Straddling the Two Sides of Racial Privilege

by Grace Boey

IMG_20150323_150248For some, hopping across countries means switching between being part of the racial majority and being part of the minority. A Chinese Singaporean living in America discusses what she's learned about her privilege from her experiences of racial alienation.

This past June, my home country Singapore hosted the 2015 SEA Games. This is the Southeast Asian version of the Olympics, involving eleven different countries and numerous ethnic groups. The games opened with a lavish parade attended by 50,000 people, including government ministers and foreign dignitaries from all over Southeast Asia. In line with Singapore’s usual standards, the live telecast of the opening ceremony was flawless. But what happened fifteen minutes before the show went live was a more unfortunate story. Bhavan Jaipragas, a journalist covering the event, made the following Facebook post about an interaction between the Singaporean emcee and a young Indian audience member:

“Racism by emcee at SEA Games pre-opening ceremony activity:
In an audience interaction segment before the start of the SEA Games opening ceremony at the National Stadium, emcee Sharon Au approached an Indian girl seated in the stands. The girl did not properly perform the act—saying aloud a line welcoming foreign contingents (others before her didn’t get it right too). Au, speaking into a mike and with the cameras trained on her, shockingly put on a strong Indian accent, and while shaking her head from right to left asked the girl: “What (Vat) happened? What happened?”. Earlier, she made fun of the girl’s name, Kavya, referencing “caviar”.”

What would possess an experienced entertainer to casually and distastefully appropriate another race’s accent in front of a stadium full of 50,000 people? Perhaps Iggy Azalea might understand. But to give others the benefit of some context: Au, the emcee, is ethnically Chinese. Like me, she’s a member of the majority ethnic group which makes up 75% of the Singaporean population. Ethnic Indians, on the other hand, comprise just 9% of our population. Because of their dominance, ethnic Chinese Singaporeans enjoy a ‘Chinese privilege’ that’s similar in some ways to the ‘white privilege’ enjoyed by Caucasian people in the western world. In addition to this, casual social interactions in Singapore tend to be much less ‘politically correct’ than in most parts of the western world, at least regarding race. It’s not uncommon for Indian accents to be mimicked, and for Chinese people to ‘joke’ about the darker colour of Indian skin. Chinese Singaporeans have even had their own Bollywood 'blackface' controversies. This, unfortunately, occurs even amongst more educated circles of the Chinese majority. Many of my Indian friends have begrudgingly come to accept this as part of their reality, even joking about it themselves. (My Indian friend on Facebook: Coffee girl audibly sniggered when I ordered a ‘Long Black’. So this is what sexual harassment feels like.)

Giving the prevailing culture in my country, I understand perfectly why Au felt entitled to do what she did—she had been speaking from a position of privilege and blindness that many other Singaporeans occupy. Thankfully, Au later apologised for her conduct. But I still felt ashamed on behalf of Singapore for the systemic ignorance betrayed by her comments. Strangely enough, the SEA Games incident wasn’t something that would have dismayed me so much a few years ago. Like Au seems to have been, I was blind for most of my life to the problems of Singaporean minorities. My experiences living in the USA, however, would change that completely. I made my home in New York for two years, and now live in Philadelphia. Experiencing white America as an Asian female has opened my eyes to a whole new world of race relations in the west. In doing so, it's also opened my eyes to Chinese privilege in Singapore.

* * *

Like many other Chinese Singaporeans, I grew up without the concept of racial oppression, but hyper-aware of race itself. Singaporean students are taught from a young age about the four races in Singapore—Chinese, Malay, Indian and Eurasian. Our national identity cards, which everyone receives when they turn fifteen, state our ethnic group. I was taught that not only did members of the four races get along, they had to get along, because otherwise our tiny island would fall apart.

Since I saw nothing falling apart, I assumed everyone got along just fine. Though I had few non-Chinese friends, I grew up happily eating Malay food, admiring the sharp features of Eurasian children, and wearing Indian saris to school on Racial Harmony Day. The fact that I could do this—and the fact that we celebrated a ‘Racial Harmony Day’ at all—surely signalled that all was well. The colour of my skin never caused me any trouble, so I assumed the same was true of everyone else. Or rather—it never occurred to me that the colour of anyone’s skin could ever cause them trouble. And although I grew up hearing and even making many racialised jokes about minority ethnicities, I didn’t think that they were racist—after all, jokes existed about Chinese people too. And what’s life without a little self-deprecating humour?

