by Atifa Othman
The words of someone’s father once slammed me in my face like a truck when he assumed I was leeching his son’s money and influencing him to do drugs.
He wasn’t the only parent to think that of me. I recently stirred problems because of the exact same assumptions by someone else’s mother.
It was nothing much, though. In fact, it was hilarious. Or, at least, that’s what people want to normalise as the ideal response to microaggressions.
The thing about microaggressions is that compared to a literal truck hitting you in your face, it’s characterised by evasiveness. None of the parents who were concerned about me tainting their children’s lives displayed overt racism. They didn’t say to my face, “My son’s going to be a druggie because you’re Malay”, or “You’re going to make my child broke because you’re Malay and you need money.” The anger in me only manifested after sour faces, lacking conversations and the all too familiar grudges began to make sense.
Those two incidents almost step over the line to qualify as overt racism, of course. But the truth is, the various casual microaggressions I’ve faced are not very different in their significance.
One casual microaggression I get a lot is the cringeworthy “You don’t look and behave like normal Malays”. I believe that I look visibly Malay mainly because of my skin tone, but from experience I have been mistaken for other races due to other features. My eyes, compared to most Malays, are small and almond shaped, and depending on where I am and who I’m speaking to, my voice does not carry a Malay accent. I’ve also been told I have a European facial structure, whatever that means.
Because of this, I take up a complicated position as a Malay-Muslim girl. I’m sometimes seen as “obviously Malay” by some in a negative tone, or “not very Malay” by others in a positive tone. And the pressing question I’ve always had in response to these comments is: Why is one seen as better than the other?
I grew up around an extended family that dotes on the beauty of fair skin and Arabic or Caucasian features, so it shames me to admit that I once hated my brown skin and button nose due to the social experiences I had. For a while in my younger days, I’d casually comment on how the darkness of people’s skin determines whether they’re good-looking or not. I even remember putting on makeup three shades too light for my skin when I was fourteen because I was ashamed of being dark— I’m grateful I came to my senses and decided to stop looking like a chocolate donut with an overdose of powdered sugar.
What people don’t understand about microaggressions is that condoning their normalisation reflects ignorance towards issues affecting marginalised individuals.
Even within the Malay-Muslim community, prejudices exist. There are Malay-Muslim men I’ve met who have openly said they don’t want to marry dark-skinned girls or Indian-Muslim girls. I’ve heard of Malay parents who forbid their daughters from marrying a man with low qualifications. Countless married Malay women I know have told me that before their wedding day, they were advised to stay away from the sun so they don’t end up looking dark on their special occasion.
In general, the Malay-Muslim community itself looks down on Malays who are poor, dark or uneducated— the three infamous traits that form the core of most casual microaggressions and racist jokes by non-Malays.
The ability to ignore the weight of microaggressions ties in with privilege. With my positionality in the Singaporean society, I can afford to ignore casual microaggressions like “You dress nicely for a Malay” or “You seem rich for a Malay”, because I live in a condominium and can spend a satisfactory amount of money on myself at present. But I won’t.
I once struggled through a period of living on $200 a month for all expenditures, and I am aware that even this does not compare to how much individuals who come from impoverished families in Singapore can spend. I had to constantly borrow money from my non-Malay friends who preferred eating at more lavish restaurants during my polytechnic years and return the money to them at a later timing. It was always hard to say no because I didn’t want to feel ashamed about not actually being “very classy for a Malay” like some of my Chinese classmates casually told me. My family’s financial situation gradually became better over the years, but I tried to provide for myself during my university years so I wouldn’t have to burden my family. Compared to most of my other peers, I experienced what it was like to work part-time while studying at a tertiary level.
I possess more privilege than some Malay people in certain aspects, yet I’ve also had my struggles and know that microaggressions reflect a reality that only certain people can afford to ignore. It’s easy to say that microaggressions don’t actually exist, or show disinterest in them because they supposedly don’t compare to “actual” prejudice. It’s easy to think that accepting a Malay person as a friend because they’re “not very Malay” is fine if you’re a Chinese person or a fair-skinned Malay who passes as racially ambiguous. It’s easy to make casual jokes about how a Malay man driving a BMW is a thief if you’re an educated Malay man with a high financial income. People forget that one’s positionality correlates with their ability to distance themselves from prejudice, and that prejudice can also manifest in covert ways. No matter what your stance on prejudice and racism is, refusing to listen to a marginalised person’s discomfort towards microaggressions means that you, as a person with more privilege than them, are denying them of their voice.
Saying something that casually degrades a marginalised person may not be the same as calling them a racial slur. But the fact is that microaggressions can seep into social experiences such as assumptions about job interview candidates, and expectations of a woman’s hypersexuality based on her race. Microaggressions may not be immediately offensive, but they exemplify how certain sayings carrying a hint of prejudice have been socialised as appropriate by those who can afford ignorance.
Atifa is an NTU student reading a Master of Arts. She is particularly interested in adorable animals, nuances, intersectional feminism and gender and sexuality studies.
Illustration by Wan Xiang Lee