Ex-Raffles Institution student apologises for blackface photo from 2016, says 'there is no excuse'

He also said 'there is nothing funny about deriving humour at a friend’s expense'.

Melanie Lim | June 04, 2020, 02:54 PM

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A 2016 photo of a group of students from Raffles Institution (RI) in blackface has been making the rounds on social media after it was put up online in the aftermath of the George Floyd incident in the United States.

In the evening of June 3, a Twitter user exposed both the photo and its Instagram poster in a tweet.

While the original Twitter post has since been deleted, the photo has nevertheless gone viral, with over 2,400 retweets and more than 2,100 likes on another retweet:

In the photo, a group of 10 RI students can be seen doing blackface and holding up props like whitening lotion, deodorant, fake cash and a poster of the South Asian Hollywood movie, Slumdog Millionaire:

Image via Alfian Sa'at on Facebook

It has since attracted backlash from many minorities for its "offensiveness" and "racism".

Original poster of Instagram photo apologises and explains actions

After the photo went viral on Twitter, the original Instagram poster of the photo, L, took to Instagram Stories to post a series of explanations and apologies.

He identified himself as one of the 10 RI students in the photo, and said his friends and him "did something stupid" with their "teenage brains" back when they were in junior college.

Apparently, they had put on blackface to celebrate the birthday of their friend, who is presumably of South Asian descent.

L explained that his friends and him had never intended their actions to be a "racist commentary", although in hindsight they did not deny that it was "insensitive" of them to have done this.

They had apparently also consulted the birthday boy pictured in the centre of the photo, if he was okay with them posting the photo.

However, L also acknowledged that it was "still wrong on (their) part to perpetuate such stereotypes".

He stressed that their actions had no ill intent and were done in "good fun", although looking back now, it was "stupid teenage behaviour".

L then urged Twitter users to consider "how immature we all were back in our teenage years" before "crucifying" him and his friends:

He also apologised for "causing harm" and for "contributing to an already aggravating wound in our society", and said that "there's no excuse" for his actions:

L then ended off his series of Instagram Stories by apologising for his "stupidity and racist actions", which might have perpetuated the rift between the majority race and minorities in Singapore.

He also said that he would be using his Instagram account to "educate" his friends and his social circle about "the current state of racism in Singapore":

In a separate email, L wrote to Mothership to share an official apology he would like to make to the minority community in Singapore:

I want to apologise to my friend, and to the minority community in Singapore.

The photo in question needs no context. It was racist, and that is the only context needed. Whether or not my minority friend consented to the photo or the incident is irrelevant – it was plainly racist. We construed his acceptance as “it is okay to be racist as long as the person is fine with it”. We ignored the many undercurrents of racial discrimination. We overlooked the possibility that his consent could have been him trying to fit in, under the pressures of belonging to a minority group in Singapore. For all this, we were wrong.

There is no excuse for such behaviour because any non-racist person would have known to do the right thing. There is nothing funny about deriving humour at a friend’s expense.

The burden of education should not fall on minorities, or on those who have been trampled on. It falls on myself, to learn how to avoid hurting those around me. I am grateful that, from the Twitter barrage which exposed my actions, some took the time to educate me, and link me to resources that I might have never discovered in my own time. I’m sorry that my learning came four years too late, at the expense of my friend and the community.

Yes, the post was from 2016; yes, it was made back when we were stupid teenagers. But no, our youth does not excuse our past actions, and no, it does not relieve us of our sins now. Nevertheless, I would like to think that we have since grown, and matured into young adults who are capable of learning from our mistakes. It is up to us to show our maturity four years past. This is my first step.

I am truly sorry about this whole situation, and I hope my earlier posts did not come across as defensive. I would like to clarify that this is NOT about me, or why I did it. It is solely about the impact of my actions, which fueled racial injustice in a society that already condones it. There are many things I have to learn, and just as many for me to unlearn. I am just starting out. On hindsight, I deeply regret that it took a lynching on social media for me to begin. I do hope that the lesson I’ve taken away from this doesn’t get lost in translation: unintended racism is still racism. It doesn’t matter whether or not you THINK you are racist, what matters is how you treat your fellow human beings.

There will be anger and derision towards those of us in the photo. These are perfectly justified emotions. I understand that such anger stems from years of institutionalised racism. In the current climate, my post served as a lightning rod and sparked a storm of emotions. Although I do not yet fully understand the complex system of discrimination, I wish to start becoming an ally with the minority. This starts with civil conversations, and constructive ways to bring people to start the journey of unlearning our racial prejudices.

I will not be deactivating my Instagram and will leave it public. I have turned on story replies as well. If anyone wants to have a conversation, you are free to DM me. I have deleted the offending posts because they serve no purpose except to fuel racist stereotypes, but I have saved screenshots on my highlights. I intend to be fully transparent on my behavior and will not cower away. I am here to learn and make amends, and I would be grateful if you took the time to converse with me as well.

Group of 10 pens collective apology

Following the personal apology put out by L, the group of 10 penned a collective apology.

This is a group apology that all ten of us have penned together:

We wholeheartedly and unreservedly apologise, to our friend and the community.

What we did was wrong, and in no way justifiable. It is no excuse that we were young, immature and ignorant. It is no excuse that we had no malicious intentions. It is no excuse that we were celebrating our friend’s birthday.

