Stereotypes, Allies, and Microaggression.

When the Paris attacks took place last week, I spent the early hours after the attack archiving the ways in which Instagram was guiding/leading me to (mis)read information. There, I alluded to how platform algorithms were fueling stereotypic sentiment and adding to moral panics.

In his ReTweet of my post, communications and Internet scholar, Tama Leaver, eloquently worded this as how “automated algorithms amplify speculation and accusation on social media”.

Since then, I have been reading article after article in mainstream/popular/social media about how people are reacting to Muslims, how Muslims are reacting to stereotypes, and how media outlets are framing these reactions.

Some of these address stereotypes, some (attempt to) present (themselves as) allies, while others are plainly (ignorant?) microaggressions. Here are some of my thoughts. Screenshots taken from public websites and public/viral posts on Facebook on 20 November 2015, 1000hrs, GMT+10.

Stereotypes

Pre-Paris attacks, Islamic stereotypes and fear-mongering were already seeping into schools.

Buzzfeed also produced this video of young Muslim people in a talking head video style, finishing the sentence “I”m Muslim, but I’m not ______”. It’s honest, it’s humourous, and also very relatable; I suppose the idea was to push back against the stigma of being (perceived as) a Muslim, fostered by misinformation and fear-mongering.

Post-Paris attacks, some everyday Muslims began sharing their sentiment towards populist discourses on stereotypes. See also the #MuslimsAreNotTerrorists stream on Twitter, as covered by Huffington Post.

A Facebook user from Singapore, Sulaiman Daud, addressed one such “well-meaning” populist discourse, that the attacks/attackers have nothing to do with Islam. In his Facebook post now accumulating over 43,000 shares, he stresses that Muslims will have to confront this “cancer at the heart of Islam”.

A blogger from Singapore, Jeraldine Phneah, catalogued some responses in the comments thread.

Allies

A bar manager from Cardiff, UK, posted the following call to not “lay blame at the doors of the innocent just because of what they believe”. His viral post has been picked up by Mirror, Metro, and Daily Mail among others.

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On his publicly-accessible Facebook Timeline, Leigh Matthews shares that he has since been facing backlash and receiving death threats, although support has also poured in.

We move from non-Muslim allies to prolific Muslim personalities. Does this non-Muslim/Muslim distinction matter when prolific public personalities lend their support? I think so, although I cannot really articulate this difference right now.

Some prolific Muslim personalities leveraged on their exposure to share messages. In this article, Buzzfeed reports host Waleed Aly giving his two cents.

On his Australian TV programme, The Project, Aly reminds Muslims and non-Muslims to “come together” because he is “pretty sure that right now none of us wants to help these bastards [the attackers]”.

 

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Microaggression

However, some posts confused me. I could not longer differentiate allies from microaggression.

Microaggression is a term coined by professor of psychology and education, Derald Wing Sue, in his book Microaggressions in Everyday Life: Race, Gender, and Sexual Orientation (2010).

In a related journal article, he describes racial microaggression as such:

“Racial microaggressions are brief and commonplace daily verbal, behavioral, or environmental indignities, whether intentional or unintentional, that communicate hostile, derogatory, or negative racial slights and insults toward people of color. Perpetrators of microaggressions are often unaware that they engage in such communications when they interact with racial/ethnic minorities.”

I couldn’t decide if this Buzzfeed article was microaggressive.

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The headline reads “19 Muslim Australians Who Are Owning It Right Now”, but the text after was perplexing:

“These guys and girls are breaking down barriers one stereotype at a time.”

What “barriers” are these Muslims breaking? What “stereotype” are we imagining? Who is the audience being addressed?

There seems to be an implicit/implied normative “stereotype” that Buzzfeed’s wide readership is assumed to not only understand, but share.

The article featured (semi-)prolific Muslims in Australia, such as:

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But all of the people profiled were just ordinary people, doing ordinary things well enough to be exceptional in their field, and who happen to be Muslim.

Reactions from Buzzfeed users on the comments thread pointed out that the article was celebrating Muslims for being “integrated into society”, for “being decent human beings”, for “not killing people”.

