What happens when you know for sure that racial discrimination exists in Singapore, but you're not quite sure how to start a conversation about it?
You're in luck, for two incidents that happened this week have opened a can of worms — worms we desperately need to address. In fact, they involved media outlets who've broadcasted their prejudice against the ethnic Indian minority in Singapore for the world to see: MediaCorp and Toggle put out a scene in a series I want to be a Star where a Chinese actor was seen in blackface, while TheSmartLocal.com published a video titled Singaporeans Try: Indian snacks. Both videos have since been taken down.
Described as a series that "portrays the different walks of life in a light-hearted manner, and hopes to urge all aspiring youths to be courageous in pursuing their dreams", the Toggle original saw a Chinese actor filling in for an Indian actor who was supposed to play an African role. Confused? We are too, but not as confused as we are appalled. In his role, actor Shane Pow puts on blackface, a collegiate-inspired jacket and an Afro wig.
Meanwhile, TheSmartLocal.com published episode 74 of their Singaporeans Try series, where, as you've guessed, a bunch of Singaporeans try different things with their responses being filmed. Food-wise, they've done a Singapore Vs. Malaysia Food Blind Taste Test, Hottest Chilli In The World and Filipino Snacks. For Singaporeans Try: Indian Snacks, they filmed people's reactions trying popular snacks such as ladoos and vadais. The earlier triggered a comparison to diarrhea, while the latter was met with squeamish responses. Typically, a video from the series would rack up hundreds of thousands of views — that's a whole lot of people watching Singaporeans making fun of Indian cuisine.
Naturally, the video's rubbed people off the wrong way. Local author and poet Pooja Nansi wrote in a Facebook post calling the video "mean spirited, ignorant and beyond offensive". "When you say 'Singaporeans' are trying Indian snacks, what you are really saying is that Indians aren't 'Singaporeans' and that our snacks aren't really 'Singaporean' either," she continues.
Another local poet, Marc Nair, called the video "racist, reductive and revolting". Another Facebook user thanked TheSmartLocal.com for "showing people the existing problem Singapore is facing, even before it gain [sic] full independence in 1965. And unfortunately, this problem of the majority's ignorance about our so call [sic] multiracialism (it's in our goddamn pledge) is not going away." Tweets have also ensued, with artist and writer Tania De Rozario tweeting a hashtag, #NoRacismMyArse.
So what's wrong with putting on blackface and mocking an ethnic minority's food, you might ask? Apart from the disturbing notion that you need to be grossly re-educated, let's start by understanding the history of blackface in pop culture. In the comic skits from mid to late nineteenth century America, white actors would use black grease paint on their faces when depicting plantation slaves and free African-Americans on stage, back when slavery in America still existed and was in the midst of slowly dying out.
David Leonard from Washington State University's department of critical culture and race studies explains, "Blackface is never a neutral form of entertainment, but an incredibly loaded site for the production of damaging stereotypes... the same stereotypes that undergird individual and state violence, American racism, and a centuries worth of injustice."
In short, when you put on blackface, you're making fun of an ethnic group by simplifying their long struggle for freedom in a costume. When you cast non-black actors in black roles, you're not giving actual African-Americans equal opportunities to present themselves as actors. Were you pissed off when Mickey Rooney played a Japanese in Breakfast at Tiffany's and when Matt Damon was cast as a lead in a movie about the Great Wall of China?
Not so smart local
So when Toggle cast a Chinese actor to play an Indian actor who's filling in for a Black role, this offended people on multiple levels. Why was an Indian actor filling in for a Black role in the first place? Last we checked, Singaporean Indians are not African-Americans, and the fact that the series' writer lumped two distinctly different ethnic groups as one and the same showed a lack of sensitivity — it's not a simple case of "same same but different". The episode also showed other Chinese actors laughing at the actor, making fun of the situation.
This mockery is replicated in TheSmartLocal.com's video. In a country where Indian Singaporeans make up 9.2% of the population, the media outlet has singled their cuisine out for a video to be published days before the Hindu celebration of Deepavali. The video, which highlighted an assortment of Indian snacks was neither educational nor inclusive — instead, the foods were made a mockery, as though its flavours and textures weren't familiar to Singapore's multi-cultural landscape.
These sentiments can't help but recall a scene from ABC sitcom Fresh Off the Boat, where the character Eddie brings home-cooked noodles for his school lunch only to have his white classmates exclaim in disgust that he's eating worms. Eddie then goes home and because he doesn't want to feel left out, requests for his mother to pack him "white people lunch" instead. Simply put, when you make fun of people, they get hurt. When authoritative media outlets make fun of people's cuisine (an ethnic minority's at that) and broadcast it to the world, it hurts even deeper.
From a fellow ethnic minority in Singapore, let me leave you with three things: 1. No, you do not get to tell me what I find offensive or not; 2. I don't need to "lighten up"; and 3. If it's indeed a joke, I'd be laughing, but I'm not.
In fact, my threshold for humour's pretty low too — I enjoy the American version of The Office instead of the British original.