Black Lives Matter, racism, and discrimination: Why it's important for Asia
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It's no surprise with the heightening tensions in the United States, that more Asians are taking part in the conversation around race relations than ever before. From Instagram posts to spreading awareness to donations and education links about the cause, there seems to be an uprising of interest and a societal reckoning of sorts, compelling us all to action. But whilst our intentions may be good, many are asking — how does Black Lives Matter truly impact those living in Asia and why do we care so much about this movement, particularly with limited black residents and citizens in Asian countries?
Well perhaps because the age-old tale of being discriminated against for the colour of one's skin, the inflection of one's accent or the circumference of one's eyes and features, is one that hits home and hits home hard. While the plight of African-Americans and more widely, black people, can never be comparable to that of an Asian's, there are striking similarities and pain points arising from their cause and movement for equality, that resonate closely with the lives of many in this region. Corruption, police brutality, profiling, bullying on the basis of skin tone are all amongst the top reasons why Asia can't stop getting behind #BlackLivesMatter. Despite being in different continents, the same facets of hatred that make daily life unbearable are shared and recognised.
Or maybe, seeing the power of this movement has given Asians a chance to reflect on what racism truly means within our own continent and countries and how we address the countless micro and macro aggressions within our own societies. In a study conducted by the Institute of Policy Studies (IPS) and racial harmony group, OnePeople.sg in 2018, survey results indicated that whilst religious harmony and integration were rising locally, 73% of Malays, 68% of Indians and just over half of others (including Eurasians) felt they still experienced discrimination in the workplace in Singapore based on language, skin colour, education or other distinguishing factors.
Couple this with these elements: the pressure in Indian countries for women to bleach their skin and achieve the coveted 'wheatish' complexion for marriage, to the standards of impossibly fair and taut alabaster skin in Korea, to the ostracising of Muslims in Afghanistan and Pakistan based on the actions of a few radical extremists and you can see why and how a push for change can start to resonate within this part of the world.
Of course, you needn't look further than the vitriol that has been spit up by thousands worldwide against innocent Chinese and other Asian races in the backdrop of the now raging Coronavirus pandemic — accused of everything from attempted world domination to being inherently diseased to being responsible for the entire world's COVID-19 diagnoses, racism against Asians has never been at a higher tension point than today. Far from verbal abuse alone, many Chinese-Americans, Chinese-Australians and Chinese-English are enduring physical violence and threats to their lives in countries they've been born and raised in, all based off unfounded hatred and frankly, pure ignorance.
The aforementioned should realistically sum it up. But for the benefit of others in the community who are still questioning the notion of locals getting behind a distant movement, let's go into detail with three main reasons.
We see the movement as a chance to self-reflect on our own societal ideals
"Black Lives Matter is undoubtedly an important cultural milestone no matter where you are in the world. And while the subject matter may not be relevant to me personally, I can understand and empathise with the essence of injustice and inequality." Says Cheryl, 29, an advertising director in Singapore. "If anything, these events should educate us so that we make informed judgements even here in Asia."
Mariana, 29 and a corporate lawyer, agrees. "We have to care about and support the Black Lives Matter movement as part of our common humanity. At the same time we can take inspiration and have the courage to start (if you haven't already) or continue to speak out on race issues in Singapore or anywhere in Asia. You have to speak out. Speak out, for your friends who you love of different races who may feel they can't speak out about their racist experiences out of fear it will make you feel uncomfortable or that you'll judge them. Speak out, so they know it's ok for them to speak out too."
Perhaps that's the crux of the argument isn't it? Why do we need to be the same race as the people suffering on the other side of the world to activate our common thread of humanity and empathy? Since when does marginalisation, segregation, and brutality require the same tone of melanin to garner outrage and condemnation? As Asians, we know and understand the feeling of judging and being judged, but how many times do we utilise our voices to stand up to the prejudices we may be harbouring, both internally and externally?
For many, the Black Lives Matter movement, has given them the vehicle and the mouthpiece for courage they've wanted for a long time in Asia.
