Alfian Sa’at: Everyday Racism, So Casual And Commonplace To Its Perpetrators That It Doesn’t Register As Racism

I keep hearing from some people that ‘minorities can be racist too’. There is a rather prevalent idea that a member of a minority who gives an account of racism is seen as trying to gain some kind of moral superiority over a member of the majority. People get defensive when the racial grievance is seen as fossilising positions–the minorities as perpetual victims; the majority, oppressors by default.

There are many accounts by people who say how they’ve been on the receiving end of racism. But I don’t see that many accounts by people on the ‘giving end’. (This paucity is natural; we want others to think well of us.) And here I want to bring in the idea of everyday racism, which does not have to be driven by malice, which can arise through ignorance, negligence, and thoughtlessness; which is so casual and commonplace to its perpetrators that it doesn’t even register as racism.

So I’ll start, because I think accounts like this might shift the discussion a little. When I was still in primary school and my sister in kindergarten, I used to tease my sister that one of her classmates, R, was her boyfriend. She was at an age when having a boyfriend was Something Disgusting, not just because boys were gross but because we were a conservative Muslim household where the kids were told to cover their eyes whenever a kissing scene came on TV. I would repeat R’s name, turning it into a song, just to torment my sister, and she would tearfully run to my mother to complain.

R was an Indian boy.

There were many boys in her class. I wasn’t close enough with anyone to pick out the weird one or the annoying one. I picked out the one whom I thought would offend my sister the most. But how did I know it would annoy her? What if, by picking him, I was actually sending her the message that this was the worst of the lot? On account of nothing more than his race?

I am ashamed to recount this. I did not bully the boy directly, it was my sister who was bullied, but just because the boy was unaware of how I had picked and marked him does not mean what I did was any less despicable. The next question to ask is why did I not pick out a Chinese boy?

Because even at that age I was aware of some kind of pecking order, where the Chinese were at the top. Their large numbers told me this, the fact that they were my principal, most of my teachers, the doctor who did my check-up. At home someone might occasionally say something racist about the Chinese, but it was different from saying something racist about the Indians. For the Chinese, we could detect the grain of resentment in our voices, the envy at their position in society. But never contempt. It was impossible to have contempt for those whom you knew were above you. No, contempt was reserved for those we thought were lower than us.

And here I think, was that what some Indians thought of us too? “The majority might look down on us, but at least we have the Malays to look down on. Look at them, with their PSLE scores and their drug addicts and their divorce rates, at least we’ve got quite a lot of our own in the Cabinet. We can hold our heads up a little higher.” And maybe that’s what the different minorities do; climb over each other, tussling for the best view of the top—or perhaps the best spot where the top can notice us.

And there is no way to dislodge the top. The ‘racial balance’ will not allow for it. Given this kind of arrangement, I am often skeptical that ‘reverse racism’—that of minorities against the majority—has the same kinds of effects as that of its opposite. Yes, there is hurt both ways. But one of the directions comes with additional harm.

When I was in Secondary School, I got quite agitated by a series of jokes my Chinese friends were making (“What do you call a Malay guy in a BMW? -The chauffeur. What do you call a Malay guy in a shirt and tie? -The defendant.”) And so I pulled out one of those things I’d overheard at home: “Well at least we wash our behinds, unlike you”. After a momentary pause, one of my friends started expressing his disgust that I would touch my behind with my bare hands. Another one joined in. I was outnumbered. You can try ‘reversing’ the see-saw but the heavier guy still wins.

Not that I didn’t continue trying to retaliate. My Indian friends taught me the word ‘munjen’, meaning ‘yellow’, to refer to the Chinese. But what negative value did yellow skin have in our national culture? It certainly didn’t have the same force as ‘black-black’. What about stereotypes? ‘The Chinese are kiasu’. Oh, but that gave them a competitive edge. ‘They love gambling’. What was wrong with that? The country has two casinos. ‘Chinese features are unattractive’. And they could point out to the cover of any magazine to disprove you. Call us unattractive and what can we reach out for in our defence?

My friend once told me this story. He was observing Children’s Day in a Primary School in Malaysia. Each student was asked to bring some food to class. My friend was quite poor, but he still managed to bring a packet of peanuts. A girl had brought some Indian sweets, wrapped in banana leaf and newspaper. Everyone was supposed to exchange their foodstuffs. When the teacher saw the girl’s package, she said, “What’s that? So dirty!” The whole class joined in, a chorus of yucks and eews.

Nobody tried the girl’s sweets. My friend had wanted to, but didn’t because he was still self-conscious about his peanuts. (And how he regrets it until today; how he wishes he had tried just one sweet.) Throughout what must have been a terrible ordeal for a ten-year-old girl, my friend noticed how she had kept a half-smile on her face, eating her sweets quietly. Our moral imagination must follow her home. Did she throw away the sweets and tell her mother that everyone in school had liked them? Or did she come home and then blame her mother for making her feel the pain of her difference on a day that was meant for celebration?

Whenever I see people discuss racism it frustrates me when it devolves into jargon: ‘social justice warriors’, ‘virtue signalling’, ‘identity politics’, ‘political correctness’. As if racism was just another kind of ‘ism’ to be dissected, as if its consequences were merely hypothetical. Whenever these discussions tilt into the abstract, I remind myself that the girl in the story is real. I remember how I teared up when I first heard the story. You can say that ‘facts are not feelings’ but you cannot deny that her feelings are real. There will be more girls like her, carrying the same ball of pain in them, if we don’t learn to see ourselves in the jeering faces of her classmates.


Source: Alfian Sa’at

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