Apr 2, 2016

Thinking Racially

(Was planning to post about this a long time ago, but a psych study my friend was doing reminded me about it today so here I am finally posting it, when I should be doing my assignment that was due at midnight)

In lower primary my best friend was a girl from China. We would talk on the phone every day. "What are you eating?" "fruit loops! You want some?" "Yes send it over!" *pretends to push fruit loop through the receiver* "Did you get it?" "yes, it's yummy!" We'd go over to each other's houses and play some snowman math game on the computer; her mother would speak in English to my mum, and my mum would reply in Chinese, each sharpening the other.

In Primary 4 I hung out with the cool kids. There was Sharani, Rupini, Aruna, Mardiana, Syazwani, and me. I was the only Chinese in a clique with three Indians and two Malays - I couldn't hang out with the other Chinese kids because... they all spoke Chinese, and I didn't. So I got to hang out with the cool kids. Later on all the Chinese girls also wanted to hang with them, but it got too much, and the original cool kids slunk away - "we're leaving the clique, together" - and the Chinese girls wanted to leave with them, too, but it doesn't work that way, hun.

I never really thought racially when I was young - it was never a thing for me, and no one ever talked about it: not my parents, obviously not my friends. I mean, it was fun to point out our multiracial clique when the topic of racial harmony came out in social studies or whatever, but it didn't really mean anything to me. These people were simply my friends lah. Race didn't mean much, other than the fact that I got to eat yummy chicken at Aruna's house on Deepavali, and that I got green packets on Hari Raya and marvel at Wani's maisonette. We didn't define ourselves by our ethnicities, anyway; we were defined by Hilary Duff and Avril Lavigne and Myuk pencil cases. In Primary 5 Nazeem was all the cool stuff. He rewrote Michael Jackson's Black And White for a National Day song competition in school ("they print our birthday message on the sun / I had to tell them we ate cake durian") and we got first prize!

When racial discourse became a big thing at Yale-NUS, I really didn't get the point of it. I was like, they're megaphoning about a problem that either isn't there, or to an audience that already agrees with them. But then, yknow, I have to check my Chinese Privilege. As a Chinese person I wouldn't see what my other friends might see. So I just took their word for it, and sympathised with the (quite ludicrous and shocking) instances of racism in Singapore that my friends brought up from time to time; and then I started to notice when people around me made passing racist (or prejudiced in any other way) remarks, and it really irked me, and I wished my friends wouldn't say those things, but then I'd be too timid to bring it up. But I hadn't noticed these things before. I guess being in this school allowed me to develop a sensitivity to it.

But then I also realise that because of this discourse, I have begun to think racially. I work at an F&B place, and when a Malay or Indian (or non-English-speaking Chinese, or non-Asian) person comes up to the counter, I notice it. I mean, I don't think anything less; I just notice it. If it's a Malay customer I instinctively try to guess the order, and then I try to stop myself, but I'm usually right anyway. And at first I didn't like how I was thinking racially. No, no, these things didn't even matter to me before. Why are they standing out now? They shouldn't be. If I have always been colour blind then it's a bad thing that because of the racial discourse that has been happening in my school, I have developed colour vision. I don't want to. I want to remain oblivious to colour.

When I was talking about this to a visiting Yalie - "I'm not sure if this is a good thing" - she said "I think it is." And then I started to give it more thought. I recalled the time I gave a Muslim friend Percy Pigs - "everyone likes Percy Pigs!" - it didn't even occur to me that (i) they were gummy pigs, and (ii) they contained gelatin. She pointed it out to me a year later, and I was like, OMG. I AM SO SORRY. And - well - yeah. Being racially aware means you're also being sensitive - unfortunately, it takes being cognisant of one's ethnicity to be able to be considerate towards that person, too. You don't want to forget the Halal needs of a Muslim friend who's coming over, or jio a Hindu friend out for steak, or jio a Muslim friend out for beer. That's just not being sensitive. Like how I do appreciate people being respectful of my religion around me and not swearing with Jesus' name or saying 'omfg' or mocking the Church. Like how early on in freshmen year (perhaps during orientation??) when the school was planning to hold a mandatory event on a Sunday morning, the Christians voiced out their request that the school be sensitive to their religious obligations. Like how all the toilets in Singaporean public schools have bidets for the cultural needs of the Muslims, and how public schools end classes early on Fridays so that the Muslim boys can go for prayer. (sigh, and why can't our school get this right??)

I still hate talking about things racially; writing the first few paragraphs of this post the way I did was quite unnatural and counter-intuitive; even as I was doing my friend's psychology study, I got quite irked at the frequent mention of race. And I don't like seeing people that way, putting a label. But being aware doesn't mean putting it at the forefront, but just knowing to be considerate in that area, and remembering. Imagine - if we were colour blind, we run the risk of assuming everyone is like us.

I realised that as I began to think racially at my F&B job, I also began to make a conscious effort to receive and return money with my right hand when I served Malay customers. It might also have been because of my time in Aceh. But I guess that's an example of where thinking racially does good. Once I gave change with my left hand to a Malay customer and felt quite bad about it. I wanted to be sensitive, I wanted them to know that it mattered to me.

Anw random thought vomit over time to do my overdue essay

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