When I was in university discussing available scholarships for graduate school with a friend, I suggested that she look within her community for available scholarships, since that was what I was doing. She replied and looked at me as if I understood what she was implying, “Chinese scholarships are so competitive! Everyone’s so smart.”
On another occasion, over dinner, a friend asked me to introduce my male friends to her, and I said “Well, I don’t think they’re your type.” To which she responded, “I don’t have a type anymore… I just don’t want… y’know… Malays.” She looked at me, with that knowing look, almost smug, expecting me to understand or agree to what she said.
This is just the tip of the iceberg, I have more where that came from. Maybe the other time when a friend said “your family is not like other Malay families”. What exactly is this “other” Malay families? I call my aunts and uncles Waks, Ciks, whathaveyou. My family has Nasi Lemak or Lontong for breakfast on the weekends, we crave for sambal belacan everytime we’re overseas, we wear baju kurungs every Hari Raya, and my mom stores fishes in those ice-cream tubs in the freezer. We consider ourselves a Malay family and I am your typical Malay girl.
What was interesting was the blitheness of their remarks, and how it was said with a complete lack of shame. Maybe, they do not see me as a Malay person. Even if they do, they assume I share the same racist views about my own community with them. Hence, I get stuck with all these “knowing looks”, and “y’knows”. No, I don’t know. No, I do not know scholarships available in the Malay community are “easy” to get (I would be on one, if it was). No, I do not know why you wouldn’t want to date a Malay boy. And no, I do not know what you mean when you said the ‘other’ Malay families.
I used to let these microaggressive comments slide. I tell myself, that they’re good and well-meaning people who utter these statements without any ill intent. Maybe, they just don’t know they can’t say these things? But when it happens all the time, it seems like they are the ones who are starting to see stereotypes as truths.
Microaggressions is sometimes mischaracterized as an “obsession with the creation of victims” or a minority being a little too sensitive. Some might argue that there are other pertinent issues to tackle, in the larger scheme of things and that focusing on the slight microaggression experienced is frivolous. But microaggressions are not borne out of a vacuum. They are prejudicial beliefs that play on the stereotypes of a community. These generalizations only serve to crudely rationalize and blame the minorities for their marginal socio-economic and educational status in society. Microaggressions also expose the implicit biases we hold. Implicit biases do not only result in hurt feelings, they have real consequences from discriminatory hiring practices to social policies that marginalizes minorities.
These days, I don’t make excuses for microaggressions any longer. I try my best to call them out ‘nicely’. But anyone who has ever been in this position would know that you have to pick your battles. Sometimes, or most of the times, you have to let that comment slide. Because you don’t want to be labelled as that “sensitive” minority. It’s a dilemma, I know.
But we need to call out microaggressions, they perpetuate negative stereotypes and the prevailing culturalist views that Malays are not hardworking enough, motivated, industrious, creative, and other unflattering attributes. These negative perceptions of the community only serve to make us question our identity and weaken our self-esteem.
Like most Malay Singaporeans, we constantly live under the burden of these negative stereotypes and have to shoulder that unspoken responsibility to show that we are not what our stereotypes make us out to be. In our heart of hearts, we believe these stereotypes do not define who we are as an individual or a community. Unfortunately, some community leaders have accepted these culturalist views, blaming the community for having a personality defect of being lazy without recognizing that there is structural discrimination in place.
Calling out microaggressions curbs the continuation of negative stereotypes which only hinder ourselves from progressing as a community. It can help us progress to become a more inclusive, empathetic society, where we are sensitive, kind and understanding towards the different cultures, and experiences of others.
Firqin Sumartono is a linguistics graduate and currently works in research. Her ongoing study looks at the evolving speech patterns of the Singapore’s Malay community. She loves reading non-fiction books but can’t stand fiction unless it’s about murders.
Illustration by Wan Xiang Lee