And I find this very different from the earlier “I”m Muslim, but I’m not ______” Buzzfeed video.

In that example, Muslims were themselves sharing snippets of the everyday and mundane in a bid to inject ‘normative’ narratives into a populist discourse in which Islamophobia was on the rise.

In this example, prolific Muslims are highlighted for their achievements and juxtaposed against others across the “barrier” or “stereotyped” – however the author intended for us to interpret these.

Everyday racism

Some of these thoughts on microaggression were sparked by when I read this piece by Marcus Woolombi Waters in The Conversation earlier this week.

In it, he shares his and his family’s experience of being Indigenous Australian in Australia.

These paragraphs really spoke to me:

tc

Having grown up in Singapore as a mixed-race person, I identify with this in the ways

1) an honours year classmate found out I was half-Chinese, and exclaimed “no wonder you’re so clever”;

2) I have been poster child for “pseudo-minority student who does well in school”;

3) peers have asked if some of my achievements were attributed to affirmative action.

 

I’m still trying to work out what distinguishes allies from microaggressions. I’ll sit on it and read a little more. If you have resources and suggestions, can we please chat?

In the mean time, I quite enjoy relating to anecdotes users are sharing on the This Is Everyday Racism Tumblr. It also encourages me to re-think my everyday, subconscious practices when I relate to people.

Racial discourse and news coverage of the NDR2015 on Twitter.

Singapore’s National Day Rally 2015, the equivalent of the State of the Union Address in the US, was held on 23 August 2015. It is usually broadcast in two consecutive sessions, one in which the Prime Minster makes a shorter address in Malay & Chinese languages (1845-1930hrs this year), and the other, a longer, more detailed address in English (2000-2200hrs this year). The broadcast can be streamed live on YouTube here.

I followed the official #ndrsg hashtag on Twitter (after a brief breakdown in transmission where the hashtag was pulling up zero results!) during the Malay & Chinese language address between 1845hrs and 1930hrs, tracking Tweet coverage from the two major English language mainstream news networks, The Straits Times (@STcom) and Channel News Asia (@ChannelNewsAsia).

Also, as in most backchannels, the #ndrsg stream usually brings up much vernacular gold. See, for instance, all the laughs from resident creator of viral humour, @SGAG_SG.

Background knowledge: Singapore comprises four major ethnic groups – Chinese, Malay, Indian, and Eurasian/Others. Some quick stats from the Ministry of Communications and Information (MCI) here.

Here are five tongue-in-cheek tl;drs of my personal reading of racial discourse, based on mainstream news Tweet coverage:

  1. hey Malays, don’t worry okay, we’ll help you

2. hey Malays, we are a secular state but Islam is okay if we are a secular state

3. hey Malays, good job on progress (see also poster boys)

4. hey Chinese, good job bro

5. hey Chinese, 华语cool! (see Singapore’s Speak Mandarin Campaign for context)

For coverage from alternative media, see The Online Citizen’s live Tweet stream here, and Mothership.sg’s extremely efficient summary (of the Malay & Chinese language segment) here, here, and here. See also, Tweets from top media Influencers in Singapore, @mrbrown and @miyagi.

Biracials speak out! The inside world of everyday chameleons.

This post was first published on PopAnth, 3 February 2015.
A Multicultural Fest flag ceremony. Photo by Texas A&M University via Flickr [CC BY 2.0].
A Multicultural Fest flag ceremony. Photo by Texas A&M University via Flickr [CC BY 2.0].

If you’ve ever been to Singapore and hung out at a coffee shop below a block of flats or a hawker centre, you’re bound to have heard a local order a “Michael Jackson.” It’s quirky vernacular for a concoction of grass jelly (black) and soy milk (white), playing on the late pop star’s changing skin colour over the years. Some say it could also be a reference to his hit single, Black or White.

Biracial neologisms are staple repertoire in this country where there are four recognized national ethnic groups – Chinese, Malay, Indian, and Others (comprising mainly Eurasians from around the region). For starters, the Malay-Chinese are commonly termed Chinlays, and the Indian-Chinese, Chindians.

