My first encounter with racism occurred when I was 22 years old but it wasn’t the thing that shocked me the most. For the past five weeks, I have been in the US for a Southeast Asian – US exchange program. I had happily embarked on my journey, having previously researched that Massachusetts was a fairly liberal place. At the back of my mind, I was kind of expecting some form of racism but when confronted with it in the back of a bar, it was as uncomfortable and unpleasant as I had imagined. One white man had came up and talked to us while we were sitting down and his friends passing by and seeing us talking, started yelling at him and berating him openly. ‘Why are you even talking to these little Asian kids?’ along with some other vulgar slurs were the words that was leveled at me and my friends. Our new-found ‘friend’ just laughed the incident off but we did not and left shortly after. It was a sudden rush of feeling strange in your own skin simply because someone had pointed it out. Yet this was not what surprised me the most.
When I was discussing with this incident with my friend, I shared how uncomfortable it was and how it made it feel. Her answer: ‘Oh this is what I experience everyday at home too.’ Her directness and mute acceptance of the situation made me pause and think. A bit of background, my friend is a Muslim in the majority Catholic Philippines community. She hails from the southern parts of the Philippines who are mostly Muslim and have been routinely discriminated against by the central government. Every aspect of her life, from education to work to housing, my friend has to deal with the casual discrimination against her religion. And so she has to accept it as part of life. When confronted with racism, she could shrug it off whereas I, the sheltered girl from Singapore, was affected by such comments.
My friend’s reaction had two effects on me: first, to grow a thicker skin and to know that not all Americans are like that and second, it humbled me and made me think about how we treat the minority races in Singapore. I have been incredibly privileged to grow up in an environment whereby I look the same and practice the same culture as most of my friends and the population. Such are the demographics in Singapore that the majority Chinese tend to dominate the conversation. Of course it is easy for us to declare that we are tolerant, we are inclusive and we are not racist. Yet, many among us do hold stereotypes of the other races and religions who we can comment on among our friends because they are well, mostly Chinese due to sheer numbers alone. These subconscious thoughts and impressions that we have do affect the way that we interact with others. ‘Oh those are just words,’ some might say, ‘I’m sure the others joke about Chinese too’. Yes, but they cannot say these words out loud because there are bound to be Chinese around. Words may be just words but yet, we don’t feel the sting of those comments as the barbs of racism are not pointed at us.
Singapore has done an impressive job of integrating different races and religions over the past 50 years and we are all equal officially. But dig a little deeper and ask how tolerant are we really? Have we ever made the effort to truly consider the feelings of the minority groups aside from the official rhethoric? Singapore has always prided itself on being a multi-racial country and perhaps it is time to listen to the softer but no less important voices from the other side.