I was just under five when I had my first racialised experience as a minority, though I wouldn’t classify it as such until much later. My dad took up a temporary academic appointment in Maryland, and our family moved there for a year. The local elementary school had been skeptical that my two older sisters and I were up to their standards, but quickly changed their minds after seeing our test scores. For many teachers and students in that small, overwhelmingly white school, we were the first Asian people they’d ever met. One day during recess, two older kids came up to me in the playground. They waved their hands in front of my face, and spoke extremely slowly: “Doo—yoou—speeaak—Enngglisshh?

Five-year-old me wasn't bothered by the incident, and of course I don’t hold anything against those children today. It wasn’t until I was in my twenties that I’d experience racial ignorance, hostility and ‘othering’ behaviour that exceeded the innocent curiosity of kids in a playground. In my third year of my undergraduate degree, which I pursued at a Singaporean university, I went on an exchange programme to a state university in California. One of my finance classes involved doing a group project. I remember being slightly frustrated with my group members, whom I didn’t think were taking the assignment seriously. When I pushed for us to improve our final presentation, one of their Caucasian friends (who wasn’t part of the group, but was hanging around our conversation) smirked and said, “Come on, not everyone wants to take over the business world with you guys.” It wasn’t a joke. My group members looked horrified. I rolled my eyes and we moved on.

Thankfully, such explicitly hostile incidents don’t happen often. But I do frequently experience other more insiduous forms of race-based insults, or irritating and presumptuous comments from people who mean no harm. In other words—I receive microaggressions all the time. For example, people often compliment me on my English. This happens even though it’s my first language, and like all other Singaporeans of my generation, I’ve been educated in British English all my life. After I gave that particular presentation for my finance class, my professor smiled enthusiastically and said, “That was terrific! Your English is very good.”

Another thing I’ve noticed is how often people ask me, “Where are you from?”. I personally don’t mind this question, since I actually am from somewhere else, which probably shows in various ways. But I do know that this is something Asian Americans get asked all the time, which gives me a glimpse of the alienation they’re forced to endure in their own home country. Asian Americans also receive frequent compliments on their English, which I can imagine is much more insulting for them than for me. Given that their accent (unlike mine) is as American as it can get, the only reason why any other American would assume English isn't their first language is the colour of their skin.

The most annoying—and sometimes scary—thing to me is the extremely specific type of sexual harassment that come with being an Asian female in America. Never have I received so much exotification as I have on the streets of New York, where I lived for two years while pursuing my Masters. I would receive, without exaggeration, daily catcalls that made reference to my eyes, my skin, how beautiful our mixed-raced babies would be, and what was perceived to be my ethnicity. Strange men would frequently attempt to say hello to me in Korean (“annyeonghaseyo”!) and Japanese (“konichiwa!”). It almost made me feel grateful when they got it right, and greeted me in Mandarin with “Ni-hao!”, or ‘mei-nü’ (‘pretty woman’). My then-boyfriend never got to witness this, since sexual harrassment almost only ever happens when women are alone. Catcalling aside, it amazes me how many non-Asian men find it appropriate to converse with me about how much they “love Asian women”, or suffer from “yellow fever”.

Living in America as an Asian girl, I learned a few other things that I shouldn’t have had to. I’ve learned that consciously lowering the pitch of my voice often makes white males take me more seriously (it sounds ridiculous, but I swear it's true). I’ve learned that to receive better service, I must emphasise that the name I identify with is ‘Grace’, and not ‘Yong-Ai’, which is the first name on my official documents. I’ve learned that in all kinds of social circumstances, I’ll often have to repeat myself five times before I’ll really be listened to. Some places are better than others. Philosophy—the field I’m in—is known to be a terrible place for minorities, and I've had first-hand experiences of this in the past. But thankfully, the philosophy department in which I’m currently doing my PhD has been good so far.