Around the world, social groups have produced creative neologisms for mixed race persons in their cultural milieu. For instance, mestizo refers to Latin Americans of Native American and European ancestry; African-Europeans in Brazil are known asmulato; Sri Lankans who historically descended from local women and the British colonialists are termed burghers; South Africans who are multiracial are usually referred to as coloureds; and persons of Japanese-Anglo heritage are known as hafu.

Singapore is a diverse society comprising four official languages and four main religions. Just as “Michael Jackson” is a familiar and convenient reference to a locally concocted beverage, racial shorthand is more a matter of cultural understanding than haphazard labelling.

A body’s visual markers allow for a quick assessment and situation of a person’s identity and status. A visibly racialized body thus informs other people on how to negotiate cross-cultural sensitivities with them in a shared social space.

For instance, this visibility may help inform others of an appropriate choice of mother tongue to be adopted in conversation with a stranger, or whether to extend non-halal food to a “Malay-looking” – and by extension, in most parts of South East Asia, Muslim – person.

Some biracial people have corporeal features that distinctly signpost their mixed heritage to others. These individuals are likely to receive the staple repertoire of “questions of origin”; you know, the “Where are you from?”, “Where are you really really from?”, “Where are your parents from?”, and “What are you?” types.

While these everyday identity politics pose their own set of issues, biracial people who do not look distinctly “mixed” deal with a different problem all together. These are the individuals who find themselves not readily acknowledged or accepted in situations where either of their ethnicities manifest homoethnically, unless they intentionally assert their communal belonging or solicit homophilic affect in some form or another.

I interviewed five Malay-Chinese women in Singapore who felt that their ethnicities were not always recognized in social groups. While “Michael Jackson” does appear on the menu of some eateries, these biracials obviously do not prance and parade around with a “Chinlay” or “Malay-Chinese” label on their foreheads.

As such, they have devised innovative ways of marking their racial master status through the careful calibration of language and bodily practice. In-depth interviews with them reveal that biracials selectively conceal or emphasize different elements of their mixed corporeality depending on the social groups or situations in which they want to position themselves favourably.

Some of these Malay-Chinese persons felt outcast even in their early schooling years. One of them tells me that her language competency was seldom recognized because the Mother Tongue did not appear congruent with her skin tone:

“I used to be quite tanned in Primary School, quite Malay-looking… during Chinese lessons, the teacher always explained [difficult things] to me in English, as if I don’t understand Mandarin. But I even took higher Chinese…”.

Another Malay-Chinese woman candidly recalls her childhood best friends being of Indian and Eurasian heritage because her Malay and Chinese peers had difficultly placing her:

“The Malay kids thought I hung out with the Chinese, and the Chinese kids thought I hung out with the Malays, so I ended up hanging out with every one else!”

How did these biracial persons manage this ambivalence as young children? Well, remember the customary act of shyly introducing yourself to a class of brand new peers and teachers every school year (thankfully, in more than 140 characters IRL)? It seems that tracing one’s family tree and “having to explain your strange hybrid name” is crucial to Malay-Chinese to explain their life history to assert their master racial status.

Some biracials may only be fluent in one Mother Tongue, while others choose to announce their religious affiliations and practises to pre-empt any cultural faux pas to come. So while these annual introductions may be awkward rituals for some of us, they are actually more practical than ceremonial for biracials.

Although these Malay-Chinese persons reported speaking English (the main official language of the country) more so than any other language or dialect, they would selectively sprout a few lines of the Mother Tongue they were not fluent in to underscore their racial hybridity.

One biracial individual whose Mother Tongue was Malay would often find herself among Chinese friends who occasionally slipped into Mandarin. Instead of speaking up, or requesting that they conversed in English, she would instead pepper the conversation with the few broken Mandarin phrases she knows partly to solicit an affective response when they tease her for “trying,” and also to subtly remind them of her desire for acknowledgement and inclusivity. It proved to be a soft but effective prompt to her peers who would quickly code switch to English.

