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Singaporeans in the US gain new perspectives of racism in light of George Floyd protests

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The Singaporeans we spoke to shared more about their current situation in their respective neighbourhoods.

Over the past few days, news headlines and social media accounts around the world have been flooded with calls to raise awareness towards the #BlackLivesMatter movement.

Since the death of American citizen George Floyd on May 25, the world has seen plenty of protests and vigils happening across the United States (US) and several countries like the United Kingdom and Germany. Protesters are condemning acts of racism and "calling for an end to police brutality and injustice".

In a recent Youth.SG Instagram poll, 92 per cent of respondents heard about the George Floyd incident in the US. In the same poll, however, only 41 per cent discussed it on their social media platforms.

We spoke to two Singaporeans based in the US to find out more about their current situation in their neighbourhoods.

First reactions to the news

After Nicholas Eng read the news about George Floyd, he did not expect to be emotionally affected by it days later.

The 28-year-old, who is currently in State College, Pennsylvania, shared with Youth.SG: "Two days after I first read the news and watched the video, I couldn't help myself. For maybe four hours, I was a mess - I was just reading, watching and crying.

"I was discussing this with my friend the other day, and I was quite confused as to why that video got me so emotional.

"While there have been many cases of police brutality caught on video, I came to the conclusion that it's the first time I saw someone die on camera in a position that highlights the unequal power dynamic," said Nicholas, who just finished his first year as a PhD student at Pennsylvania State University.

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Nicholas Eng (right) with his parents (left) who visited him in Washington, D.C.
PHOTO CREDIT: NICHOLAS ENG

While 30-year-old Riane Francisco felt angry and sad about the incident, she was not shocked as this news came after several notable events.

"This news came shortly after the cruel murder of Ahmaud Arbery, and the incident of a white woman racially profiling and calling the cops on Christian Cooper. These had already kick-started important conversations on race and justice on social media and in several churches here.

"I was surprised and amazed with how fast people reacted to George Floyd's murder, through mobilisations of citizen-led initiatives and actions to demand justice and reform.

"It's not hard to see why the protests have gained the traction and support needed from both blacks and non-black allies, because I know many Americans love their country and know they can do better," said Riane.

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Riane Francisco (left) is currently staying in Northern Virginia with her Vietnamese American husband (left) and one-year-old son (centre).
PHOTO CREDIT: RIANE FRANCISCO

The current situation in their neighbourhoods

While things are relatively calm in the areas Nicholas and Riane reside in, both Singaporeans noticed a couple of protests organised in their neighbourhoods over the past few days.

Nicholas, who has been staying in the US for three years, said: "There was a protest last Sunday that I participated in. It was super peaceful, no violence. People were just people coming together to show support for the Black community, and to speak out against police brutality and racism.

"In State College, we are the little blue dot in a sea of red. So I didn't witness anyone who was outrightly racist disrupting the protests here."

For stay-at-home mum Riane, reading about the peaceful protests happening near her suburbs has changed her perceptions towards such events.

"Before I moved here, I used to think protests were pointless and a result of having too much freedom of speech. After living here, I've realised what works for Singapore can't work here and vice versa. Neither system is superior, it's just very different environments and situations.

"I'll always remember telling an American friend that protests were mostly illegal in Singapore and she asked, 'But then how does change occur??". Her question has stuck with me a lot during these times as I watch current protests unfold," recalled Riane.

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A crowd of protestors at Stage College, Pennsylvania.
PHOTO CREDIT: NICHOLAS ENG

Riane also grew a new sense of appreciation for Singapore's peaceful environment.

"I think I took peace for granted in Singapore because I've always had faith in the Singapore justice system. I'm not talking about the casual or systemic discrimination that exists in Singapore - what do you do when there's a risk of being 'accidentally' killed due to the colour of your skin?

"That's a fear many of us in Singapore will thankfully never come to realise."

Feeling safe despite tensions in other states

Despite the mass protests happening increasingly across the US, both Nicholas and Riane are thankful that they still feel safe. While there is a lot of racism towards blacks, other minorities face some forms of racism too.

"Since I've moved here, I don't think there has been any outright racism towards me. There was a funny incident where one of my colleagues asked me if I ate pizza, as though Asians don't eat anything other than rice and noodles.

"It's these little things that I just laugh about because I know people aren't trying to be racist, they just don't know," recalled Nicholas.

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A neighbourhood in the US.
PHOTO CREDIT: EMILY JO-SUTCLIFFE VIA UNSPLASH

For Riane, hearing stories from locals about their personal experiences often left her feeling frustrated.

"I've only been here two years and live in a quiet suburb so thankfully, I've not personally witnessed any form of racism. However, my husband, whose family came to the US as refugees when he was a month old, has told me stories of him being a target of racist bullying and derogatory comments. His experience isn't uncommon among the Asian American population here, especially with comments of 'go back to your own country'.

"I've also heard stories from black people in my church - one was called names by schoolmates, and another was followed through his predominantly white neighbourhood and questioned in front of his own house. The police thought he looked suspicious solely because he was black.

"It's upsetting to hear incidents like this, but let's face it, racism is rife everywhere, even in Singapore, and it is up to us to break the cycle and do better for the next generation."

Learning from the situation

Reflecting on his experience living in the US, Nicholas hopes that more people will continue talking about racism-related issues in Singapore.

"In the US, racism is just much more overt and supported by their political leaders more openly. In Singapore, racism doesn't often lead to death, but that doesn't mean that it should not be talked about.

"On that note, I think that Singapore and the US just should not be compared because they are fundamentally different. My main takeaway from this experience is that we all owe it to ourselves and the people around us to check our privileges and to reflect on what we are doing, rather than to be so focused on finger-pointing."

Meanwhile, Riane expressed her hopes for Singaporeans to start "confronting their internal biases" about racism.

"I do hope that the civil movement here kickstarts important conversations back home about race. From teaching what there is to love about different cultures to appreciating our differences, Singaporeans have the capacity for good change to happen and I'm hopeful that we can get better with each generation."

BANNER AND TEASER PHOTO CREDIT: NICHOLAS ENG AND RIANE FRANCISCO

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