Some people are born naturally empathetic.
Unfortunately, I am not one of those.
It is only after I left the comfort zone of my home, Singapore, that the weight of my own privilege collapsed on me like a stack of bricks. Privilege can be unpacked in many different ways, but I was introduced to it the hard way – by moving to England for university and facing discrimination for the first time in my life. Although the most dehumanising part of this experience was realising how much of an alien I was in this unfamiliar place, the most illuminating lesson that I learnt was what my own privilege back home in Singapore implied for me.
England was a shock to the system. Unbeknownst to me, I was suddenly stripped of many invisible privileges that I previously took for granted. This came along with many harsh realisations. For example, living in England suddenly forced me to be hyper-aware that I was a person of colour. The student body at my university was very homogenous, which meant that Freshers week comprised of me weaving my way through an endless sea of white students. I had never, up until that point, felt insecure about the way I looked – but in that moment, my nose was too flat, my skin was too sallow, my face was too round, my eyes too boring and brown, and my figure that of a young adolescent boy.
Before I had started university, I was under the naïve impression that there would be hardly any cultural barriers. I spoke the same language, I would be learning the same material as everybody else on my course, and for the most part, I saw myself as a pretty flexible person who grew up open to diversity in a cosmopolitan environment. But I soon learned that cultural differences could not be so easily overcome by something as shallow as a shared language. Words and phrases skidded and slipped awkwardly off my tongue and left me unsure of what to say next. ‘Mate’. ‘You alright?’. ‘Cheers’. Little by little, I re-jigged and tweaked my behaviour, my tone of voice, my topics of conversation and my shades of being to suit my new environment. Talking about my culture or home country was initially a comfortable and exciting subject for me to share with my peers, though I stopped after awhile when I realised that, more often than not, my stories were met with blank stares and vacant smiles. Over the course of three years, I would learn to clip my crass sense of humour, silence my frankness and train myself in the indecipherable ways of British politeness.
One privilege that I was previously blind to, but had been stripped of it in university, was having people be aware of my culture. I sympathised with their lack of understanding in many respects, but what I struggled with, was that people didn’t seem to care at all that they were ignorant. “You know, you speak really good English”, many people used to tell me. It seemed nobody knew that the English language was thrust onto Singapore by the British colonial empire in the first place. Another time, I was told: “You know, you’re not really Chinese. You’re normal.” In other words, I was more ‘adjusted’ than other ethnically Chinese students. As if, because those other Chinese students hadn’t been as well trained as I was – in an international school – to speak with an untraceable accent and to socialise in a way my British peers were familiar with, they were less normal. It was as if other Chinese students were fundamentally weird because they did not conform to Western cultural norms.
Perhaps the most startling experience was the explicit violation of basic human decency. Like many other university towns, ours had dedicated student nights each week in various nightclubs. On one of the student nights, perhaps the entire undergraduate population had gathered in a particularly sweaty, cramped club with low ceilings, sticky floors and Top 40 hits reverberating off the walls. It was here that I struggled to balance myself atop a crowded platform while attempting to execute some sort of sexy dance to a Carly Rae Jepsen song. At that moment, a rugby lad on a pub golf social of sorts, proceeded to yell “Fucking Chink!’ in my ear, and then shove me off the platform, laughing.
As difficult as it was at the time to accept how much of an outsider I felt at university, my experience forced me to learn what it meant to be Chinese in a global context. Essentially, I learned what it meant to be considered ethnically inferior. My experiences, perhaps most importantly, taught me firsthand what racism meant. Racism is not just explicit, individual intolerance of another ethnicity. Racism is about power and exclusion. It is about being born into an unearned position of privilege and ignoring or belittling those who are not fortunate enough to be of the same colour. Racism can manifest itself in outright discrimination, such as the rugby lad incident, but it can also manifest itself in less obvious forms of microaggression, or behaviour so normalised that it is often overlooked.
Acknowledging my ethnicity and being on the receiving end of discrimination enabled me to draw connections between racist structures in England and in Singapore. I had never previously realised what it meant for me to be born a Chinese person in a country where Chinese make up 74% of the population. In Singapore, race has always played a big role in the makeup of the nation. The CMIO model (Chinese-Malay-Indian-Others) infiltrates much of Singaporean culture and identities are very much rooted in what ethnicity each person is. “One can examine any sphere of cultural endeavor [in Singapore],” sociologist Chua Beng Huat has noted, “from theatre to television drama to everyday handling of items like food and clothes, and discover the encoding of the CMIO scheme” . I once believed that Singapore was a rare melting pot of inclusiveness, multiculturalism and tolerance. But after experiencing being an ethnic minority and understanding what silent (and sometimes not so silent) discrimination feels like, I have now realised that while I am part of a structurally disadvantaged ethnic minority group in England, I am a recipient of ethnic privilege in Singapore by virtue of being born Chinese.
Cases of racism in Singapore seemed to have gotten worse recently. I have often walked past shop windows where they have Help Wanted signs, but the only qualification listed is: must be Chinese or Chinese-speaking. It is commonly known that landlords here will frequently accept or reject potential tenants based on skin colour, certain ethnic minorities get called out on looking ‘dirty’ and having ‘black skin’ and there is typically little integration between the Chinese majority and ethnic minorities.
Perhaps the reason why it took me so long to come to terms with racism while in university was because I was subconsciously afraid about what that meant for me, as a privileged Chinese person in Singapore. For if I was made to feel excluded by the privileged majority in England, did that mean I was part of the problem in Singapore? Was I perpetuating Chinese privilege in Singapore through my own ignorance and indifference towards the treatment of foreign workers and ethnic minority groups? Certainly, I would never personally shout offensive expletives to someone of ethnic minority in Singapore, though it was not as if I had ever tried to actively stop casual racism in Singapore, either. The other day, my friends and I were talking about past relationships, when a Chinese friend turned to me and asked, “What is with you and dating Indian guys?” Instead of calling her out on her behaviour, as I should have done, I paused uncomfortably and laughed it off. Why did I do that? How did I think that it was okay for me to continue cruising through a system that treated ethnic minorities just as badly – if not even worse – as in England?
We have an unofficial motto in our university: Don’t let your degree get in the way of your education. Although there were many aspects of my university I disagreed with, I cannot attest to this phrase enough. Without a doubt, what has stuck with me throughout those three years are not my lecture notes, but a troubling awareness about the similarities of racism between England and Singapore. It took me three years of understanding what it was like to be an outcast, skirting around the fringes of society, to truly realise how callously ethnic minorities are often treated, whether implicitly or explicitly. It is with this in mind that I have slowly begun the process of unlearning my own privilege. Unpacking this privilege has been a revealing but challenging experience so far. I have begun to question, calculate and monitor all my thoughts before speaking, battling with myself over preconceived ideas and beliefs. In essence, I have begun to slowly deconstruct all the assumptions that were bestowed upon me by my unearned privilege.
Not everybody is born empathetic, that is true. But if we try to understand the inequality, unfairness and discrimination that penetrate our everyday lives, we can slowly begin to distill and remove dehumanising behaviours from those around us and, most importantly, from ourselves.
Rachel Yeoh is a recent graduate from Durham University where she studied Politics. Originally from Singapore, she currently lives in California and is easing her way into working life. This submission was inspired by Chinese Privilege, an online platform on invisible privilege and racial politics in Singapore. To read more about racial privilege, please refer to Peggy McIntosh’s White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Backpack.