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Casual racism is a real issue in Singapore, but how can we draw the line between harmless chat and offensive jokes?


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The George Floyd incident has triggered conversations worldwide about racism, and this is no different in multiracial, multicultural Singapore.

By now, you would have heard and read all about the George Floyd incident and how it sparked conversations about racism not just in the United States, but worldwide.

For those not in the know, Floyd, a Black man, was killed by police while being arrested. Not the first time such incidents have happened in the United States, protests were held in response to his death towards police violence against Black people. 

While it happened miles away from Singapore, discussions over racism were held in Singapore over social media. 

But what impact will the George Floyd incident have on Singapore, and its multicultural, multiracial society? Will our social fabric be affected easily, as plenty, including the ministers of the country, have pointed out previously? 

Youth.SG spoke to four individuals and all of them felt that the incident and how it subsequently created conversations and discussions worldwide shows that racism happens everywhere. 

"It impacts everyone," said registered psychologist Khairul Hilmi. "Such an incident can be a trigger point, even for people in Singapore. Our experience with racism may be different but the idea of racism is very real." 

Tasha Abdul Mutalib, who is of mixed race, added: "We may be far from what happened, but the core issues that make it matter anywhere in the world are racism, inequality and accountability.  As a minority in Singapore, I know racism exists here." 

The 32-year-old, an advisor at Tech For She, said that it is quite common to hear comments from taxi drivers about her looks, depending on whether she says that she is Chinese, Indonesian or Malay, which makes her feel uncomfortable. 

Comments about a minority's looks can make a person uncomfortable.

So she felt she could relate towards the #BlackLivesMatter movement, which to her, was about bringing attention to the fact that there is little accountability when minorities suffer or even die as a result of discrimination.

Kenneth Yeo, a 28-year-old research analyst, said that it is a lesson that Singaporeans should not take racial cohesion for granted too. 

"There is no doubt that structural racism is rampant in the US. I think Singapore is not immune to its effect," said Kenneth, who recalled the controversy about the NETS advertisement that caused unrest among the minority races last year, including several public figures. 

"Tolerance between communities is absolutely necessary to maintain the peace and stability we have enjoyed for years." 

Of course, the form of racism that has most often been discussed in Singapore is casual racism, and all three individuals were quick to point out that it is indeed an issue in Singapore. 

Tasha explained that she has been affected by this plenty of times. She said whenever she walks her dog with her partner, she gets blatantly ignored by neighbours and staff for reasons beyond her, whereas neighbours and staff would strike up conversations with her partner. 

Or when she's striking up a conversation with someone she has just met, she would be asked where she is from and be told that she does not sound like she's from Singapore. Often, she would also be asked the question "but what are you exactly?" when others try to guess her ethnicity. 

"Having people question your citizenship or ethnicity almost every time you socialise is emotionally and mentally exhausting," said Tasha. 

"Minorities get tired of being ignored, of being stared at, of repeating the same polite answers over and over." 

For Khairul, his experience in casual racism happens most often when he hears comments that attribute hard work and success to the Chinese race, and laziness to Malay. And this happens even among his group of friends.

"When I do well, my friends will tell me that they see the Chinese in me. These are casual comments, they aren't there to insult me. But you can see the mindset that's forming with just that simple remark," said Khairul. 

"Initially, I will just brush it off, because maybe they don't know that they are displaying some form of casual racism. But overtime I realised that if I do not educate and make them aware of it, it will reinforce their unconscious bias." 

As a Chinese in Singapore, Kenneth admitted that he has been blind about derogatory racial stereotypes for a long time, because it rarely happens to him.

But living in Israel in 2017 helped him to understand it better. 

"Being the Asian guy, they attached various stereotypes to me. Some of the stereotypes were positive but others were simply annoying," he said. 

How then, can we tackle the issue of casual racism, especially in Singapore's context, where it has been difficult to draw the distinctive line between harmless fun with friends and a joke that's offensive? 

Both Tasha and Khairul believe that everyone has a role to play in it, even if it's those from the minority races. 

Khairul said that part of the reason why it has been hard to draw a line is because of the typical response that when someone feels hurt, the immediate thought is that the person is "overly sensitive".

"It's about treading that line to educate them to say this is not appropriate. We, as those from the minorities, need to educate our friends more. If I don't educate, they might do the same thing to someone else who might find it very uncomfortable. 

"That way, I may put others from the same minority race in a difficult position. What everyone needs to understand is cultural sensitivity… Opportunities as such present a learning moment but everyone has to be willing to learn," said Khairul. 

Everyone has a part to play when it comes to calling out casual racism, even if it's among friends, to help others understand better. 

Tasha agreed that the line is drawn when someone feels hurt, offended, unwelcome or no longer included. But she also felt that the practice of justifying racist remarks just because there wasn't an intent to be racist should be stopped, too. 

"Harm is not decided by the offender, it is felt by the victim. You can't tell someone it doesn't hurt after you slap them; casual racism works much the same way," she said. 

"In a work or school setting these can become micro-aggressions and escalate into outright racism or discrimination if allowed to continue unaddressed. We only need to look at the multiple blackface photos and Mandarin-only orientation cheers at some of our Institutes of Higher Learning to see that. 

"It erodes trust in those we work and study with, and can affect how minorities are treated by institutions when they report such incidents - like troublemakers who create administrative work and 'spoil harmless fun'." 

She added that as Singaporeans, we have to learn to see past racial harmony as keeping the peace or staying silent when those we care about use racist rhetoric or stereotypes. 

"We can choose to learn by not taking minorities' complaints personally, focusing instead on a sincere apology and not centering ourselves when admitting mistakes. And saying 'sorry if I offended' is not an apology," she said. 

"It's crucial to identify how we went wrong and commit to making sure we don't repeat the same mistakes. I don't think we are there yet, but now is the time to start educating ourselves - and trying." 


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