Physical gestures are another element that constitute a racial code. They are mirrored and socialised among children during their upbringing, since these designate one’s bodily boundaries and limits of exchange. Thus, while unseen by outsiders, insiders of the racial group may appropriate subtle gesticulations to demarcate and legitimate each other’s membership. One Malay-Chinese person tells me:

“We [the Malays] always salaam* each other when we first meet, it’s like a signal to show that we are ‘the same’ you know, so as long as I ‘act’ Malay, then my [colour] doesn’t really matter.”

*[The salaam is a salutation of Islamic origin, signifying “peace to you.” It usually involves taking the back of the hand of a senior and bringing it to one’s forehead, heart, or lips. It is commonly practiced among Malays and Muslims. However, when a body’s phenotypic markers do not adequately signify racial identity, insiders may not extend such affective body language to them.]

However, these bodily practises require positive feedback in the form of reciprocation to be deemed successful. Another biracial woman laments:

“When I first came to uni, the Malay kampong [literally translates into ‘village,’ but figuratively stands for a social group in which reciprocal Malay cultural relationality is attached] couldn’t tell I was one of them… when I tried to salaam one of [the boys], he asked me why I was shaking his hand!”

Ethnic identity is not innate or a given, but instead established, learned, and systemically performed through a sustained repertoire of acts. One disciplines their body (and tongue!) into stylizing after dominant racial cues in order to mark their ethnic identity.

But this performance has to be convincing enough so that an audience who witnesses it accepts and recognizes a person as Malay, Chinese, or both. For their lifetimes of cumbersome introductions and awkward manoeuvring of ethnic spaces, biracials have taught us that racial practice is in fact a flamboyant regime that, when rehearsed and naturalized over many years, becomes perceived as second nature and natural.

After all, the vernacular “Michael Jackson” only earned its title after years of circulating in the local imaginary. Bless the first person who ever thought to mix grass jelly and soy milk.

If I was white

I was over at the National Gallery of Victoria this weekend and was deeply provoked by a beautiful piece from Vernon Ah Kee, Kuku Yalanji, Waanyi, Koko Berrin, Yidindji, and Gugu Yimithirr. If I was white (2002), encapsulates the silenced agony of living under everyday racial hegemony. It would be brilliant if their words travel as far and wide as possible so that those who are blind to their racial privilege will see and be moved into action, and those who are oppressed by systemic discrimination will empathize and be encouraged to keep up the good fight. Pretty apt in light of the rising number of Aboriginal deaths in custody in Australia, and the recent Ferguson shootings in Missouri.

6×5 A4 grids transcribed L-R, downwards:

If I was White
I could walk down the street
and people would pay no particular
attention to me.

It may not seem like much
but if you’ve ever had
a shopkeeper tell you to
Buy something or move on, or
simply follow you around the shop,
it’s significant

If I was White
people would speak to me.

Wouldn’t you feel a little lonely
if you were the only White person
in a new school
and nobody including the teacher
understood you or your culture?

If I was White
I would think like a White Person.

If I was White
I would believe myself to be equal
to anyone.

If I was White
I would be more likely
to live longer.

If I was White
I would be less likely
to spend time behind bars.

If I was White
just think of all the names
I wouldn’t have been called.

If namecalling does not seem
all that serious to you
then you haven’t heard the names
I’ve been called.

If I was White
alot of the fights I’ve been in
would not have been my fault.

If I was White
I wouldn’t have been in so many fights.

If I was White
I would not be part of the Stolen Generation.

If I was White
I would have been counted in the Census since 1901.

If I was White
I could live, shop, and socialise
wherever I want.

If you’ve walked into Real Estate
Agencies where houses and units
To Let suddenly become Taken,
and just as suddenly become
Available when you leave, then
you know what I’m talking about.

If I was White
I would be accepted.

If I was White
I could group together
all the people who don’t
look like me
into their own separate
communities.

If I was White
I could accept a life of privilege,
wealth, and power
that the exploitation of Black
People has brought me
without even blinking.

If I was White
I could stand back,
walk on by, sit on the fence,
and do nothing.

