You may have heard that it’s human to err but it’s also human to point out these errors. Our eyes are trained to spot mistakes – perhaps a product of an education system that prioritises perfection over everything else. But it’s a paradox: as a species, we are quick to spot flaws in others yet often refuse to spot the same flaws within ourselves. Brexit made us wonder aloud how an entire country could go so wrong, while we raise the metaphorical pitchfork to oppose the government’s now infamous White Paper. We’re quick to #prayformanchester and criticise the recent happenings in Portland but are suddenly blind to the racist attacks happening in our own country. Of course, it’s nowhere near the scale of terrifying violence experienced in these countries. Yet at the heart of it all, there lies the silent demon we have all come to trivialise as casual racism. It rears his head periodically to spread chaos – as observed recently.
If you remove the cries of racism now surrounding the incident, it’s quite a normal situation. One guy went for an audition, felt disturbed by its events, posted it on a prominent social media platform to air his thoughts and sort out his own feelings.
Nothing to cry to the police about, right?
Probably what Shrey Bhargava thought as well when he typed out the now infamous Facebook post. It detailed how he faced casual racism in an audition for a role in Ah Boys to Men, a franchise that (in my opinion) should very well be left to rest. Having been required to amp up his natural Indian accent for comedic purposes, he went through with the act only to realise what he had done. If this were a YA novel, it’d be the point where the main character went through significant character development to emerge as a more holistic person.
Unfortunately, we are nowhere near to being in a YA novel. So instead what we get is intense backlash from majority of the population, “impassioned” rants from social “influencers” and production houses releasing generic statements to save their own skin. Adding on to that is the numerous police statements by very overly concerned citizens who I’m sure had no racist intentions. The outcome is, of course, a colossal mess that has only succeeded in putting our uneasy race relations on the national forefront.
It’s unfortunate to see Shrey painted as the harbinger of the supposed “reverse racism” when he is nothing but the catalyst. His only fault lies in the fact that he happens to be a relatively public figure, voicing out his personal opinions on a very public platform. This piece does not plan to dissect the responses or the official statements released thereafter. That calls for an entire separate article itself. This piece only hopes to echo Shrey’s message in its own manner.
The one response I do want to bring up is Pooja Nansi’s eloquent reply to the entire debacle. She talks about how we unconsciously train ourselves to hide our accents, to dilute its richness so that it remains a shadow of itself. At a young age, we accept the seemingly unchallenged hierarchy of the CMIO and try to align ourselves to the formidable C’s. We try to tone down the distinct heaviness of our tone that we inherited from our ancestors. We whittle down ourselves to become as generic as possible so as to gain easy acceptance.
To the majority who never had the pressure to camouflage how you sound so you could fit in, the debate seems unnecessary. In fact, it may even be seen as “inciting racial tensions,” a term that is so loosely used in this country that its meaning has become void. To the minority who have benefited from mocking the accents of their own people (done so by various comedians and radio jockeys), Shrey’s post calls them out in a way that makes them uncomfortable, prompting them to lash out.
But to those of us who are acutely aware of the slowly creeping realisation colouring Shrey’s post, it’s a different story. When you mock an American or British accent, you do them no disservice. Your comedic portrayal is not detrimental to their perceived image. The stereotypes that you assert through mocking majority’s accents do not depict them in a derogatory manner. However, when you sound “extra” Indian or mock the way Malays speak, you assert harmful stereotypes that haunt them. You make them ashamed of their own voice and push them to aspire to be someone else, to reject their own ethnicity.
And for all the people who assert that they would have no issues “mocking a PRC accent for the job” – that’s simply because you’re not mocking your own accent. You’re clear in your distinction between PRCs and yourselves. In fact, your underlying xenophobia surfaces in these comments.
As humans, it takes practice for us to learn how to take criticism. When we’re presented with the stark reality of our current situation, it’s easier for us to take the defensive instead of facing the mirror. Yet what makes us better is the willingness to accept other’s perspectives, to be able to admit our opinions might be wrong. Shrey posed a great opener for a discussion about race relations that could have easily gone the other way – and until we ourselves are ready to admit the flaws within us, there will always be cases of “racial tensions.”