously break out the Singlish but here’s the difference: doing it because you want to and doing it on request are worlds apart.
Shrey subsequently wrote this post. Many fellow minorities have come out to share similar experiences. Many Chinese Singaporeans have expressed regret, shame, anger. But so many people. SO many people. Have now come out of the woodwork waving a “LOL guess what everyone I’m kinda racist” flag, previously hidden under their beds, previously only taken out in the company of like-minded friends.
I write this as a minority. I write this as someone who has only ever known what it is to be a minority. I have written about racism in Singapore before, and like any minority, I have a lifetime of experiences and examples I could share.
But this week, my heart hangs heavier than it ever has before. For the first time, people I’ve known for years have come out to rant about the validity of Shrey’s experience. “It’s just comedy,” they say.
And you know what? It’s fine if you, as someone who has enjoyed the privilege of being the majority, don’t know what it’s like, or if you can’t imagine why it hurts. But no one who has decided to join the angry mob dedicated to the very public lowering of our flag has stopped to first ask – “Is that how it feels? I had no idea.” And I really wish they had asked; I still hope some will.
You don’t get to decide that just because you don’t know how it feels, the rejection, shame, fear and occasional self-loathing that often comes with being a minority is invalid or should be invisible. Make an effort to understand instead of denying the deep-rooted racism our allegedly racially harmonious country has.
Today, I am especially grateful for my Chinese friends who have stood up tall against other members of the majority race who demean and invalidate the experiences they will never have the misfortune of knowing. In the same way I believe men are a key part of feminism and equality, the ethnic majority has a voice they can use for good. Not like xiaxue. Please don’t be like xiaxue.
But we need to look at the fact that it took one Facebook post to tear a nation in two. It took one man saying, “This is what happened. This is how I feel and it sucks,” before thousands jumped on his words to loudly invalidate them. I get it. It’s uncomfortable to acknowledge the discomfort of others. But if for the sake of our continued comfort we disallow room for honesty, for discussion, for understanding, then our racial harmony is a sham, and a shallow one too.
It feels like this week we, as a country, have failed to live by what we recite in our pledge, what we claim to celebrate as a multi-ethnic nation.
Think of it this way: If it’s uncomfortable for someone in the majority to acknowledge that our country
is racist AF has a long way to go, imagine how it feels for the those who have lived it their whole lives. It isn’t just national pride or illusions of harmony at stake. It’s the dull thud that comes with realisation that in your home country, your identity has been deemed worth less than the entertainment of others, that your real experiences have been voted unfavourable, unworthy of further discussion and understanding. We’ll be ok just don’t talk about it shhhhhh.
I don’t write this in anger, or in hatred. I write this as a member of the minority whose heart hurts this week because the spotlight has at last been shone on the deep-rooted racism many of us tried to pretend wasn’t there, and now there’ s no denying it.
The part that hurts the most is this: Even after all this time and all my own experiences, part of me still desperately wanted to believe in Singapore’s racial harmony, too.
I was recently at a women’s networking event in Beijing which included a talk followed by a dinner. The first event I’d attend by a network I’ve admired and respected for some time, I was keen to see what a roomful of empowered and inspiring women (many of whom I would get a chance to connect with that evening) would have to share and to discuss.
Enter a young man who pushes past me and a friend as we made our way to our seats. “Gotta make sure I get myself a seat ahead of you all!” he joked. Except he wasn’t, and proceeded to settle himself in a seat right in front of the speaker.
Over the course of the evening, the young man would go on to respond to many of the questions asked with questions, comments, jokes and the occasional wisecrack. It eventually came to a stage where the speaker would look to him for an opinion first— understandably, since he was increasingly vocal and not many of the rest of us were.
But, the resentment of male presence in a community event meant for women is surely contradictory to my strong beliefs of equality. In issues surrounding gender discrimination, men are our biggest allies and potentially powerful spokespeople, in the same way white people’s voices are needed in the quest for racial equality and straight voices are loud in standing up for the LGBT community.
This in turn led me to think about why exactly this young man got under my skin so quickly. Surely I should have been pleased at his enthusiasm and questions, supporting his participation in a women’s community?
And I would have been, except for one underlying fact: Way too often when men (or just the one man) are talking the loudest, women clam up. We’re so used to being talked over, or unheard, or underheard, that many of us slip into “perhaps this isn’t my time to talk” mode. As someone who’s quite capable of talking a lot, I know I do this too, and at an event meant to connect women, it made me even angrier than it usually does. This was supposed to be our space.
Now, this leads me to more discussions that have come up recently. An article I recently read in the New Yorker discusses the exclusivity of activism, among many other things. You wouldn’t understand because you’re not an East Asian immigrant. Unless you’re a woman of colour, this isn’t your battle to fight. Try being a gay black male and then we’ll talk. The list goes on; we’re protective of everything that we are, including how we are discriminated against.
A recent conversation I had on Facebook saw me (an ethnic minority) arguing against the idea that other ethnic minorities had no place in movements like #BlackLivesMatter, only to be put down by other ethnic minorities for suggesting that my voice was valid. I always begin any suggestion of solidarity with the assurance that I don’t know what it’s like to be a black man who has been pulled over for no reason too many times (which is once and above), but I sure do know what it’s like to be treated with scorn, disgust, or hate because of my ethnicity. Surely in this shared discrimination — with the vast difference of their scale in mind, always — we can find solace in each other as fellow recipients and opponents of injustice.
je suis charlie in China
I recently shared these thoughts with a gay friend, and we agreed that allies are essential, as is knowing that the experiences you bring are not comparable to those you stand in support of. I’m not about to say I know what it’s like to be with a gay partner in a place that’s hostile to your love, or to worry about where I can marry, but my own experiences with discrimination of race and gender, if nothing else, allow me a (shadow of an) understanding of those with a struggle far greater than I could ever face.
my multiracial love is a walk in the park
At the women’s talk, there was another man. He sat further to the back, and he participated by listening; he was present, but he never took the spotlight. At LGBT rallies and events, I wear my rainbows with pride and I march along as an LGBT ally. But when there’s a time to talk, I spend most of it listening. And sure, I can tweet the hell out of #BlackLivesMatter and have a better understanding of the issue as a brown woman and co-recipient of racial discrimination. But you won’t find me at the front of the line because I don’t believe this is my podium to stand on. You will find me behind you, as an ally — and as an activist.
Before we jump on the latest activism bandwagon — or before we push anyone off it — let’s stop to think about the role we, as individuals, have to play in any cause, in any protest, or in any fight and decide if our place is as a leader, a supporter, or an ally.
Might we then march together, stronger, with the understanding that perhaps not every battle is ours to fight, but every battle is better fought with one more voice behind it?