#1: The Life Cycle of a Racist Incident

Art world drama, snakewhores, and more!

Hello! Welcome to RTC’s first session. This is a really long issue but I promise they’ll be a lot snappier in future. Today, we’re going to talk about the Life Cycle of a Racist Incident. 

In case you missed the first big racist faux pas of 2020, here’s a summary. Feel free to skip this if you’re already caught up on all the drama.

Summary begins here:

Artist and Instagram user @whereartjon posted a series of very troubling Stories on his account. Here’s the main one.

Tl;dr – Jon heard someone “snicker” at the guest-of-honour’s speech at his art show opening and took offence to it. According to him, the snickerer (it’s a word) was an Indian woman and her disdain was directed at a white man for being white. Jon then proceeds to call her a “snakewhore” (not a word) and to say a bunch of other awful things.

Screenshots of his statement began to circulate and he, unsurprisingly, started getting dragged all over the Internet. I was one of the many people who called him out for his harmful statements. Here’s what I posted:

Jon shared some of the criticism levelled against him on his own page. He then responded, revealing a host of poisonous opinions that were very difficult to recover from. If I were in his position, I would take a social media hiatus, ask a few close friends to stick by me through a difficult learning journey, and only return to social media after apologising unreservedly and honestly for the harm caused. That is very difficult to do. It’s very unpleasant to admit that you’ve made a mistake, especially when it emerges that your mistake wasn’t a careless misstep but one rooted in genuinely harmful beliefs. Unfortunately, our protagonist did the opposite by digging in his heels and refusing to log off. Something I’ve learnt from paying lots of money for therapy is that you rarely say anything useful when you’re very emotional and Jon is, understandably, very emotional right now. His responses have ranged from apologetic to …unapologetic but it remains quite clear that his fundamental understanding of racism and harm remains wrong. 

Everything he’s posted since has provided more fodder for a very public dragging. Some members of Singapore’s art community have written to organisations he’s affiliated with, including NPE Art Residency where his shared show just opened. 

Perhaps the most important voice in this whole mess is Priyageetha Dia’s. She’s the other artist with work up at NPE. I guess she’s the only one now… She’s posted a lot about the incident but what stands out is how she’s felt while sharing a space with Jon. 

Jon’s inaccurate understanding of racism and privilege (including believing in “reverse racism” – a topic I’ll address in a later newsletter) made Priyageetha feel unwelcome and uncomfortable at NPE. She chose to work from home instead of in the art space despite her earning the residency the same way that Jon did, through artistic merit. She even left her own exhibition opening early because she felt uncomfortable. I won’t pretend to know what Jon said to Priyageetha but I’m not interested in quibbling over the details either. It’s not possible to determine the “amount” of racism present in the interaction nor is it a productive endeavour. Jon’s beliefs allowed him to comfortably call people “snakewhores” and claim that “minority privilege” was something that could be abused, so it is not a stretch of the imagination to guess that he made other comments that would make an Indian artist feel unsafe. 

Singapore’s had a bunch of these incidents in recent years. A racist incident occurs. It gets called out on social media. A (usually weak) apology is made. The apology gets disparaged on social media. Institutions associated with the racist incident are asked for accountability and action. Memes get made. 

Depending on who you are, you might see social media action as a way for privileged individuals and institutions to be held publicly accountable for doing harm .. or as mob (“minority cult”?) justice. It’s the Internet so there’s usually both. Unfortunately, some of the messages directed at Jon have contained death threats. Knock it off! It’s a bad look and does nothing to address the harm caused by the incident.

You’ll notice that I keep talking about harm. What separates a racist statement from a run-of-the-mill opinion is the material effect it has on other people. In Priyageetha’s case, she was pushed to exclude herself from professional opportunities because Jon’s comments made her uncomfortable. It is exhausting to engage with hostility and even more so when it’s directed at an aspect of your identity that you cannot change. I am a bit hesitant to explain why racism is bad but I already anticipate people asking why Jon’s comments couldn’t just be ignored. Sticks and stones etc? The truth is that minorities are always making these negotiations. We compare notes on spaces where we feel out of place and elect to not attend the class or go to the club out of self-preservation. Chinese and white people don’t have to do that calculus in Singapore – not because of their ethnicity, at least. 

What do we do with racists? What is justice in this scenario? I think NPE was right to remove Jonathan’s work from their gallery space. Business as usual would have sent the message that his comments were no big deal and would’ve tacitly taken his side over Priyageetha’s. This would have been bad PR but it also would signal to other brown artists that this gallery doesn’t prioritise their safety or comfort. Some of the brands affiliated with Jon have also issued statements about reconsidering their collaborations with him. Is this fallout proportionate to Jon’s actions? It’s hard to say. Private businesses can work (or not work) with whoever they want and, while social media is hostile to him right now, I don’t think Jon’s art career is over because of this. I don’t believe that “cancelling” people is the right way to compensate for harm caused, but the process of accountability necessarily results in some painful breakups.  

So, what are the next steps? Is there room for rehabilitation and forgiveness? I suspect that most would say yes to this but that leaves us with a harder question – what does that look like and how should it happen? This issue has gotten a little long so I’ll address this in the next edition of RTC.

You should be able to respond to this email, so drop me a note if you have any comments, questions, or suggestions for future newsletters. See you next time!


Further Reading

Twitter user Sharan Kaur has an interesting thread on the history of “snake” being used as a racialised insult against Indians in Singapore. 

Visakan Veerasamy’s master blogpost of Singapore’s main conversations about race and racism in recent memory

Priyageetha’s Instagram account (to keep up with her work!) 

YouTuber Contrapoints on cancelling – 

– (and the text summary on Medium)