Is it time to bring racism out of the closet?

Shrey Bhargava's post was a well-meaning one, even though he was a little emotional about his experience and upset. He didn't deserve to get jumped on, to have his motives impugned, to be vilified, for raising racism.

When I first read Shrey Bhargava's Facebook post complaining about his audition for the Ah Boys to Men 4 movie, I thought he was over-reacting. 

The freelance actor auditioned for a role as a soldier in the local Mandarin-speaking movie by blockbuster maker Jack Neo. He was asked to put on a thicker Indian accent and do a portrayal as a "full-blown Indian", whatever that means. He did so; but felt offended and angry with himself afterwards, and took to Facebook to share his feelings. The post went viral. I came across it on my Facebook news feed, and read it.

Shrey's post was a well-meaning one. Sure, he was a little emotional about his experience and upset. But he wanted to raise questions about whether there was casual racism in Singapore and what it meant for a mass-market movie catering to the Singapore Chinese-speaking heartland to play on racial stereotypes. As more people piled into the online debate, there were also valid questions raised about the role of racist humour in entertainment and art as a country evolved.

The discussion was educational for me too. As a majority Chinese citizen, I've sometimes felt puzzled why non-Chinese friends or colleagues say they feel discriminated against, or say they feel they have to work harder to prove themselves. I've studied in Anglo-Saxon societies where I might have felt like an exoticised other - not always an unpleasant feeling, I must admit - but seldom discriminated against. (But I've never worked there, so have not had to compete for rewards.) I've also tended to compare my experience as a woman in a patriarchal society, with that of a minority-race citizen in Singapore: You accept that life is not fair to all groups; you live with the facts of your life; you minimise disadvantage and relish in whatever advantage your gender, race, or indeed personality, permits; you roll your eyes at the unspoken bias; you speak out when you think it's worth your while and you try to change things within your control; and then you just get on with it. 

But as a woman I am not in the minority: there are 50 per cent of us. I think you don't really know what it's like to live as a minority in a society you call home, until you walk in their shoes. And when many members of minority groups say "Yes, there is casual racism" in a country that prides itself on multiracialism like Singapore, I'd pause and listen and wonder if I am indeed ensconced in majority privilege I am not aware of.

So when I read Shrey's account, I felt sorry for him, but initially thought he had just over-reacted. Jack Neo is Jack Neo. He makes movies that speak to the common experience of Singaporeans. I watch his movies for cathartic pleasure even as  I may cringe at their crudeness in humour. His films are burlesque, slapstick, unabashedly low-brow - and they cater to the inner Ah Lian in me.


Shrey was asked to put on a thicker Indian accent and do a portrayal as a "full-blown Indian" at an audition. PHOTO:  SHREY BHARGAVA/FACEBOOK

 

As for stereotypes, sure he trades in them. Why should an Indian actor feel offended at being asked to act a stereotype of his race? If a woman was auditioning for a role as a slut, should she feel offended at the sexist portrayal? If a Chinese working-class actor was asked to ham up and exaggerate the "beng" (loutish) aspects of his self, would he similarly feel discriminated against and accuse the producers of - not racist, but perhaps classist - humour? Or would that be laughed out of the Internet because it's, well, okay, to poke fun at "bengs"? 

An article in Psychology Today from 2011 being shared online was illuminating.

Here are some paragraphs from that piece: "Mark Ferguson, along with another colleague, Chris Crandall, proposed what is called the "Normative Window Theory of Prejudice". Simply put, the theory suggests that we place social groups on a scale, in terms of how legitimate it is to discriminate and have prejudice attitudes against them. It is totally acceptable to hold prejudiced views against racists, or against kids who steal lunch money because these behaviors are condemned in our society. It is not acceptable to hold prejudice views or discriminate against doctors or farmers. This distinction between the groups is pretty clear and robust, meaning that we will always hold these clear cut views about those groups regardless of the situation."

"However, there are other social groups that it was once acceptable to discriminate against, but over time we have slowly shifted our views and consider prejudice against them as unjustified. Among these groups are women, racial and religious minorities, and gays and lesbians. These groups suffered historically from discrimination but today, more and more people agree that discriminating against them is immoral and wrong."

Reading that bit, I was reminded of the BBC comedy series Mind Your Language. It was popular in its time; but its racial stereotyping of students learning English is cringe-worthy if not offensive today. We've all watched movies that seemed funny in their time but whose humour now seems discriminatory, offensive or downright cruel. The definition of what is acceptable shifts all the time. Could having racial stereotypes in a mass market movie be a threshold today? Time to retire "full-blown Indians" from local movies? The kaypoh Chinese middle-aged fat female neighbour? 

The article added: "The problem is that some people are still prejudiced towards these groups despite the fact that many consider it unjustified. The question is, does disparaging humour that targets these groups foster discriminatory acts against them?"

According to some research cited, the answer is Yes. Racist or discriminatory humour can fuel people to act in a discriminatory manner towards those who are the targets of such humour.

All this leads us to an even more complex discussion of just what type of humour is okay, in what contexts, and for who. I don't really have answers. This article however, has some interesting insights into race and class stereotypes in Singapore.


Comedian Kumar. NP PHOTO: JEREMY LONG 

I know I laughed hard and loud at Kumar's recent show at the Singapore Comedy Fringe event, casting an awkward look around to make sure there were no law enforcement people pushing their way to the stage to take Kumar away as he lampooned all races, including, especially, his own; all sexes (yes, there are more than two in his/her world view); and all manner of leaders especially the political ones. When he made jokes about Malay women, I looked over to the tudung-clad members of the audience, who were still laughing when the joke was at their expense.

In some settings, humour can be cathartic and cleansing and can bring people together. In other settings, it is disturbing, unsettling, but acceptable in probing the boundaries of what is acceptable. In yet other settings, it might just be offensive and inappropriate.

In the end, it all depends. What Shrey the actor did as he hammed it up, clearly upset Shrey the person, and he wanted to share his hurt feelings. He didn't deserve to get jumped on, to have his motives impugned, to be vilified, for raising racism.

I agree with Gillian Koh, who wrote a very sensible piece on this, that as a society we can learn to respond to such incidents in a more mature manner. More people could have empathised with his hurt feelings, even if they may disagree with his views.

Many of us will still laugh at racial stereotypes in films. One day, perhaps, it won't be socially acceptable to, just as in Singapore it is not alright to crack sexist jokes in a professional setting. Then, people may still laugh at depictions of "chao ah beng" or working class louts. One day, the Ah Bengs will protest. And then we will have another discussion, and the calibrations of what is funny, and what is permitted to be funny en masse, will continue. And people like Shrey, who braved opprobrium today to raise the racism issue, should feel content that they helped advance the discussion by bringing racism out of the closet.

Opinion editor Chua Mui Hoong blogs weekly on notable issues and commentaries.