* * *

I still return to Singapore frequently. When I do, I now notice all kinds of things I never saw growing up. It’s interesting how experience can confer on you a kind of deeper knowledge, or perhaps expertise, of social reality and oppressive structures. I now see, for example, glaring racial patterns in things like how people choose who to sit next to on buses and trains. It sticks out to me how people with different skin colours and accents are frequently treated differently by service staff in restaurants and shops. South Asian workers are so used to being ordered around that they make way for others by default; hardly anyone ever looks them in the eye. More than ever, I now notice how often privileged people around me make disparaging comments about other racial groups. I notice the racial ‘joking’ that sometimes goes on between students in the university I work at, and see how more privileged students don’t realise how their words contribute to the alienation of others. I now question why some ethnic groups are underrepresented in prestigious schools and professions in Singapore. How is it that I never saw all this growing up? Such is the power of privileged ignorance.

I’ve also come to realise that I myself have been complicit in the oppressive structures around me. I’ve failed to stop racism when I’ve witnessed it. I’ve benefited from implicit biases in favour of Chinese people. I’ve been the perpetrator of microaggressions (and some pretty macro ones too). I’m still learning about the implicit biases that I have every day. I’ve made racist jokes, and have laughed at the racist joke of others—even as my minority friends would roll their eyes. I'm sure there are many other things I've done which I've forgotten about, or didn't even register as racist. And contrary to what I’d took note of while growing up, I had heard numerous people from ethnic minorities complaining about the way they were treated. I’d just thought they were whining, or playing the victim—and then I promptly forgot about it.

I still have much to learn. Obviously, I can never hope to fully understand the unique oppression that ethnic Indians, Malays and other minorities in Singapore face, or the oppression that African and Asian Americans face. My own experience of alienation doesn’t allow me to speak for others. It’s humbling to know that there are many perspectives and injustices out there that I remain ignorant of. I recently discovered a fascinating conversation between Singaporean writers Sangeetha Thanapal and Adeline Koh, where Thanapal outlines racial inequality from her perspective as an Indian Singaporean woman. Thanapal's words smack with detail and insight that I could never achieve from my own point of view.

But what I and others like me can do is to be much more aware of how we interact with others, and to be mindful of voices describing experiences we’ve never encountered. When someone asserts the prevalence of something you’ve never seen, our natural instinct is to dismiss their claim. But now I know that when someone less privileged is speaking, our reaction should be quite the opposite. And now I understand just how legitimately someone can sense that they've been wronged, without being able to point to any explicit evidence, just because so much bias is implicitly held and expressed. There are many people out there who are recipients of large, identifiable patterns of disadvantage, who nonetheless feel handicapped to seek redress in individual cases. I now know what it’s like to feel helpless in that way. I realise now that all the people I’d dismissed, and then forgotten about, weren’t just playing the victim.

Chinese privilege in Singapore is all too real, and if it's left unchallenged, there's little hope for change. I remember sitting down a two years ago in Singapore with an insurance agent, who was an ethnically Chinese man. We struck up a conversation about New York—I was based there, and he’d visited the city many times during his previous job as a flight attendant. When I mentioned that I lived in Queens, he said, “Oh my god, I would never go there. Isn’t that where lots of black people live?” Stunned, I yelped, “Who says that? That’s so fucking racist!”—but he laughed and continued to repeat that he’d never set foot in Queens. It struck me how this man’s ignorance and cocky disdain came from a position of power—from his position as a Chinese man in Singapore, who was used to putting own people with darker skin and getting away with it. Had he spent a little more time in the USA, I’m sure he’d have realised the Asian man’s place in the American social ladder (it's arguably lower than the Asian woman’s). Had he grasped that, I wonder if he’d still harbour the same racist attitudes towards other minorities.

Moving ahead, I hope for several things. For one, I hope for more critical dialogue on racial oppression in Singapore. I'm delighted to have recently discovered that writers like Thanapal and Koh have made a project out of the issue. Singapore is in dire need of more minority voices that speak up on issues of racial alienation. But for that to happen, Chinese Singaporeans must learn to check their privilege, and listen with an open mind when minorities tell their stories.

My own experience leads me to guess that being discriminated against can make us more sensitive to the oppression of others. So I hope that privileged people, in Singapore and elsewhere, will dig deep into their own experiences of alienation to understand minority perspectives as much as they can. I hope that more people will be educated about the phenomenon of implicit bias, so they will realise that no one is immune to being an unintentional racist. And last: I hope that one day, I will be rightfully surprised to see a Chinese Singaporean adult mock an Indian child on camera.