Something happened today. Today, I realized how just how damaging racism can be.
Here’s the story:
I’m part of a Facebook group that connects Malay-Muslim Singaporean students overseas. This group has been doing some much needed grassroots activism work especially when it comes to connecting Malay-Muslim Singaporean students who are studying, working or living away from the home country. The only reason I’ve not been able to participate in most of their events is because they’re not based in the city I am currently in and I never seem to be in Singapore when the group meets there.This group is doing amazing work that I don’t think have been done before – it acts as a resource of information for Malay-Muslim students overseas or those planning to go overseas. The people on the group are enthusiastic and supportive, the space is welcoming and intellectually driven. I find the need to contextualize the space and my experience there today because I don’t want my words to be miscontrued as hatred for the space and its participants.
Couple days ago, I came across this on a blog I frequent (TRIGGER WARNING: The video contains violent racist language). It’s a post from Womanist Musings on the recent instances of White women verbally abusing people of color. I decided to share it on the wall of the Facebook group because, hey, there’s a bunch of Malay-Muslim Singaporeans who study, work and live in the U.K. and lots more back home who aspire to do so. So what do we think about instances like these? Now, I’m saying it right now – I have never been one to take discussions like these online. But in this case, I thought it might be interesting to spark some discussion in the space around the issue of racism. Let’s not kid ourselves shall we? As Malays, as Muslims, and as brown people, I am pretty sure that many of us have experienced racism in some way or another. Some of us think about this more than others but when experiences like the ones in U.K. public transportation happen, we are reminded again and again that we are brown, we are not White, that no matter how much we study, no matter how many degrees we have under our belt, no matter how rich we can become, no matter how many houses we own, no matter how many White friends we have, no matter how many times we’ve taken trips to West- we will never be White. We will always be what we are – brown people.
As expected of the space, my post received some attention on the Facebook group. I have to say – I have the utmost respect for the people in this group. They engage with one another with respect, understanding and willingness to learn. I was even given more resources to look at and my attention diverted to other similar incidents (TRIGGER WARNING: This video contains violent racist language)! That is why I was dismayed by some of the responses to my post.
Twice, I was ‘assured’ that there was ‘nothing to be worried about’. Twice, I was given personal vouches that most British people are ‘kind, understanding and polite people’ who ‘openly accept people of different faiths and races into their society’.
When I pointed out how it bothered me that the White people who were witnessing such racism and verbal violence were ‘just sitting there quietly’ on the train, someone responded by saying that he ‘respectfully disagreed that “White people sit there quietly” because it ‘unfairly colours one group in a bad light.’ I was also told that engaging people on public transport might be ‘counterproductive as they might be drunk or high’.
Let me be clear here: There is never a reason to make an excuse for unacceptable racist behaviour. Especially when it happens on public transport.
When I say ‘White people sit there quietly and let this violence happen’, I mean it. I am not attacking individual white folk who have, in some point of their lives, come to the defense of people of color when it was needed. For those of you who have done so (and I know many of you), thank you. Thank you for being our ally. Thank you for not sitting back and allowing crap to happen. I am pointing out that majority of White people still let this kind of racism happen. If you have watched the videos, you will notice in the first one that NOBODY says anything to the white woman in a raging racist rant. If you watch the second video, a Black woman actively confronts the White woman while the other White people in the train just stare out the window or look at their phones. At one point, a Black man gets really angry and he told by others on the train to calm down and not to pursue the issue.
So let me get this straight: It’s alright to let a raging racist White woman say sh*t about immigration and people of color but a Black man is not allowed to stand up for himself and express his anger at verbal violence explicitly directed at him? And can someone please tell me why the Black woman was the only person on the train who was left to defend herself? Where are the White people? Where are our White allies who should have told the Raging Racist to stop? Staring into space or playing on their phones.At this point, Whiteness conveniently shrinks into the background as the people of color in the train are forced to listen to Raging Racist and forced to defend ourselves.
Again, when I say ‘ White people sit there quietly and let this violence happen’, I MEAN IT. I have seen it happen to me, I have seen it happen to friends of mine, I continue to see it happen. When Raging Racists go off on a rant about how we should ‘go back to country’ or that we’re ‘stealing their jobs’, why is it not okay to get angry and tell them to stop? I am not attacking the Whiteys – I am pointing out that this happens. I am calling out racist behaviour and in doing so, have essentially been called a racist for ‘unfairly coloring one group’.
