by Sabariesh Ilankathir (17A13A)
As many may have heard, Mediacorp’s streaming service, Toggle, recently released a controversial episode of “I want to be a Star”. The show itself is about calefares, bit-actors and the popular narrative of small-time actors trying to make it big. In episode 6, Shane Pow, an actor on the show, wore blackface makeup to stand in for his Indian colleague, who was meant to play an African-American character. Yes, it is still 2016, and we haven’t magically time travelled to a period when this would have been considered humour. Yes, blackface. Oh yes, you didn’t read it wrongly, they wanted an Indian actor to portray an African-American character. This continues to baffle me even though it’s been weeks since the incident came to light.
I could go on and on to criticise Mediacorp and Toggle for their acute insensitivity and racism. But that’s not what I’m concerned about. At least I wouldn’t have been if it were just that. I would have cringed and then walked away, comforted by the fact that despite it being racism, I would still be assured in the knowledge of public awareness, that most Singaporeans know this to be wrong. But I was let down quite firmly and surely by this mature and intelligent public.
People outraged by this incident were dismissed by others as being too sensitive and too juvenile. It’s almost as if they were more concerned with how we voice our frustration with the racism than they were about the actual racism itself. We can’t become too comfortable with excusing racism as being innocuous, good old-fashioned humor. We can’t let that become the national script.
The burden of the brutalized isn’t to comfort the bystander. We don’t have any obligation to sugarcoat the truth: that national media blatantly and unabashedly dug up a decades old icon of racism and passed it off as mere humor at the expense of a culture that endured pain and suffering under the whites for decades. So no. It’s not a harmless joke.
Blackface is more than just a form of theatrical makeup used by non-black performers to portray black characters; it was a vessel for proliferating stereotypes associated with the black community. It has long been seen as a relic of an age of intolerance and oppression. By using it in this context, surprisingly we somehow managed to load this racist image with even more racism.
And this is the part that gets to me. There seems to be an inertia that prevents any involvement in any discussion with regards to race in Singapore. The story of our multiracial and multicultural exceptionalism has underpinned Singapore’s democracy, our way of life and our political narrative for decades now. And yet people still refuse to talk about racism. They want to cover it up instead; mask it as mere humor.
So when do we start caring? In America, we see paid public servants shoot a 12-year-old playing with a toy gun in broad daylight because of the stereotypes associated with the colour of his skin. And that was not a one-off incident. It has become common and it has become the norm for the black community to be ill-treated at the hands of policemen infected by one contagious idea: that all black men are dangerous. It’s wired into their psyche. If we keep hiding every stereotype, every racially motivated comment, every action, under this huge all-encompassing rug of “comfort”, then we are going to start getting used to it. If we are only going to start pretending like we care when some Indian kid gets shot for the colour of his skin, then don’t you think it’s a waste that a kid had to lose his life because his ancestors were just too uncomfortable to have a proper discussion on what’s right and wrong?
I don’t pretend to know the half of what entails a solution to racism. I don’t pretend to know what’s best for minority communities or the Singaporean society because frankly speaking – I don’t. Pretending is part of the problem. We should stop trying to pretend that everything is normal by repackaging ignorance and malice as ice cream and unicorns. We should stop pretending to understand each others’ perspectives and try for once to actually listen and act with awareness. But that requires empathy and sensitivity. This sensitivity endorses the inclusion of truth and open dialogue in anything related to race – now that can be meaningful and monumental.