Month: October 2011

Dealing with messy diversity

Being local. Feeling foreign

I went shopping for face powder last week. The saleslady dismissed a whole range of colors saying they would be too fair for me, and ended up selling me one that turned out to be three shades too dark. At the hairdresser’s, the only pictures they had everywhere were of Chinese and Caucasian models. At a practical level, this disturbed me. Would they know how to cut my hair? As it turns out, most hairdressers here immediately suggest straightening the hair, because they only know how to deal with straight hair. It’s not fair, of course, to blame either the saleslady or the hairdresser. But I mention these vignettes as examples of how easy it is to feel invisible when you are of minority race.

That’s why Ow Yeong Wai Kit’s article in the “Letters Home” section of the Straits Times today resonated with me. This 23-year-old Literature major at the National University of Singapore who is now on an exchange program at University College Dublin wrote about feeling foreign in Ireland. While everyone he has met in Ireland has been unfailingly polite, the writer mused on what it felt like to be a member of a racial minority. It could have ended there, but what struck me as particularly insightful was the way in which he then went on to link that feeling to those of people who live their entire lives as minorities. “Some tough questions can be asked of ourselves in Singapore,” he says, with a blinding flash of insight that I find especially laudable, given that there is little chance for that sort of perspective to develop in our racially sanitized education system.

The Immigrant-Singaporean

When the Prime Minister, in his National Day Rally speech, spoke of “our shared sense of our history and our common destiny”, I appreciated where he was coming from. As part of a larger strategy of ensuring economic prosperity, I can see how it can seem necessary to focus on that which appears unifying and downplay that which appears divisive. The problem is that we have never addressed the diversity that is an integral part of our national history.

While most of the early immigrants may have arrived in equally dire straits, they evolved very differently as their respective communities took root and made Singapore their home. When glorifying our common heritage, we look back to this early stage. We try to link it to the state of the nation now, with its reorientation as a land of hope for immigrants. We’re in a state of confusion now: we are told that mass immigration is necessary because we aren’t producing enough babies, we aren’t producing enough ideas. Apparently we aren’t producing enough of anything. We are sometimes accused of being xenophobic. Singapore is a land of immigrants, we are told. Your own ancestors came from somewhere else.

This is true, we reply. But there is a dissonance we feel between the rhetoric of ethnic categories forced upon us and the growing sense of national identity that we feel. Why is it that when we FEEL so essentially Singaporean, we are constantly having the notion that there is no such thing imposed upon us? The category “Singaporean”, apparently, is one that has to contain ethnic sub-categories. This is the only way in which we can be primed to accept rapid switches in immigration policy. There may be new Singaporeans, but they are no different from you. You have no claim on this nation that is different from theirs. You have immigrant roots too. It is the immigrant identity that is valorized over the Singaporean identity. Yet the Singapore identity is one of diversity too, except that this very real, bottom-up diversity is very different from the top-down diversity of the shared history rhetoric.

Embracing authentic diversity

This is one of the reasons why racial harmony as an ideal never goes more than clothes-deep. In schools, Racial Harmony Day is often a colorful celebration, with students of one race donning the traditional costumes of another. But this means nothing, when no one wears their traditional costumes anyway.  You may wear my sari, but you know nothing about what it is like to be in my skin. All the messy implications of ethnic differences are swept under the anvil-heavy cover of racial harmony.

When I was a child, I was always conscious of being different from the people around me. My skin was different, the way I spoke English was different, my hair was different, the way I dressed and ate and worshipped were all different. My textbooks always portrayed people of my race as having dark brown skin, and I didn’t see that as representing me in any way because my skin was not that particular shade of brown. In fact, no one’s was! But I knew, even in kindergarten, that that was supposed to be me. There was never any discussion in school about the subtleties of various cultures. No one knew. My classmates would say I was black, and it was my mother who taught me the trick of holding up a black pencil against my skin and teaching the other kids that the two colours were different. I did so much teaching from the day I stepped into school. I even had to teach my teachers. No, Mrs Yap, it is neither right nor accurate to say that Indians have more lice in their hair than Chinese people. Miss Tan, there is no point scrubbing at my knees. That is pigment, not dirt.

I find it so strange when we talk about a shared history. Certainly there are ways in which our pasts are the same. But there are essential ways in which they are different. That difference does not go away. It gets deeply embedded in the social fabric. In the increasingly borderless world that we are moving towards today, I think it is very important to bring the differences into our discussions about national identity. School is an appropriate place for these discussions to take place. There are many models available for teaching about diversity in a way that treats all groups with compassion. Even as a child I never actually blamed anyone who singled me out on the basis of my race. There was some level at which I understood that it was the result of larger forces.

That we are a nation of immigrants is an important fact of our past. That we are now a nation of citizens who want to claim our national identity in ways that are not always economically viable is an important fact of our present. That we must transcend imposed ethnic categories and the artificial cultural packages that accompany them is an important fact of our future. There ARE differences between us. All of us being Singaporean does not have to mean that we ignore these differences. Embracing a Singaporean identity means understanding these differences in authentic ways. It is the work that we have to put into doing this that holds the most potential for transforming us as a nation.