This is a question I get asked occasionally when I am back home, and something I have questioned and pondered upon for ages. It's not always easy to talk to my Singaporean friends about this because they, as we all do with our own respective countries, can never truly see things from the eyes of an outsider. No matter how well meaning or open-minded we may be, it is difficult to accept that that which we hold sacred and dear may be flawed. Almost every discussion I have ultimately ends in a dismissive acknowledgement because, even though we may criticise our own countries, we will always get protective when someone else does the same.
Does this mean my article is going to be a criticism? No. I'm not here to wax lyrical about how Singapore oppresses me (boohoo) or how I feel restricted (poor me) or whatever other criticisms expats have been known to spout on a daily basis. I don't have much of a leg to stand on, considering which countries I come from, and any ranting and raising of my blood pressure is a waste of good time anyway.
I'd firstly like to state that the question 'is Singapore a racist country?' has many layers to it, and often when people ask that they are really asking 'is Singapore a prejudiced country?' Racism, by definition, is entirely institutional and systemic, and goes beyond calling someone a 'dirty darkie' or a 'thin-lipped cracker.'
So, does Singapore have institutionalised racism, you ask? From the little knowledge and observations I have, I would say that race definitely factors into the institution. There is a social stratification of race that is perpetuated by the system, but is not necessarily oppressive or harmful. The three main ethnicities are Chinese, Indian and Malay, but none of those ethnicities are actively killing or persecuting the other, and any racism there may be is vastly incomparable to what we see in the United States or South Africa, for example.
The more important question in this case is whether the institution is set up to disadvantage black people. The answer is no. There cannot be more than 1 000 black people living in a country of 5 million, so anyone actively enforcing racism on us would be someone with a vendetta and far too much time on their hands.
Sure, there is a difference in treatment to expats. We can't buy houses here (unless it's on Sentosa Island and you have a couple million bucks to spare), and we have to pay $15 to get into the national gallery (which I am personally offended by, mind you). Big deal. If I'm being honest, I benefit a lot from the system by virtue of my foreignness - I get a lot of opportunities as the 'poster child for diversity,' and I'm legally guaranteed to get a job upon graduation, even if I major in soap carving. Perhaps black professionals here have had a different experience, and if so, I would love to have a discussion about it. However, from where I stand, my answer is that no, Singapore is not racist towards black people.
Now, onto the juicy question: is there prejudice towards black people in Singapore? Yes. There is. Some people may get defensive and say I'm too sensitive, but to that I reply that I grew up in a Shona household, and there is no place for sensitivity at our dinner table (I'm not joking, if you wanted to sulk, you had to do it alone in your room). Someone offends you, you get over it. I grew up on rooibos tea and tough love, so it takes quite a lot to hurt my feelings.
That said, living in Singapore has been very difficult, and more so because when prejudice is not outright and overt, it is ignored and never addressed. Your feelings are invalidated by even the most well-meaning people. But I can tell you what prejudice in Singapore feels like.
Prejudice in Singapore is when little children stare at you in fear, whilst their parents pretend like they don't notice, and say nothing.
Prejudice is when people marvel at how clean and pretty your hair is, because their expectation is for it to be dirty and ugly.
Prejudice is when the only attention or recognition you get from a person of the opposite sex is when you serve to fulfil a fetish, otherwise you are undateable and unwanted.
Prejudice is when one too many Chinese uncles changes their cab sign and drives off the moment they see you signalling.
Prejudice is when old men think it's appropriate to ask if you're a 'negro like Michelle Obama.'
Prejudice is when you realise that the grumpy and rude auntie serving you is perfectly pleasant to everyone else before and after you.
Prejudice is in the slip of the tongue, when even the friendliest of faces equate blackness to violence, theft, corruption and crude behaviour.
Prejudice is when complete strangers see you as a novelty, and poke you and prod you and pull your hair on the MRT without ever asking.
Prejudice is when 'You're not that type of black ah. You're the good kind of black,' is meant as a compliment.
Prejudice is when you get turned down from countless agencies in a supposedly cosmopolitan city because they 'cannot market your image,' i.e. they may use white or even mixed race girls, but they will not use a darker-skinned black girl to sell their product.
Prejudice is when you are expected to speak on the behalf of all black people everywhere during discussions about international or racial affairs.
Prejudice is in the small, everyday things that drive you insane because no one notices them and you can't tell if you're being overly sensitive or not.
What's worse is that every complaint or bad experience a non-black foreigner has had is probably twice as bad for you, but they don't believe you when you point it out.
I grew up in post-apartheid South Africa, and whilst I didn't live directly under a system of oppression, I was internalising its remnants before I even knew what racism was. I've had some awful experiences back home, far worse than anything I ever experienced in Singapore. I've had people glare at me or purposefully ignore me when I enter shops or cafés, to let me know that my skin does not belong. I've gone on holiday and seen a mass exodus of white families from every pool the moment we got in. I've been called names. I've been addressed rudely in public. My family even moved country when I was a child because my mother did not want my race to be a burden, after I came home from school crying and wishing I were white, because my classmates' parents said they could not be friends with a black person. Please understand that when I tell you these things, I don't mean it to get your pity or sympathy, but to merely to explain that race and prejudice have always been a part of my life, and I thought that after so many years I had come to terms with it.
After growing up in international schools and becoming well-versed in issues about racism, I thought nothing could faze me. What I realised living in Singapore is that no matter how secure I was in my own skin, no matter how thick-skinned living in a post-apartheid country had made me, I was not prepared to face it when I was not amongst my own people. When no one else looks like you, or knows the struggles you have been through, the feelings of inferiority and self-loathing about your blackness that you have had to fight against your whole life. When no one really understands how difficult it is to be seen first as black, then second as a person, and reminded of your blackness every. single. day. When no one knowns what it's like to feel so hopelessly alone in a sea of unfamiliar faces, it makes it so much harder to stay strong and 'get over it.'
I'm not going to lie, I nearly left Singapore. I nearly broke down and transferred school. And I remember the exact day when I was pushed one bit too far, down to what I was wearing and what thinly-veiled racial remark slipped from the lips of the smiling face that could not see past their privilege.
I have cried so many tears. I have felt so tired of being black.
But ultimately, I have become a much stronger person. I have grown a very very thick melanin-filled skin, and whilst it may make me seem disinterested, or intimidating to approach, it is the only thing that stops me from hurting.
Singapore is not a prejudiced country as a whole, especially not when compared to numerous countries in which black people are persecuted and looked down upon every day. However, prejudice does exist, lying somewhere under the surface. It is hard, but I have reached a place where it bothers me far less, where the effect is not as deeply felt. Over time, I have met the most understanding and supportive people who may not understand how I feel, but they are willing to listen to my experiences and never dismiss them.
I really do enjoy living in Singapore, and being pushed to the edge and having to confront my 'blackness' has made me learn to love my skin even more. I think I really needed this, and I think I'm here to stay.
Pepper & Söl