Iwani Zoë, an undergraduate at Yale-NUS college, recently wrote an article about racism in Singapore on her blog, pepperandsoul.
In her April 10 post, “Is Singapore A Racist Country?”, the undergraduate, who listed on her Facebook page she is from Zimbabwe, tried to answer the question of whether there is indeed racism in Singapore. Spoiler alert, there is.
While Iwani acknowledged there was indeed some institutionalised racism in Singapore — “There is a social stratification of race that is perpetuated by the system” — she took pains to place that form of racism in context: “… any racism there may be is vastly incomparable to what we see in the United States or South Africa, for example”.
Before we start drawing multi-racial figures holding hands in crayon though, Iwani identifies racism, or more specifically prejudice, not from institutions, but from everyday people in her daily Singapore life.
Below is the list of things Iwani perceives as prejudices in Singapore.
Prejudice in Singapore is when little children stare at you in fear, whilst their parents pretend like they don’t notice, and say nothing.
Prejudice is when people marvel at how clean and pretty your hair is, because their expectation is for it to be dirty and ugly.
Prejudice is when the only attention or recognition you get from a person of the opposite sex is when you serve to fulfil a fetish, otherwise you are undateable and unwanted.
Prejudice is when one too many Chinese uncles changes their cab sign and drives off the moment they see you signalling.
Prejudice is when old men think it’s appropriate to ask if you’re a ‘negro like Michelle Obama.’
Prejudice is when you realise that the grumpy and rude auntie serving you is perfectly pleasant to everyone else before and after you.
Prejudice is in the slip of the tongue, when even the friendliest of faces equate blackness to violence, theft, corruption and crude behaviour.
Prejudice is when complete strangers see you as a novelty, and poke you and prod you and pull your hair on the MRT without ever asking.
Prejudice is when ‘You’re not that type of black ah. You’re the good kind of black,’ is meant as a compliment.
Prejudice is when you get turned down from countless agencies in a supposedly cosmopolitan city because they ‘cannot market your image,’ i.e. they may use white or even mixed race girls, but they will not use a darker-skinned black girl to sell their product.
Prejudice is when you are expected to speak on the behalf of all black people everywhere during discussions about international or racial affairs.
Prejudice is in the small, everyday things that drive you insane because no one notices them and you can’t tell if you’re being overly sensitive or not.
The topic of prejudice, especially on the definition of attractiveness and in the cosmetic realm of beauty, was also raised earlier this year when Romanian photographer Mihaela Noroc, chose Marc Jacobs model Nadiah Rahmat as the Singaporean representative for her project, The Atlas of Beauty, where she went about taking pictures of beautiful women from around the globe.
There was an outcry from social media in response to the perceived unattractiveness of Nadiah. This caused a counter groundswell defending her, culminating in a super chill resolution by the figure in the middle of the back and forth
On Iwani’s side, the crux of her issue with racism in Singapore stems from the tendency to dismiss her experiences or views without really listening, or empathising:
When no one really understands how difficult it is to be seen first as black, then second as a person, and reminded of your blackness every. single. day. When no one knowns what it’s like to feel so hopelessly alone in a sea of unfamiliar faces, it makes it so much harder to stay strong and ‘get over it’.
That spotlight on her race has lead to some pretty negative places as well: “I have cried so many tears. I have felt so tired of being black”.
Despite all that though, Iwani is happy to call Singapore her home for the foreseeable future.
I really do enjoy living in Singapore, and being pushed to the edge and having to confront my ‘blackness’ has made me learn to love my skin even more. I think I really needed this, and I think I’m here to stay.
Her optimism is best summed up in a YouTube video she did where she espoused the virtues of potatoes.
We are potatoes.
Top image from Iwani’s Facebook