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Stealth-mode racism

Not all racist acts take place in dodgy areas or in globally condemned public outbursts.

Michelle Chen
4 minute read
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Michelle Chen

Michelle is a Malaysian, a Chinese and a banana. She thinks this is a mad country, but there's no place like home.

The first time I was ever called a chink was at a friend’s birthday party at a shady-looking building in Vancouver, Canada, filled with people who were either stoned, drunk or on their way to a combination of both.

The building actually housed an art exhibition of sorts, mostly street art which, in this case, meant graffiti and wildly abstract paintings and sculptures placed under flashing disco lights. Alcohol was sold on the side, and a bouncer at the main entrance checked everyone’s ID before letting them in.

I was standing to the side with a lager in hand, trying to understand the apparently random strokes of red paint which formed the particular installation before me when a girl who looked about my age staggered up to me and peered blearily into my face. She was wearing a black leather jacket and skirt and her hair was done up in dreadlocks. Her words came out slurred, and I could smell the weed on her breath.

“Hey, you’re a chink,” she said, holding up a piece of paper with Chinese characters on it. “Whazz this say?”

Too flabbergasted by her question to process the fact that I’d just been called a chink, I told her the truth: “Sorry, I don’t read Chinese.”

“Oh okay,” she said before lurching off, presumably to find someone who wasn’t a total banana.

To this day, the memory evokes more amusement than anything else. But you don’t need to be following the news very closely to know that for others, the experience of being singled out based solely on race can be far more harmful.

In the US, anti-Asian incidents have been on the rise, among the latest of which saw a 65-year-old woman identified as an immigrant from the Philippines pushed to the ground and kicked hard enough to fracture her pelvis while bystanders made no move to help.

We read about such things and are horrified or, at the very least, moved to acknowledge that they are wrong and should not have happened. We might spare a moment to reflect on how it could easily have been us or our parents, then we move on to other, more urgent, matters. We might even congratulate ourselves on being, in comparison, a shining example of humanity and civilisation. We, of course, have never shoved an older woman to the ground and we have certainly never landed one in hospital with a fractured pelvis. And if such a thing were to happen in front of us, we would of course rush to intervene.

But not all racist acts take place in weed dens or in public outbursts. In slow and stealthy ways, attitudes of the same vein have crept into our lives as well, especially when immigrants and foreigners are involved. Those who cut the grass and sweep the roads are automatically categorised as of a lower class, and even those who clean our houses and serve our food at restaurants are either ignored or bullied just because they have fewer defences at hand.

My family takes care of a small food business that my grandmother began after she retired from the corporate sector, and I have lost count of the number of times that the workers, mostly from Myanmar and Indonesia, were badly treated by customers who did an about-turn when a local colleague intervened.

In another incident in Vancouver which still makes me shrug, my sister and I were lining up to pay for our groceries at a Walmart. Behind us was an older couple, both seated on mobility scooters. As we inched our way to the cashier, we heard the man say to the woman, “The problem with this country is that there are too many Asians.”

How many times have we said something along those lines about the foreigners here in Malaysia, disregarding the fact that much of our infrastructure is built by foreign labour while our homes and children are tended to by immigrants? We may decry the number of foreigners who are in the country illegally, but even so, it is counterproductive to vent our nationalistic outrage on them without also taking to task those responsible for granting them entry or for keeping them in a state of limbo as they try desperately to renew the necessary paperwork while dodging authorities on the street. I know of workers who have lost thousands of ringgit to middle-men and agents who promise to help them renew their permits and then vanish with their hard-earned money in hand.

Even among our fellow Malaysians, racist acts and words are evident every day. Sometimes these can be funny. But it’s one thing to bandy about jokes with our friends; it’s an entirely different matter to say or do things in the earnest belief that we are entitled to something that we are not. I recently heard of someone who resigned from a company, stating among his reasons for doing so that his colleagues often spoke in front of him using their mother tongue. This made him feel as though they were speaking badly of him.

Why anyone would automatically assume that just because they do not understand what is being said around them that everyone else is talking about them is easy to explain but difficult to justify. But instead of worrying so much about how others see us, it might be more beneficial for us to take such opportunities to expand our horizons and learn new things – in this case, another language.

After all, there is nothing to lose from showing others kindness and respect, and being open to learning a little more than we knew the day before.