#4: It's Possible to Be Racist Against Chinese People

File under: Statements you didn't expect from this newsletter

(This isn’t the special Chinese New Year edition that I promised you. That’s still in my drafts. I think the new year is 15 days long so I still have time. This is breaking news!)

It finally happened. The coronavirus has spread to Singapore. The disease isn’t the only thing spreading quickly, we’re also seeing an uptick in anti-Chinese xenophobia. Just kidding! That’s always been here and the latest health crisis is just another release valve for some very harmful beliefs. Singapore may not be great at actual sport but we’re fantastic at mental gymnastics judging by the way foreigners get blamed for basically anything that happens here. Crowded trains? Depressed wages? SEA Games gold medals? All foreigners. 

Unfortunately, the virus has been named after Wuhan, the city of its origin, and this has emboldened many xenophobes to display their worst beliefs about China. Mothership, my nemesis, has posted articles about the disease and attached pictures of fried bats to them, drawing the tenuous link between people’s eating habits and the genesis of a deadly virus. I was idly scrolling through Instagram Stories this evening and saw more than one person joke about how their New Year reunion dinner didn’t include wild animals. From what I can see, a lot of people in Singapore are gleefully blaming the health crisis on the “savagery” of people from China. If only they didn’t eat wild animals, this would never have happened. SARS was their fault too, nothing good comes from that place. Those savages should just stay in their country and not spread their germs to clean and green Singapore.

Lest we forget, people in China are probably the most terrified and at risk right now. If Singaporeans are going to get riled up every time the West makes fun of our food, we owe it to the rest of the world to respect their food choices too. I’m not a scientist; I have no idea why the virus mutated, let alone why it came out of China. Sure, bats and/or snakes have been suspected to play a role in this but let me please remind you that swine flu and mad cow disease also exist but somehow the “barbarian” tag isn’t sticking to everyone who eats pork, beef, or cheese. Things go wrong all the time. Nobody in Wuhan expected that this would happen. When you blame Chinese people for the disease, you’re making a sweeping generalisation about literally one billion people. There is nothing inherently Chinese about some of the stereotypes people are peddling. Chinese people aren’t inherently worse at personal hygiene or deceitful or compelled to eat unusual things.

But Teacher, you might say, we can’t be racist towards Chinese people in Singapore right? It’s really way more complicated than that, I’m afraid. I wish these matters were straightforward. Brown = oppressed, Chinese = privileged, white = forever guilty. It is tempting for us to fall into these modes of thinking, especially when we’re angry and oppressed, but I must call for nuance. Of course, Chinese people in Singapore are privileged in many ways. It’s much easier to apply for jobs if you speak Mandarin, especially because that requirement is usually code for “only Chinese may apply”. If you’re a Chinese family who’s been in Singapore for more than one generation, you’re readily accepted as Singaporean. Some minorities in Singapore don’t have the same experience. But we’re lying to ourselves if we pretend that Singaporean Chinese people and Chinese people from China (or “PRCs” as some of you like to call them) get treated the same way.

If anything, this difference helps to expose the fiction of race. The boundaries of racial categories are manmade and malleable. The Irish weren’t considered white in America until they were. If you read the New Naratif piece I linked to in the last newsletter, you’ll see how racial boundaries were fabricated closer to home. Chinese people from both Singapore and China may identify as “Chinese” but they may not mean the same things when they use that label. Immigrants from China have a harder time renting property because they’re seen as untrustworthy tenants. You don’t have to venture far into the comments section of any Singaporean news outlet to find proof of an anti-Chinese sentiment here. They’re not like us. They’re worse.

I hope I don’t have to spell out why it’s racist to think that a certain group of people move like a barbaric horde and have special cooties that will kill you. Anyone can contract the virus. You’re at a higher risk if you’ve been in Wuhan recently. Remember, you don’t have to be Chinese to have been in Wuhan, it’s just more statistically likely. More Chinese people don’t have the virus than those who do. There’s nothing in the psyches or blood of the Chinese that make viruses mutate around them. I can’t believe I’m typing all this out… but I’ve seen a lot of really horrendous takes online from people I thought better of! Please ah. Be reasonable. Wash your hands, go to the doctor if you’re sick, and don’t be racist. That’s my formula for staying healthy.

Further Reading

Doctors in Singapore are advising the public to not panic. Here’s how you should respond to the situation.

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