Thursday, June 16, 2011

Seeing difference differently.

Recently I met a Chinese friend (let's call her Ann) who was in Europe and she remarked that she was getting a lot of racist remarks on her appearance (speculating that it was possibly due to her recent very 'Chinese' haircut) here in Holland. I looked at her and thought to myself, that's nothing new for me.

My ethnic appearance (call me brown, yellow, olive, or sawo matang) has been commented on for maybe a third of my life. It's nice to be taken for a local in some regions like Southeast Asia (Cambodia, Thailand, Malaysia, Indonesia), but surprisingly it also happened to me in France and surprise, here in Holland - no thanks to their colonial histories. The French occupied Indochina during WW1 and the Dutch were infamously in the New East Indies for 400 years.

When I was studying in Grenoble, I could speak French so many people thought I was simply first generation French. And here, there was a large flow of Indonesians after WW2, and more recently migrants from Suriname (another Dutch colony, independent since 1975) of Javanese ancestry, who migrated to Suriname during the late 19th and early 20th century.

So for Ann, she had not been made conscious of how her ethnic appearance, because in Singapore the Chinese form the majority. At best, there could be Burmese foreign workers hitting on her. (The Bangladeshis tend to hit on the Malays and Indians, haha.)

Relatedly, she also voiced her unhappiness with the anti-PRC-migration sentiments in Singapore, leading up to the elections. When I asked her if she liked having bus drivers that couldn't speak English, she said, I don't hate immigrants - my grandmother was an immigrant.

The difference though, is that if our grandmothers migrated to Singapore now, hers could stay and would get PR or citizenship served on a silver platter, while mine would be mistaken for a domestic worker and treated like third-class citizens.

Sociologist Ruth Frankenberg wrote in her article "When we are capable of stopping we begin to see” in the book Names We Call Home, that "privilege is the (non) experience of not being slapped in the face."
It is not only people from the dominant race and class in a country that have advantages over working class people and minorities, but those of us with privilege often don't or can't see how these differences matter. When those with more privileges do not see these different circumstances, they help to in fact, reproduce race and class disparities.

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