White in One Space, Yellow in Another: Being Singaporean Chinese

I always say that I never knew I was a person of color until I started living in the United States. It’s hard to believe because I have always known that I’m Asian, that I’m ethnically of Chinese descent (my great-grandparents emigrated from Southern China to Singapore), but I never knew what it was to be a person of color until I arrived in the United States.

Why is that? This is because I am Singaporean Chinese. As I explained in my post on Chinese Privilege in Singapore a few days ago, Singaporean Chinese enjoy economic, systemic and institutional privilege in Singapore in ways that function very similarly to white privilege in the United States, Europe and Australia. Being a recipient of Chinese Privilege basically meant that I never needed to worry about being judged on the basis of stereotypes, never assumed to be this or that, never having to worry about whether available food would cater to my religious food restrictions. Chinese Privilege is basically the privilege of living unconsciously, thinking that race and other marked categories does not matter, does not apply to me, that I’m simply part of the “human race” rather than being boxed into a category out of my own volition. Well, living in the United States and working with my outstanding graduate advisor Frieda Ekotto cured me of this delusion. (Frieda changed my life by giving me Frantz Fanon’s Black Skin, White Masks to read. If you a Singapore Chinese and wonder why we give so much weight to being able to “speak good English” in Singapore read this book. I’ll even be happy to send you a chapter from the book if you get in touch with me.)

Being Singapore Chinese really allows me the vantage point of two subject positions in terms of race and racism. When I am in Singapore and with Singaporeans, I’m racially privileged—I don’t need to think about race, I can go about my life thinking that it does not matter in the least. When I’m in the United States, however, this is a very different story.

Nothing shows this contrast better, I believe, than how my Chinese Privilege story on Sangeetha Thanapal’s Medium collection has been received by people who live in or are familiar with Singapore, in contrast to my work on race and ethnicity in the digital humanities in the United States. When my work is read by scholars in the United States, I receive veiled ad hominem criticisms such as 1. I am not productively contributing to discussion because of my “tone,” 2. I fail to take into account the “good” white people who are different from all the “bad” white people who perpetuate inequality (#notallwhitepeople), 3. I am racist myself for bringing up race, 4. I am simply being self-promotional.

I received little of these ad hominem attacks in the reception of my piece on Chinese Privilege in Singapore by Singaporean Chinese. In contrast, for pointing out and articulating the fact of Chinese Privilege on social media (she has been doing this for a few years now), Sangeetha Thanapal receives criticisms from Singapore Chinese which sound exactly like the attacks which I receive by white people in the United States for making racial diversity an issue. Thanapal is systematically chastised for her tone when she points out exactly the same things that I do. She is attacked as a person, people threaten to report her to the authorities for being divisive, other minorities are cowed by her treatment and are afraid of stepping in to defend her. In stark contrast, I experienced what it must be like to be a white person saying sensible things about race in the United States, because I basically received a ton of kudos for writing this piece, from both minorities and Singapore Chinese. (At the time of my publishing this article the original Chinese Privilege piece has reached 61.2k views, 33.9k reads and 35 recommends in three days—numbers that are astronomical in terms of anything I have ever written.)

All of this—my treatment versus how Thanapal has been treated, the massive sharing and pats on the back about my speaking out—again shows to me how massively privileged I am in the Singapore context, how invisible and pernicious my privilege is, and that no wonder white people defend their privilege so much—it feels so good to not have to deal with the mechanics of macro and microaggressions on a daily basis.

It also, however, leaves me with two choices—I can exert my Chinese Privilege by pretending that it doesn’t exist, and benefit from it all the same—or I can recognize that I am, like other minorities in Singapore, also a person of color, and should be more sensitive to what they are saying, because I go through exactly the same thing when I am not in Singapore that they do at home. Well, I choose to call bullshit on my first choice and to stand instead with my brothers and sisters of color. Solidarity. Let’s call attention to injustice and face up to privilege and inequity together.

This is a post in a collection on Chinese Privilege edited by Sangeetha Thanapal. She is actively looking for submissions, so please think about contributing. Here are the terms of submission.

Show your support

Clapping shows how much you appreciated Adeline Koh’s story.