On being Black: How tokenism can be a gateway to representation

By Clara How, Jul 09, 2020

You know the name George Floyd by now. 

His name, face, and last words (“I can’t breathe”) reignited the Black Lives Matter movement, which was first founded in 2013. The movement advocates for the freedom, liberation, and justice for Black individuals, and protests against police brutality and violence towards the communities. 

Since George Floyd’s death, weeks of mass protests, social media advocacy and calls for police reform has led to statues being toppled, laws being relooked, and worldwide promises to do better and be better. 

As we watched videos of marches and protests through our screens, blatant racism and hate crime may seem like foreign concepts to many Singaporeans. Some of us acknowledged our privilege, some spoke up about insidious racism present here, and some stayed silent. In this series, “Black Lives Matter in Singapore: Is our allyship performative?”, we ask Black women, people of minority races, and Chinese women in Singapore what they think about tokenism, disguising racism as ‘personal preference’ in dating, and the pressure of educating our children about the importance of equality. 

The series begins with born and bred Singaporean friends Mindi Saguda and Keyana. Mindi opens this story.

* * * *

When the Black Lives Movement reignited weeks ago, I was hit by so many emotions. It wasn’t just about George Floyd, but it was also seeing the resurgence of racism and how deep the anti-Blackness sentiment was around the world. It wasn’t just targeted towards Black people, but also towards anything that alludes to Blackness, such as having darker complexions, larger lips and noses, and anything that strays from Eurocentricity. 

I was born and raised in Singapore, and until recently, I did not fully understand how deeply entrenched racism was here. In previous media interviews, I mentioned how much I love Singapore, and felt comfortable with being Black here.

Myself at age seven, 2006.

Myself at age seven, 2006.

Since my childhood, I had always brushed aside ignorant remarks as a coping mechanism, because I didn’t realise that this was considered to be racism. I dealt with it by thinking that being Black in Singapore had never hindered me from opportunities, which cannot be said for people in other countries.

My parents are from Tanzania, Africa. Racism is prevalent even in an African country, and they experienced hardship where people would make fun of them for being Black. They have always taught me that racism is like bullying — ignore the haters, focus on yourself, and move on. My mum tried to raise me as a child who was aware of her heritage and of being black, and didn’t see her race in a negative way.

My mum, sister and I in our old home in Bukit Panjang.

My mum, sister and I in our old home in Bukit Panjang.

Because I wasn’t very conscious of my race, as a child, I unintentionally subscribed to whiteness. I wanted to fit in, and tried to straighten my hair to fit in so people wouldn’t make fun of me. They would say things like: “why are you so black”, “your hair looks like a mop/Medusa/Tarzan.” It was only in Junior College when I started following more Black influencers on YouTube and social media did I start to learn about being Black as an identity, Black oppression in America, and what it was like to live as a woman in Africa. 

I began to accept what made me truly Black, and the most salient thing about being Black in Singapore, which was my hair.

It was my hair that truly set me apart, instead of the colour of my skin, because there are other people here with darker complexions. But African hair is so starkly different, so ‘loud’, and it's texture is so obviously unique. It almost demands to be seen because of how unfamiliar it is.

By the time I was 18, I had shaved all my straightened hair off and grew an afro. I watched videos on how to take care of my natural hair, and started to learn more and more about oppression. That was when I started to truly understand what it really means to be Black in this world. 

The knowledge built on, and now I have a very good synergy with being African and being Singaporean.

Another realisation about racism in Singapore was when I attended university, and made friends with Black students who were on exchange programmes. They explained to me how they experienced racism here, and I realised that the derogatory comments (such as people taunting me with a version of the N word), the stares, and the videos taken of them were also what I had encountered, but their reaction was so different to mine. They explained to me that I have faced so much racism here, but that I didn’t realise it. It was then when I started to become more aware of how people interacted with me. 

People have always taken videos of me in public, but I became more conscious of it over the last few years. A prominent example was when I was with a friend at Tanjong Beach Club, and a woman took a video of us while pretending to be on a call. At first we thought she was filming the beach club, but the camera followed us, and when we pointed to show that we were on to her, she still continued. 