If I was White
I would think I have every right
to be here.

If I was White
I would fit in.

If I was White
I would not have to live in a country that hates me.

If I was White
I would have a country.

If I was White
I could say This land
has been in my family
for three generations.

If I was White
I could say My family
have lived on this land
for two hundred years.

If I was White
I could say My father worked hard
to buy this land.

If I was White
I could buy bandaids
the same colour as my skin.

What if all bandaids were black?

If I was White
and in an accident, I would be
wrapped in white bandages.

If I was White
I wouldn’t be asked if I was
Fullblood, Half-caste, or part White.

If I was White
I would not hear other White People
say to me You don’t look like you
have alot of White in you, or
You don’t look White.

If I was White
my fair skin
would not be such an issue
with other White People.

If I was White
it would be okay
to claim to be White.

If I was White
I wouldn’t have to claim to be White
just to get a job.

If I was White
I would be taken at my word.

Try accepting everything written
here as being true
simply because I say it is.

If I was White
I could really identify with
Australian TV Soaps.

If I was White
I could really identify with
Australian TV Advertising.

If I was White
popular Australian newspapers
would print what I want to read.

If you don’t think so
then count how many Black People
appear in the weekend social
pages.

If I was White
I could go to church
and Jesus Christ would
look like me.

Imagine Christ images all over the
world being black.

If I was White
I would not have to be smart
to keep a good job.

If I was White
I would have more chance
of getting a job.

If I was White
I could wear a suit and tie
and not look suspicious.

If I was White
I could own a luxury vehicle
and not look suspicious.

If I was White
I could shop in luxury stores
and not look suspicious.

If I was White
I could walk
in a white neighbourhood
and not look suspicious.

If I was White
I could dye my hair blonde
and it would not look strange.

If I was White
I could have blue eyes
and it would not look strange.

If I was White
I could marry another White person
and it would not look strange.

If I was White
I would have a better chance of becoming PM.

If I was White
I could write history any way I please.

If I was White
ignorance could be my excuse.

If I was White
I would have nothing to fear
from Police.

If I was White
I would not have to explain
the things I say.

If I was White
the world would make
more sense to me.

If I was White
I could make myself believe
that Black People were evil.

If I was White
I could shelter my children from
the evil that exists in the world.

If I was White
I could lie to my children about
the evil that exists in the world.

But I am Black
and I am as misunderstood as the next Blackfella

but I am beginning to understand the White Men.

Dedicated to all mixed heritage kids.

Found an old piece I wrote five years ago (2008) while clearing out my laptop this week. Reading this again today, I feel like I was such an angsty child/teen/adult (okay still am). Also, having lived in Perth for two years now and having never had to fill in my “Race”, “Ethnicity”, “Dialect”, or “Religion” on any document has been a much appreciated breath of fresh air. 2013 reflections in italics.

My Annual Identity Crisis

Me (age 2ish) with the fish tanks at home. I gave all the fish names.

Most Decembers, I go Christmas caroling with a group of youths and young adults from my church. Although we are usually invited into the homes of other fellow Christians, non-Christians make up the bulk of our audience from time to time. While both my parents are also Christians, Christmas (the religious remembrance, not the commercialized festival) can be especially confusing for me because my father is a Malay and a former Muslim, and my mother, a Chinese.

Me (Age 2ish) with my Malay cousin, Azri.

I look no different from the rest of the caroling group, comprising mostly Chinese, and seldom feel different from them either. It is only when newly-made friends discover my interesting heritage that I feel unnecessary attention on myself. Somehow, celebrating Christmas, Lunar New Year as well as Hari Raya Haji and Puasa with my relatives appears unusually phenomenal to my friends. While some are envious of how diverse my celebratory public holidays are, others just lament that I must be one very busy child. And of course, every Deepavali, numerous bored friends try to persuade me into marrying an Indian man in a bid to transform me into Singapore’s living Racial Harmony Day mascot.

[Edit from 2013: My father tried to introduce me to two of his friends’ Indian sons. I kid you not. I think he meant it in jest. I think… Pleased to add that I’m still very much in love with the Chinese, Christian boy I met when we were 13. Not that his ethnicity matters to me!] 