"I've seen so many examples of racism and hatred in Singapore since I've moved here three years ago," shares Melissande, 27, a marketing professional. "But because this isn't my country (I'm French) I haven't said anything. Watching the Black Lives Matter movement, I feel like I can finally openly talk about racism and stop people from saying disgusting things. It's almost like I know have a reason or an excuse."
We can relate to the contributing factors of race & class and how they affect our society
Whilst the conversation about racial prejudice has been largely around the treatment of black people in the US based on the colour of their skin, much of the tension we're seeing also arises from the systemic oppression that classism has had over countless years in America. Black families on average earn 10x less per household in the United States with one in five black families incurring a higher percentage of debt compared to their equity. Compare that to their 66% owning white counterparts and you will see that history has never truly allowed African-Americans to play economic catch-up.
Snapshot to a continent like Asia, where half a billion people are counted as not economically secure and living on less than between US$5.50-$15.50 per day, we may have more in common with the Black Lives Matter Movement than we think.
Amanda, a medical professional aged 35, shared:
"I'm half Indian, half-Malay and spent many years in India growing up. When I see #BLM and people dying or being locked up because the system is against them, I feel a sense of heartbreak. I watched lots of people on the streets of India get unfairly arrested for being poor or homeless and they don't even have the funds to eat, forget paying legal fees and asking for justice. There is so much corruption that you don't need to be black to understand why it hurts."
Mahmood, 32, an IT Technician agrees.
"We migrated to Singapore from Bangladesh when I was just one years old and I've been raised as a Singaporean my whole life. I see many of my Singaporean country-men struggling to live with poor wages and strenuous working conditions in hawker centres while other Bangla brothers and sisters face discrimination in foreign dormitories and the construction industry. I know how harsh people can be to darker men and women and when you're poor and you want a better life, sometimes you can feel so helpless."
And whilst Amanda and Mahmood both agree that black people and Asians have very different levels of impact in the current climate, Amanda feels that the plight of both minority communities is inextricably linked by two key factors: poverty and a lack of education.
"If we give them the money to support themselves and have basic welfare, we can start to re-build a system where they can go into it educated and empowered to defend themselves as opposed to victims of circumstance and history."
The world is changing and more and more of us want to be free of the burdens of discrimination and judgement
We've all heard how millennials and Gen Z are fast becoming the first group in history of virtually colour-blind individuals, raised in a melting pot they were born into. They've known no other world than one where everyone lives together and for many, they can't understand why this is still an issue.
"I don't understand why need to argue about race. Like it's 2020. We all have friends from different backgrounds and cultures, most of my friends aren't even Singaporean. I don't see them for their skin, I see them for them as people. Is it really that hard to do?" Samuel, 19, is an expat from the US who has grown up in Singapore for the last ten years.
Sam is not alone in how he feels. Most expats I spoke to vehemently agreed that they're also raising their children to be aware and respectful of celebrating racial differences, but to be blind to them when it comes to play, work and giving one another respect or equality.
"Black Lives Matter to me is part of a wider worldwide problem and I think it's really important for us to care." Says Martine, 31, a Dutch national who is raising a one-year old in Singapore.
John, 44, agrees. "I tell my children you're lucky to grow up in a place like Singapore, where you can go to international schools and meet people of different backgrounds. Learn about the world, open your mind and absorb the culture. I want them to take back this well-rounded view of the world if we ever move home to Australia, so they can continue to live it and pass it on no matter where they go."
Ultimately, we can ask all day why we should care and what we get out of doing so. But the truth is, this is a defining moment in history not just for the US, but the world. For the first time in a long time, we've reflected as human beings to take accountability for our actions and focus on change that is tangible, meaningful and long-lasting and leading to a more harmonious society. You don't need to be any colour to understand that. Can we stamp out racism in its entirety and remove all prejudice? Maybe not now, maybe not ever. Will we change the hearts and minds of every human being? Never. Can we accomplish total and utter world peace and no judgement? Highly unlikely.
But what we can continue is this dialogue and do so openly, without chastising anyone for caring, be they black, white, Indian, Asian or any other. This is a human problem, not a race one and if we don't understand that today, we perhaps never will.
Remember: "Injustice anywhere, is a threat to justice everywhere" — Martin Luther King Jnr.