When I started to speak up on Instagram about combating racism, I used to do so in a very vocal way. I would talk down to people, as if I was on a moral high ground. But after many conversations with a friend who always shared his opinion in a gentle and caring manner even when we disagree, I realised that this was the better approach. I came to see that many people genuinely believe that they aren’t racist, because public perception of racism is hate crime. So if I wanted to speak with them, I had to do it in a way that didn’t make the person feel like they were in the wrong, otherwise their immediate reaction is to be defensive. 

More good comes out of approaching racism in a way that is less antagonistic, and more compassionate, at least from my personal experience. We have to understand that there are people who are raised in an environment that is inherently racist, and are ignorant about it.

Everyone is anti-Black, to some degree. We all aspire to cling on to whiteness, in the way that we all speak English here, and right down to the kind of media that we consume. To counter racism, we have to first be honest and acknowledge that we all have racist tendencies.

Because of this, I don’t believe in shaming people or accusing them for being performative in their activism, especially on social media. To me, performative activism is when people put content up online to appear morally superior without actually doing the work – like reading resources or listening to the community. 

You need to first deal with your own internalised racism before speaking on a platform, and talk to the community that you want to help. There are social media movements I’ve seen that are virtue signalling, like the trend of posting a black square and tagging 10 friends who believe in Black Lives Matter. What’s problematic about these trends is that there’s no actual work done to supplement the tagging or posting. It’s not enough to just post the hashtag #blacklivesmatter without amplifying black voices, or including links to donations and resources. 

Performative activism also means being loud in public spaces, but not private spaces. Friends who are loud among their social circles often tell me that their parents are racist, and my first reaction is: “But you can do something about that.” Supporting the cause means starting with the people around you.

I also have friends who send me screenshots of cultural appropriation, and expect me to be the one to respond. They say, “Oh, I’m so shy to talk to my friend about this.” But they’re your friends, not mine! 

The onus shouldn’t just be on the people of a disadvantaged community to step up, when it’s a societal problem.

While I understand that performative activism is problematic, if the motives are well-intentioned it can be a gateway to truly understanding the problem, and actively fighting for the cause. It’s not about shunning people who are performative, but correcting them in their form of activism. If you want to talk about racism, you need to be open to critical feedback. The people who are educating need to be compassionate, but the people who receive this feedback also need to know that it’s not personal.

Posting a black square might seem tokenistic at the start, but if the person believes in anti-racist rhetoric and continuously speaks about the issue, then the focus will shift from tokenism. Being an ally is a continuous process.

One example of well-intentioned tokenistic behaviour that I’ve experienced is when I’m constantly being asked to be in promotional pictures or videos for my schools, for the sake of appearing diverse. But this is one step that organisations can take. If the media, institutions or brands can push minorities onto more platforms, it normalises people being seen in these spaces. For people like me who didn’t have media representation when I was growing up, it’s important that young children can see themselves, and expand their goals on what they think they can achieve.

With my kindergarten classmates in 2004.

With my kindergarten classmates in 2004.

In an ideal world, true representation would mean people are chosen for their achievements, and their accolades are supplemented by race. But for now, we still need a certain degree of tokenism. Minorities as a group are set back because they do not have the same generational privileges the majority group has, so I believe there should be affirmative action in place to somewhat level the playing field. Whether or not an individual has been chosen for a position for reasons or diversity or otherwise, representation should always be intentional.

Putting people in public spaces for the sake of diversity may seem performative, but if you keep doing this and you ensure that these people are given the resources and support that they need, then in the long run, we can lift entire communities.

* * * *

17-year-old Keyana (her stage name) is a Singaporean model, dancer, and musician. She echoes Mindi’s words that representation is hugely important, both for the sake of seeing, and being seen. 

Born to a Ghanian father and a Chinese mother, she grew up in a Chinese family where “no one looked like me”. It took a supportive mother, years of coming into her own, and entering the media industry to realise that beauty doesn’t necessarily mean looking like everyone around you.