Me (age 3ish) with an Australia koala tee-shirt. Also, that was the ‘Chinese bob hair’ people said I had.

There was one year where a group of darker skinned people, and thus presumably Malays, stopped to listen to us while we were caroling outdoors.

[Edit from 2013: If you are reading this from outside Singapore, I’m sorry that the country I grew up in has racial shorthands for every species. I think our diversity and the government’s obsession with cataloguing peoples has far-reaching consequences that we do not consider enough. Racial stereotypes are just the first of many domino blocks, methinks]

My church elders introduced these ‘non-Chinese’ to my father and I, perhaps to make them feel more comfortable with ‘their own kind’. Evidently, they appeared more relaxed when my father started conversing with them in fluent Malay. Still, they found it rather unconvincing that I was Malay, at least on paper, because I was embarrassingly trying to communicate with what little Malay language I knew, and I had fair-skin.

My (5th?) birthday with my Chinese and Malay cousins and Eurasian (Chinese, French, Vietnamese) god-brothers.

This is my miniature identity crisis – I do not feel any less Christian than the others at church just because I have a Malay surname, yet at the same time, that surname is the only indication of my “race” because I look more Chinese.

[Edit from 2013: That’s the state’s vocabulary that has already effectively embedded into everyday lingo]

But then again, as a child and then a teen my Chinese relatives and friends seemed to feel the need to explain “their” numerous customs and traditions to me again and again because I was/am “not pure Chinese”. My first name only adds confusion to my heritage because it does not reflect any race either (Crystals are sparkly and presumably feminine and I am neither sparkly nor very feminine).

My aunts used to cook me instant noodles during Hari Raya while my cousins had Ketupat. My grandmother used to cook me an assortment of oily foods during Lunar New Year while my cousins had Yu Sheng. It seemed as though everyone was concerned with how I was coping with my “diverse” (or confused?) background – everyone except me… probably a very oblivious (or very confident?) child.

Age 5ish with my chubbs baby sister who now shares all these heritage woes/privileges. Also, most Singaporeans who hear about my heritage always immediately follow up by saying it’s no wonder I have ‘Malay eyes and cheekbones’. I still don’t know what that means.

I must admit though, that being so ‘culturally-diluted’ can be very interesting. I read Higher Chinese in a Special Assistance Programme Secondary School and (I think) most students knew me by name because I was the only Malay student there for three years (a Chindian, that is Chinese-Indian, girl joined the school when I was in my fourth year). I got sent to compete in all of my school’s English speech competitions and debates because my English was apparently “very well spoken” and I some times wondered if that literally translated to “not Chinese-accented”.

[Edit from 2013: Even today, people I meet tell me my English is not ‘Singaporean’. I think we are all just experts at code-switching. There is an English for every occasion!]

I represented my class in all of our drama competitions because I could put on a convincing “minah Malay-accent”. I was the Chinese department’s model student because my grades were surprisingly good for someone who was “fei zu hua yu” which I think meant that I was not from a ‘Chinese culture/ethnicity’. Secondary School was a circus.

Age 6ish holding a card I made at Sunday School that says ‘I am special’. We all are!

I suppose over the years, my identity has become less and less of what I feel I am, but more of what others imagine me to be. I’m not “really” Malay because I neither look like one nor speak like one nor practise Islam, they tell me. They also say I am not “really” Chinese because officious documents do not claim so, and my proficiency in Mandarin – though superbly excellent on paper and in theory because I studied so hard! – is dubious because my accent is not accurate. But then again, after twenty years of such emotional commotion, I guess I am already growing used to feeling different. And it doesn’t really matter to me!

[Edit from 2013: Back then in Singapore I felt so much like a ‘special child’ because my phenotype, “race”, religion, and spoken language were apparently incongruent. Here in Perth now, I feel freer than a bird because most people I’ve met seemed only interested in where I “was geographically from” and where I will “geographically be going” in the future. When home is no where, home is every where]