The first time I experienced racism was in a classroom when I was nine years old. I didn’t know what was happening, but I understood that there was a lot of hate there while my teacher loomed over me and said, “You know why I didn’t call on you to answer my questions? Because your skin is black.”
She spat the word black like it gave her boils.
I’m from Singapore. One of the richest nations in the world, touted as a cultural and religious melting pot with racially harmonious Rainbow Brites running around throwing glitter in the air. I’m calling bullshit. I have never felt like I belonged in this country a single day of my life.
Products that are supposed to whiten your vaginas may be new to the beauty market in Asia, but the correlation between dark skin and “dirtiness” is not anything new. You don’t even have to look further than the makeup counters and drugstores — no colors exist after a certain shade of beige.
I should explain the racial make-up of Singapore:
It is a country of 5 million people, with Chinese making up 74% of the population, Malays – 13%, Indians – 9% and the rest are Eurasians and other minority ethnicities. Right from the time you are born, your ID tells you what race you are. Nobody identifies themselves as Singaporean first; your racial identity is what you are first and foremost.
I was already a cultural mess to begin with — unlike most of Singapore whose first languages are their arterial languages (i.e., the Chinese speak Mandarin, the Malays speak Malay, Indians speak Tamil), I come from an English-speaking Indian family.
So while kids hung out with other kids who spoke their mother tongue at recess, I spent my lunchtime solo with a peanut butter and jelly sandwich and Enid Blyton.
In hindsight, what appalls me most is not how merciless my peers were in school, but how many of the educators were equally if not more vindictive. The teacher I mentioned earlier? She taught me English, Math, and Science for two years and made me sit by myself right at the back of the class. The whole two years I was made to feel worthless and disgusting, and the entire time I thought it was my fault.
I was to blame because I had skin that matches the earth. I deserved it all.
When I was 11, we were told to write poetry and present it in class. A boy wrote about me. Not a sappy puppy love letter, mind you — it was a poem about how fat I was, how black I was, and how I was a mess, I shouldn’t exist. Instead of doing anything about it, the teacher (a different one) laughed with him and with the rest of the class.
High school was no exception of course. People tend to think that just because I’m Indian, I couldn’t speak anything else other than Indian languages but my multi-lingual background allowed me into a world where people spoke about you in languages they thought you didn’t understand.
Let me tell you — oblivion can be blissful. I can never erase the things people have said about me in front of me just because they thought I wouldn’t understand.
At 15, when my self-esteem was probably at its lowest, I walked past a bunch of guys talking openly about me: “If Faz were fairer, she’d be pretty.”
Keling (the Indian equivalent of n*gger). Burnt. Black skin. Dirty. I’ve been called the worst names from fellow Singaporeans.
It’s funny because one of the lines in the Singapore pledge is “We are the citizens of Singapore… Regardless of race, language or religion.” You’d recite this pledge every morning in school for at least 10 years of your life, but who actually means what they pledge?
While I work and surround myself with people who never look at my skin color as something that defines me, I walked into an elevator just last week and had two guys talking about me in Malay. Of course I told them off as I stepped out, but it’s so disheartening.
I spent an hour looking through local magazines for a dark-skinned person and I couldn’t find any. What I could find were pages and pages of whitening products. Minority races on the main English TV channel are never main characters — they are usually obese and made fun of (don’t get me started about how I’m a US Size 8 and “obese” in Asia).
For now, as far as I’m concerned, I know it starts with me. I will call anybody out for racism, I will continue writing and featuring people of all colors and sizes in my work, I will teach my children that your skin is something you should be so proud of because skin itself is a miracle, no matter what shade of awesome you are.
One day maybe Singapore will follow suit.