Let’s remind ourselves that if there was any group of people who historically have ‘unfairly colored’ – literally colored – one group or several groups for that matter, it is White people. Does colonization ring a bell anyone? I mean, the very fact that we identify as ‘Malays’ and that we present ourselves as ‘Malays’ to the world is because of an 18th century anthropologist who came up with the brilliant idea of naming all peoples living in our part of the world with ‘tawny-colored skin, black hair and full,wide noses’ that one word. Oh, the irony.
I am not advocating that we all become vigilantes and enact our own form of violent justice when we see racist behaviour. It just really bothers me that NOBODY, NOBODY (especially no WHITE body) said anything to stop the unacceptable behaviour. When you see violence being enacted and you don’t do anything about it, you are complicit in that violence. If you saw someone being mugged on the street, would you just walk by hurriedly? If you saw a drunk girl being carried out by a bunch of guys onto the back alleyways of a club, would you just ignore what you’ve seen? Most of us would like to think we can answer ‘no’ (myself included), but can we really? If majority of the people in that train didn’t do jacksquat about the Raging Racists, how many of us would really say something when confronted with the same situation?
I was even more dismayed when I came across ‘White defending’ in the responses to my post – ‘It is counterproductive to engage drunk or high people on public transport’. ‘I am sure it is a rare occurrence and a large majority of the British are kind, understanding and polite people.’ These responses are the responses of White defenders. It is exactly this line of thought that excuses or justifies racism. I have no doubt in my mind that this is some form of internalized racism. The need to defend a group of people that historically and presently, continue to dominate and oppress the rest of the world with their culture, ideas and lifestyles is beyond me. My encounters with White defenders are not limited to this Facebook page experience. I have come across many, many White defenders. Some of them are my friends.
Whiteness rules with the help of people of color who think like this. When we engage in ‘White defending’ and make excuses for individual acts of racism, we are supporting and furthering the agenda of White supremacy. Whiteness is highly invested in ensuring that its privilege remains beyond question. Engaging in ‘White defending’ gives Whiteness a free pass – White people can continue to ignore the historical and present wrongs committed against people of color. White defenders are White man’s best friend. This is the thinking and these are the people that people with privilege turn to and point towards as proof that ‘Things are better now’ when some shit-disturber like myself decides to call out their bullshit.
When I was told that there was ‘nothing to worry about’ after I watched the video of the Raging Racists, I was essentially being told that I was complaining and worrying about nothing. It’s similar to those who say that historically marginalized people are on a constant mission to look for something to be offended about. My feelings were dismissed. As a community – people of color, anti-racists, feminists – have had our feelings dismissed for a long time now. Today, I write this to call to attention that I am not going to have my feelings dismissed any longer.
I think people get uncomfortable when we talk openly about this. Why? Because it shows that everyone is complicit in racism. Because it calls out the fact that the Raging Racists in the video are not the only ones who are racist or responsible for racist violence. They are not the ‘unique’ case , they are the common case. Everyone on the train who didn’t say anything is also responsible for the racist verbal violence. And when we come to realize that everyone is in one way or another complicit in racism, we realize that racism is not just about individuals saying some racist things this ONE TIME. Racism is not just an individual’s actions upon another individual. Racism is everywhere – it is in our culture, it is in our everyday interactions, it is in our systems and institutions. And when we shine a light on this bigger picture, we realize that racism is not just about one person doing something bad to another person. It is about centuries upon centuries of groups of people doing bad things to other groups of people and then, those groups of people punishing themselves, defending their bullies and saying they deserve the violence in the first place. Racism is a BIG OL’ GIANT ROCK THAT JUST WON’T SEEM TO BUDGE.
I know that at the end of some articles like these, some writers put in a note that reads: ‘These are my opinions and my opinions alone. I did not mean to offend anyone.’ This is not one of those articles. If I you have read my piece today and was offended at one, two or all of the points I’ve made, I am not going to apologize. I took time out from my day to write this sincerely, with my heart and mind. I mean every word.
If you want to enter into a discussion with me about this, I ask one simple thing: Please do so respectfully. I will not tolerate any kind of offensive, racist, sexist language or personal attacks.
I am particularly proud of what I’ve written here today. And I’m glad you took the time to read it.