“But you’re lucky you’re not that kind of Indian – you know, the
kind that has a unibrow and lots of arm hair and a moustache.”
Let’s be upfront about it, racial microaggressions are a very real thing.
I decided to pluck up my courage and write on this somewhat controversial topic because it’s come to my attention that I’ve, for some reason or other, been receiving a lot of racially-charged comments recently. I’m quite a tolerant person, if I dare say so myself, but sometimes too much is too much.
Let me list some recent phrases I’ve had used on me, in just the past couple weeks or so.
I’ve had the obvious ones about my skin color: “Heng you’re not that black!” ; “You’re really pretty, you know, like exotic”. I’ve had the awkward assumptions as to my origin: “做么你这么黑华语那么好?” (Loose translation: “Why you so black but Mandarin so good?”). I’ve had other people decide that my identity wasn’t a problem for them – “Oh it’s cool that you can’t read Chinese, you’re a half-blood anyway”. And of course, I’ve had the bizarre and insulting, “But you’re lucky you’re not that kind of Indian…”
Microaggressions are, as one New York Times article very succinctly describes, a term “used to describe the subtle ways that racial, ethnic, gender and other stereotypes can play out painfully in an increasingly diverse culture.”
The term itself isn’t a new one, having first been coined in the 1970s by Harvard Psychiatry Professor Dr. Chester M Pierce. In recent years however, it has transcended being used mainly in academic circles and experienced a surge in popularity, having been increasingly discussed in newspapers, magazines, websites, and what have you.
And in many ways, it precisely articulates the race-related discomforts and pressures I’ve been feeling for years now.
As a minority in Singapore, I, alongside many others I’m sure, encounter various forms of ‘racism’ on a daily basis. In addition to receiving comments like those described earlier, I’ve also in the past been on the receiving end of a lot of really racist jokes, remarks and comments.
Off the top of my head, I distinctly remember ‘Blackie’, ‘黑人牙膏’ and ‘Kamal-a-din’, which are just some of the innumerable annoying nicknames my friends gave me. The first pokes fun at the (not that dark I must add) colour of my skin, the second a reference to toothpaste brand Darlie’s slogan, and the third a very irritating play on my surname. Clearly, my friends had a pretty bad sense of humour.
I feel I must stop at this juncture and clarify that it isn’t always that racial slights bother me. I mean, life would really suck if we aren’t able to make fun of our friends from time to time, wouldn’t it? When I’m with my bff, we can hardly go 10 minutes without throwing in a badly-placed insult! In a way, it can be an endearing reminder of the closeness of our relationship.
But what I’m talking about here is more than just sarcastic banter and light-hearted, casual name-calling. Racial microaggressions are constant and recursive, and in many ways, really grating on the nerves. At times, they’re said in such an unknowing, unassuming manner that you’re unsure whether to let it slide because the perpetrator of the act didn’t realise what s/he was doing or get pissed precisely because s/he wasn’t even aware that it was completely out of line.
So, while some of my Singaporean Chinese friends reading this might chide me as being over-sensitive (granted, at times I really am), I also recognise that in the bulk of these situations, I really am not.
To offer my non-minority friends a glimpse of how fellow minorities or ‘half-bloods’ like myself constantly feel, let me quote from my Facebook friend, Alisa Maya, who’s writing captures my sentiments perfectly.
“Well it’s like this: When you go overseas and someone is rude to you, calls you names, gives you bad service because of the colour of your skin, you no doubt feel bad and maybe angry or resigned. But then you come home and you probably don’t have to ever think about experiencing racial prejudice here (assuming you ‘look Chinese’).
But brown Singaporeans; we go overseas and people may/may not be racist towards us. We come back to Singapore and people are racist towards us-usually in the subtlest ways. The ways that creep under your skin. The ways that stick for a long time in the places that are hard to wash. So I ask, when will I get to come home?”
I am very grateful that in Singapore, racial microaggressions are just that – micro. Here, minorities don’t get openly persecuted or discriminated against because of the way we speak or the colour of our skin.
Yet, while subtle, our experiences with racism here are no less real. It is unfair to discount the subtle indignities and exclusions we face on an everyday basis as irrelevant or unimportant. They’re mundane and everyday, but that doesn’t make them acceptable.
So, the next time you meet someone of a different ethnicity from yourself, be a little more mindful of your words and actions, and try not to be exclusionary in your language and tone. This may entail making subtle changes to the way you speak, for instance taking care not to use certain loanwords which some may not understand (unless you’re prepared to explain them afterwards), or avoiding comments that play on certain racial stereotypes.
And if you do happen to witness someone making a racially insensitive remark, don’t be afraid to call him/her out on it – even something as lighthearted as ‘don’t so bad la’ or ‘walao racist leh you’ would be fine.
While small, these acts can go a long way towards making society feel much more inclusive. And as a minority, myself and many others I believe, really would appreciate your efforts very much.
This article is also published on The Ridge, a student-run publication of the National University of Singapore.