With our insensitive, racist, and cruel celebration, we clearly failed him instead. We are deeply sorry to our friend, and to the many others whom we have caused distress. We know that our apology cannot undo years of microaggression and casual racism, but we hope it goes a small way towards making things right.

Race-based banter, like what we engaged in, is not funny, and never acceptable. Like other forms of racism, it marginalises minorities and perpetuates discrimination.

We stand with all of you who censure our then behaviour for its racist content. We chastise ourselves too.

Moving forward, we commit to unlearning these behaviours and will continue to reflect on our actions. We will work harder to amplify the voices of the minorities in Singapore and educate ourselves further.

We hope our episode helps others in the community grow in their awareness and sensibilities. We should all avoid and look out for insensitive behaviour that carries racial undertones. We will do all that we can in our circles.

Once again, we are truly sorry for what we did.

Local playwright Alfian Sa'at shares about being Malay minority in RI

Meanwhile, local playwright Alfian Sa'at has shared his thoughts on this issue in a Facebook post, that covered his own experiences as a Malay minority in RI, his alma mater.

According to Alfian, he had "felt such visceral revulsion and shame" when he saw the photo as RI was the school he had attended growing up.

As RI was one of the secular "elite" schools in Singapore, he had expected it to somehow be "less racist" compared to other elite schools in Singapore, such as mono-ethnic SAP schools, or mono-religious mission schools:

"When I first saw this photo today, I just felt such visceral revulsion and shame—because this was the school I went to. It was, and is, supposed to be one of the ‘elite’ schools in Singapore. And maybe one thinks that a school like this would somehow be ‘less racist’ than other elite schools in Singapore, since those might have the baggage of being monoethnic (like the SAP schools) or unattractive to those of particular religions (like the mission schools). Raffles Institution was supposed to be secular and multiracial, with students consisting of some of the brightest minds in Singapore."

Alfian also shared about his personal encounters with racism in RI, as well as how racism from "educated teens" differed from the "standard name-calling one encounters":

"What was life like in Raffles for me? For the most part, I felt I thrived, because it was one of the few schools which allowed me to pursue my love for theatre. But these days I look back and wonder what I could have suppressed or tolerated merely to survive as a minority in that space. Because there is something about the racism from ‘educated’ teens that is different from the standard name-calling one encounters.

It’s often more layered, more sly, sheathed in wit and cleverness. Someone asks you, ‘How long can shit stay in an Indian woman?’ The answer: ‘nine months’. Another one scolds him, ‘eh why you so racist?’ But he says this laughingly. The rebuke is deliberately defanged, flopping helplessly and comically at the insult.

The racism is not supposed to be the main point here, as you’re supposed to appreciate how the joke turns from constipation to pregnancy. ‘What’s the difference between a bench and a Malay man?’ Answer: ‘the bench can support a family’. Again, please behold how the word ‘support’ can mean ‘load bearing’ or ‘sustain economically’. But of course racism is at the centre of these jokes. It is what makes them so particularly delicious to those who tell them."

Alfian even stressed that he had only encountered such racist jokes in RI, not when he was in his "neighbourhood" primary school, or when he was in the army.

He also wondered where his peers had learnt these jokes from and why they would share these jokes in front of him:

"Let it be known that I encountered jokes like these not in my ‘neighbourhood’ primary school, nor when I was serving in the army, but in the hallowed halls of Raffles Institution. At that time I never spent much time wondering where my schoolmates picked up these jokes—their parents? Cousins? Friends? And what made them think it was all right to share these jokes in front of me? And that I would not retaliate? Because there were so few people who looked like me in school?"

He then pointed out that there was probably not much the birthday boy in the photo could have done other than to accept the jokingly racist celebration for him:

"Look at that photo again. The thought that went into the production. A+ for effort! Could you begrudge your friends this themed birthday celebration for you, curated so painstakingly, with everyone so game at smearing and masking their faces? Done in your honour, the honour given to your skin colour. Would you disappoint them? Throw a tantrum at your own party? Be a killjoy?"

And that this incident reminded him of the pain of being "the only Malay guy in the room":

"Seeing this photo has opened up a floodgate of pain (and I can't sleep now). That was me then, the only Malay guy in the room. Which also meant being the Malay language target board, explainer of Islam, info kiosk for ‘why do you all like to’ questions, entertaining queries like ‘if you open your mouth and rain falls in, then will you break your fast?’ and ‘why do Malay women wear the tudung but then wear make-up?’ and ‘why must you repeat the word for Malay plural words, isn’t it tiring?’

All the time wanting to believe that my friends were putting me under a magnifying glass because they were curious about me, and not because they were trying to burn me under the focused rays of the sun."

However, Alfian ended his post on a positive note by listing down some ways readers could right racism and counter it in future.

He also urged Internet users not to doxx the students in the photo.

"(P.S. Please don’t doxx the kids because that doesn’t solve any of the issues I’ve brought up. Some of them might come forward, in public rituals of contrition, while others would prefer to do things quietly and apologise to the friend they had once made fun of. You can take action too—individual ones like reaching out to friends you might have hurt with racist speech and acts, or even by just listening and not getting defensive when someone tries to tell you of a racist experience they had. And collective ones, like getting together to design an anti-racist curriculum that can be introduced in schools.)"

Top image via Alfian Sa'at on Facebook and L on Instagram