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Why the Anecdotes on Racism Just Aren’t Working Enough

The most interesting part about writing the draft to this article was the emotions that flowed through me. Before this, I did not realise the extent of my anger and resentment toward the comments that had been casually tossed at me as a Malay Muslim living in Singapore. I found it difficult to write everything I wanted to for fear of being “cancelled” and for fear of writing beyond me — that I would be assuming that every other Malay Muslim minority felt this way. But as I began to review the emotions that I had so frustratedly put onto paper, I began to realise that more needs to be said. 

Rather unfortunately, the already large amounts of anecdotes and stories about casual and systemic racism have not been sufficient to overturn the common perception that is, “Singapore has no racism.” I say this because I still experience it. I still get cast doubts and casual comments that point toward the continued existence of the derogatory caricature that is Malays are stupid, poor, and lazy, probably amongst other things. 

A conversation with a Chinese friend about race once sparked a debate about whether she was racist, whether the attributes that she disliked about a person necessarily made her racist, if said attributes happened to linger as undesirable minority stereotypes. And while I’d like to have said no, all I wanted to do was say “possibly yes”, because the jasmine smell that you dislike could have been taught to you to be undesirable because it was linked to the minority

And while our conversation eventually reached the conclusion that she probably wasn’t a racist, but she probably did have to look out for the way she behaved and to check her privilege as a member of the majority race, I’ve not had many more pleasant conversations besides this one (where my fellow interlocutor was as open to the concept of her privilege as I was to the possibility that she could really just dislike the smell of jasmine).

In a Sociology class covering the concept of systemic racism, a girl raised her hand and told us that she had been scolded purely for being Chinese, only to mouth the words, the Malay aunty scolded me for putting my plate at the Halal section.

As I reflect on these incidents, I realise that the reason we feel like we need more stories (and yet why it feels like we’re making such little change) is that these anecdotes slowly become throwaways – they’re easily discarded and forgotten because every minority experiences them. The saturation makes my narrative of yet another racist encounter becomes a little less special, a little less meaningful, because it is already the unfortunate everyday, and there’s so many out there already.

Yet what’s especially interesting about the topic of racism is the need for anecdotal evidence. The need to hear about it over and over again, to tell others about our experiences again and again. If anything were a perfect picture of our experience as minorities, this would be it. The need to convince, to speak up or be overlooked, be questioned and put down before we have to convince ourselves to put our foot down and speak up a little louder.

Most times my fellow Chinese friends are darlings, most of them open to understanding. But when I speak of the discrimination against the hijab, or the fact that the Chinese Grab uncle just questioned my education background for no reason beyond the colour of my skin, sometimes they sit back and go, “huh,” because, “I’ve never seen it happen in front of me,” and “the Malay aunty is racist to me too, she charged me higher for my meat” (at the Nasi Padang stall).  How do they not know that my resentment goes beyond the possibility of a Chinese Aunty charging me slightly higher for my bowl of Yong Tau Foo? That my anger thrives because you’ve never made yourself aware of this?

“Malays can live here ah?” Someone asked my friend as they pulled up to her terrace house. “Must be cheap?”

Somewhere along the lines of existence and trying to excel, we are still not seen the way we should be – as individuals beyond our group marker.

I have been interrogated about whether I was really entering a local university, because God forbid a Malay enter a local U. Or if I was Eurasian, “because Malays can’t speak such good English,” and “yeah, but you’re not like other Malays.” (All exact words spoken to me, by the way.)

But that’s how it is – and that’s how it feels it’ll ever amount to be. 

Because unfortunately, living under some derogatory caricature – where Malays are seen as lazy, stupid, and poor – tends to be taxing. We, both the majority and aforesaid minority, are not always as consciously aware of the unjustified minority experience. And when that happens, the stereotypes we come to believe about who they or we are only reaffirms some baseless belief. 

“Ya I’m Malay, I’m not good at math.”

They laugh after I say this, “ya, maybe.”

And for a while I believed this, that my lack of mathematical talent was in some way a result of the colour of my skin, or ingrained in my Malay-DNA. But I’m not stupid, and neither are my fellow Malays. We excel at many things, just like anyone else. But the fact that I have had to experience the affirmation that comes after attributing any of my lacking to my race is unfortunate and appalling. As we stand under the eyes of the many who are convinced that we won’t do as well at a job because we’re Malay, we come to believe it ourselves. And that doesn’t amount to much good for us as people, because then we believe it, then you believe us. And it becomes real. 

But was it? Did it ever have to be?

And if we don’t believe it, we cope a little differently. 

Personally, I grew distrusting and jaded because I was convinced that if I wasn’t close to being the best I’d only prove them right, that Malays are stupid. My friends and I learned to grow watchful, because casual conversations are always going to grow ever-so condescending. An everyday conversation with a majority-raced peer becomes an actual maze, in hopes that they are not one of them.

Perhaps I’m being a little too cynical, but I don’t think my anger has gotten the better of me, or is in any way unjustified. Because if you had to hear that you weren’t enough for the world over and over again despite your best attempts to show them otherwise, you’d be pretty sick of it, too.

Siti Ayeeshah Zaki

Nanyang Tech '21

Ayeeshah is an undergraduate at NTU. She enjoys writing, exploring, and learning new things. Check out her website and Instagram below! ✨
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