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I grew up in a very loving Chinese family, but because I don’t look like my relatives and the people around me, I felt alone for a lot of my life. I only saw Chinese women or European women as attractive. I never saw myself as beautiful.

As someone of mixed descent, growing up in Singapore was tough. I was bullied in Primary school, where people called me broccoli head and asked if I was adopted. My father is no longer in the picture, and that was used against me as well. As a child, these words were hard to hear. 

It was my mother who continually taught me to love myself, and stand up to people who said nasty things. I was eight years old when she taught me about the prejudice against Black people, and while there may be people who see me as a bad person just because of the colour of my skin, I need to remember that I am not.

Still, even though my mother constantly reminded me that I was beautiful regardless of my skin colour, as a child, I never believed her. My insecurities consumed me, and I was fixated about how other people viewed me. 

It was modelling that really opened my eyes to seeing different types of beauty. My mother, who saw that I was insecure, encouraged me to try out for a modelling competition. I was reluctant, but it turned out to be one of the best experiences in my life, because I met a variety of people who looked like me.

To know that you’re not the only one who looks like you was an indescribably warm feeling, and a relief.

I hadn’t met any African Singaporeans before, except to run into a few of them on the streets. But I never had a conversation with them. After meeting more African people through modelling, and being able to have these conversations, I realised that we went through similar experiences as children. The loneliness faded, and I began to feel more at ease with myself.

While I am grateful for being cast in big campaigns, as much as I want to believe that people have good intentions and I’m not just there as a conversation starter, there are times when I have doubts.

It comes down to the little things, like how the makeup artists don’t know how to style my hair or never have my foundation shade, or how the photographer always puts me in the background and never in the centre of the picture. 

As a hip hop dancer, there also have been occasions where I feel like the crew includes Black dancers like myself to make us seem more legitimate. At times, it does feel like a tokenistic gesture.

But I tell myself, at least I’m here. At least the campaign is including people like me. And if this brand chooses to cast a Black model, then perhaps other brands can follow suit and book other Black models too.

Media representation for minority communities is so important for many reasons, but the one that carries a lot of weight to me is that we need to change the idea that to be beautiful is to be Caucasian and slim. Seeing a European standard of beauty growing up greatly affected me as a child, and I could never look at popular campaigns and not feel like I was ugly. 

So even when I am told to wear traditional African clothing for a photoshoot, or to wear my hair in an afro because it looks ‘more Black’ than in braids, I see it as an opportunity to bring out the beauty of being African.

If a shoot requires us to embrace our culture, this is our chance to show the world that Black is beautiful.

If Singaporeans were to ask me why they should care about a cause that feels so far removed from home, I would tell them that yes, the movement is predominantly in America, but these people need our help too.

Racism is everywhere. As much as you might only bring up America, in times like these, they need everyone’s help. And while the community is small, there are Black people here too. We are Singaporeans too.

That was the reason why I started Our Voices, in response to the Black Lives Matter movement. It was an Instagram post on my account that featured African voices in Singapore, sharing their opinions and perspectives about why it is so important to stand up for the community. I wanted people to know that we are here, and we exist. 

As for my family, as I grew older and started to speak and connect more with them on a deeper level, I realised that I don't need to feel separated from them just because I have a different skin colour. They love me, and I love them. 

I was a child who struggled with not feeling fully Chinese or fully Black, but today, I am very happy to belong to two very strong cultures. Because of my family, the people I’ve met and what I have learnt, I no longer feel like I need to belong to one or the other. 

* * * *

Photos were provided by Mindi Saguda and Keyana. 

Part two and three of our “Black Lives Matter in Singapore: Is our allyship performative?” series will be published next week. Check in next Monday on why cherry-picking anti-racist causes is problematic. 

Writer’s Note:

My name is Clara, and you can find me at @clarahow on the Dayre app. On my personal account, I write about my thoughts about Chinese privilege, my conflicting feelings about the Black Lives Matter movement, and finding my voice on social media to speak up. 

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