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Racism: The Politics Of “It’s Just A Joke!”

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“What’s the difference between a park bench and a Malay father?” “What?” “A bench can actually support a family of 4.”Laughter erupts amongst my friends. I sit there, mortified. I glance at my only other Malay friend there, looking equally appalled. The girl who made the joke sees our discomfort. “Chill, it’s just a joke”, she shrugs.

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Casual racism in Singapore

As the phrase implies, this form of racism manifests in everyday conversations – usually as a comment or joke, consisting of “negative stereotypes or prejudice about a person’s race or ethnicity.” As a minority, I experienced my fair share of such jokes; so have my friends. These experiences were echoed in a study, where 60% of those surveyed said they heard racist remarks from friends or colleagues. The study also revealed that 65% surveyed ignored these comments, much like what everybody I knew did. These comments upset us, yet we remain silent. Is it simply us fearing to vocalize our indignation, or is there a culture present in Singapore that normalizes such comments? I believe there is, especially evident in the Singaporean media. Apart from shows such as The Noose – a show based on the overt use of caricatures of different races – there are many other examples to choose from; take Shey Bhargava’s audition for Ah Boys to Men, where he was asked to play a “full-blown Indian man”. Alternatively, refer to Kiss 92 DJs comment that Chinese people sleep more because they are “raised to work hard” but Indians and Malays sleep less because they are “raised to go out and party.”. More confounding was Shane Pow’s blackface in Toggle’s ‘I Want To Be A Star’, where they also concluded that Indians and Africans are the same. Singaporean Media: Satire or Racism?

Defenders of such comedy would say that I lacked appreciation for satire. But what is satire? Cambridge defines it as “a way of criticizing people or ideas in a humorous way, especially in order to make a political point”. Now, in context of these media controversies; what are the critiques here? Does anybody watch these shows and emerge a better person, aware of implicit racial biases in Singapore? Or do they exist for laughs at the expense of minority races?

One may argue that while shows such as The Noose is meant to shed light on socio-cultural issues in Singapore, it is not the show’s responsibility that their audience walks away enlightened. What then, is the purpose of the show? The mere replication of negative racial stereotypes? That is not satire. The very fact that people remember The Noose solely for their larger-than-life characters should be worrying. Why it’s never just “a joke”?

Casual racism has tangible ramifications. A study by Pew Research Centre showed that media is a powerful factor in shaping people’s subconscious racial prejudices. Aside from emboldening society to continue making fun of somebody’s culture and heritage, casual racism can also alienate minority races from society. For individuals, it can result in depression and low self-esteem, amongst others. When perpetrators downplay racist statements by excusing them as jokes, they inadvertently shrug off accountability for the consequences their statements have. Racism is not only about intention, but also about the impact. Instead of insisting that we never intended to be racist and offend someone, we should reflect on why our words aggrieved the other. We should stop portraying the victim as overly sensitive and evil for their disregard for the perpetrator’s harmless intention. Society has never evaluated actions based solely on intentions, so why start here? What should we do? Researchers have subscribed to the term “majority privilege”, whereby the majority of a population do not see things from the minority’s perspective. This becomes damaging when the majority disregards the emotions of minorities because they cannot relate to certain experiences. This necessitates platforms where minorities can speak up to raise awareness on racism they face, without being told they are overreacting.

The mere existence of platforms are not solutions, as the majority have to first acknowledge that they can be unwittingly racist. By continuing to laughs at such jokes, we signal to the media that this form of comedy is acceptable. The media, striving to garner appeal from the audience, creates programs with such jokes. We thus have broadcasts of insensitive content island-wide. The failure to recognize subtler forms of racism, such as this, results in us unconsciously contributing to racism, a concept we are so consciously against.

Race is an intrinsic part of one’s identity. We accept that in Singapore, since we so pride ourselves a multicultural society. However, does that still stand true when we, as a society, double over with laughter whenever someone’s culture is the butt of a joke.

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