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  • Writer's pictureA.K. Lee

Challenging My Biases

I am a racist.

Those four words are hard to admit to, let alone written to be read by anyone with internet access, but they are necessary, because that is a truth about myself that I had not wanted to see.

But - though I am not white - I was biased against black people until my twenties; I had preconceived notions about thugs and criminals and druggies being predominantly black. Not only that, I have been told since I was a child that if you don't behave, the Indian men will kidnap you and those Malays are so lazy and the angmohs are sex-crazed. All these formed a hazy but omnipresent pressure to keep to "my people", to interact less with non-Chinese. These notions are racist. I had those notions, therefore I was a racist. Sometimes, these thoughts pop up again, unchallenged, which means that I still am a racist for thinking them.

Here's the thing: I have privilege. I am privileged. I was born into my privilege.

I am Chinese, in a country that has a Chinese majority. Because I am Chinese, I had fewer problems getting into elite schools. Furthermore, all the schools I attended have had fewer than ten non-Chinese students in the entire school at any time. I could take Higher Chinese classes without leaving my school compound, whereas students taking Higher Malay or Higher Tamil had to travel to a different school. I didn't have non-Chinese friends growing up. We made fun of Indian accents and Malay accents; we teased our peers if they had darker skin: you macam Malay. I was told I looked like a Malay girl; I remember being quite upset by that comment - it wasn't meant kindly, but why did I take it so hard?

Was I someone who would have actively posted hateful messages or gone out to hurt those of a different race? Of course not. But racism does not show only in its extreme form of physical or psychological or emotional violence; it shows in the small ways, it shows in a thousand little cuts, and I might have contributed to those.

I like to think I am less racist now. Much of the change in attitude stemmed from having friends of other races, and being humble and accepting correction. When I made jokes about the smell of curry, my Indian classmate in JC called me out. All she said was, "That's racist." And that was possibly the first time I was told that something I said was racist, and by implication, hurtful. I didn't like being a hurtful person; I did not want to be a hurtful person. That was the first instance. There have been a few incidences since when I caught myself thinking such thoughts, and realizing that the prejudices are within me. What's most humbling and freeing, however, is the understanding that no one else is responsible for how I speak or think or act but myself. If I didn't want to be seen as a racist, then all I needed to change was me.

It's not easy to see ourselves as being part of a system that oppresses. I cannot speak for any minority in my country, and I cannot always see where my race has benefited me. However, there are obvious signs that I am catered to. For instance, the Lunar New Year is referred to as the Chinese New Year. I can speak Mandarin in most shops and expect to be understood. About two-thirds of Parliament are Singaporean Chinese, so it's reasonable to assume that matters pertaining to the Chinese community will be addressed. English movies that are shown here usually have Chinese subtitles.

I do think that locally we have less overt racism, but there is still much work to be done to address the prejudices and biases the Chinese have towards the minority races. Be mindful of you say about people of darker skin; listen to their accounts and change ourselves where needed. Eating their food and celebrating their holidays mean little if we do not treat them with respect, if we do not have the humility to examine ourselves and call ourselves out, or let ourselves be called out.

I have other privileges. I can communicate in English very well, I have ready access to the internet, I live in a comfortable condo, I am married to a good man, I do not have major health problems, I graduated from a reputable university. But none of these were privileges I was born into. I was born a Singaporean Chinese, and I will die a Singaporean Chinese: that is the privilege I will carry from my first breath to my final sigh. I may have been born with this privilege, but I sure as hell wasn't born a racist, and I don't intend to die as one.

May we all use this moment in time to be humble, and to change powerfully and thoroughly.

Black Lives Matter. They have always done.

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