“The essence of racial privilege is that it is not recognised by the privileged themselves, since they assume that how they are treated is normal or standard for everyone, not having experienced anything different.” Thus was I instructed by my 30-something daughter, whose insights derive from being biracial (white and Chinese), dragged all over Asia by her parents growing up, but looking “mostly white” in adulthood, and living in the middle of a mostly white but increasingly diverse country, the United States . Here, “white privilege”, once invisible or taken for granted, is now a matter of almost daily contention for whites and non-white people alike, whether on elite college campuses like mine, in demographic-data-driven election campaigns, or the dark corners of the internet accused of spawning the racial hatred that led to recent mass shootings in Norway , New Zealand and El Paso, Texas. But racial privilege is not unique to white countries, and the privilege itself is less about race than about power. Numbers are an important, but not only, part of the story. Growing up in an upper-middle-class, English-educated, Hokkien Chinese family in Singapore in the 1950s and 1960s, I was a member of not only the majority race and its dominant dialect group, but also a self-confident socio-economic class. Naturally, for us, “race didn’t matter” (unless you wanted to marry someone of a different race), for we had family and school friends and associates of all races – Chinese, Indian, Malay, Arab, Jewish, “European” (white) and Eurasian, even the occasional Burmese, Thai or Filipino. We were unaware of our own race factoring in our daily lives, and of racial considerations in how we ourselves viewed and treated others. Singapore’s ‘brownface’ saga sparks debate on race From my childhood, through most of which Singapore was a British colony, I recall only one instance where “racial privilege” impressed itself upon my consciousness. Our family was driving into Johor, and at the causeway, the two white men in the car in front were waved through by the Malay customs agents, but we were stopped and asked to open our boot for a check. My father obliged, but my mother protested, asking the agents why the previous car was not stopped. They looked embarrassed, but said nothing. Somehow, I knew the power of orang puteh (Caucasians) had something to do with it. Ironically, since then I’ve had many opportunities to vicariously experience “white privilege”, travelling around South and Southeast Asia with my white American husband. Our guides, drivers and friends would insist he sit in the front of the vehicle, to discourage petty officials from stopping us on some pretext to ask for bribes, and to ensure a more friendly reaction from the locals, especially if we wanted to take photographs of them. The flip side occurred at a hotel swimming pool in the Sulawesi highlands. That the staff thought my mother was my daughter’s maid no doubt contributed to her later consciousness of markers of racial privilege and its corollary, under-privilege. Both are socially constructed and vary by time and place, but can be remarkably persistent and ubiquitous. For example, China’s much-vaunted rise has led to the phenomenon of “white monkeys” – white people hired by Chinese firms to increase their stature among Chinese customers by pretending to be their staff or clientele (Google it!). A Chinese company which approached me for help recruiting fresh American college graduates to teach English in China told me they wanted only white people – Europeans with imperfect English eagerly accepted, but not Chinese-Americans with perfect English. I told them such racial discrimination is against the law in the US. Why Singaporeans don’t get the Hong Kong protests In Singapore, Caucasians are clearly treated as a privileged minority, as elsewhere, but this is not true of the nation’s own Indian and Malay minorities. Discrimination and differential treatment which is invisible to members of the Chinese majority is obvious to others of the same race. One of my MBA students from India, who spent 10 years studying and working in Singapore then decided to stay in the US rather than return, gave as one reason: “Chinese privilege was extraordinarily apparent to me, and a lot of Chinese-Singaporeans were oblivious to it, leading to situations sometimes where they would make an off-colour comment and not realise it was offensive.” Nearly every Indian and Malay growing up in Singapore can recount similar experiences, including being “damned with faint praise”, like a Malay scholar being treated as a curiosity for having a PhD from a top US university, which would not happen if she were in Malaysia. Telling a Malay person that “your English is very good” is equivalent to referring to an African-American as “articulate” – it being worthy of note indicates it is unexpected of someone of that race. What a Malay colleague calls “the soft racism of lowered expectations” is well documented in educational psychology research in the US, which finds that the academic performance of minority students is positively correlated with self-esteem deriving from their parents’, teachers’ and classmates’ expectations. The occasional exceptions are minorities at the top of the income and social hierarchy who are exempt from or ignore such indignities – power insulates from prejudice. Singapore’s strict laws alone cannot ensure racial cohesion: President Halimah Yacob One Indian-Singaporean friend said: “My generation put up with it and we just thought that’s the way things are. Nowadays, the young minorities are more willing to engage and challenge.” This is not surprising, given the example of this unfortunately common occurrence. An Indian-Singaporean woman married to a Chinese-Australian man and using her married surname was looking to rent a house in Singapore, with a significant budget. When the couple got to the place, the agent immediately said they could not rent it as the landlord-owner explicitly said he would not accept Indians, because “they cook curry and smell up the place”. The Singaporean asked why he did not ask her husband if he cooked mapo tofu (spicy tofu) or with belacan (shrimp paste), and received no reply. Beyond such blatant racial discrimination, being stereotyped, marginalised, ignored, disparaged, or made the butt of jokes – even by so-called “progressive” and “well-meaning” friends – is too often the experience of racial minorities growing up. This leaves psychological scars – including “self-hatred” and disparaging one’s own race, even if the minority in question is otherwise successful and well-integrated into the majority community, like Asian-Americans in the US. Hence the near-universal enthusiasm of this group for last year’s blockbuster Hollywood movie Crazy Rich Asians . The Asian-American community was ecstatic, even emotional, about the romantic comedy, mainly because it represented Asians in a manner the group would like to be seen by the majority white population in the US – rich, beautiful, powerful and sexy. To Asian-Americans, the film was all about their representation and validation in white America, which had obviously held different stereotypes of them. Racial diversity in Singapore, where the movie was set, was largely ignored, and the only representation of any visible minority was an offensive one, of two menacing turbaned Indian house guards. Why is Asia so hung up on skin tone? But Asian nationals in the US, and audiences in Asia outside Singapore, were much less enthusiastic about the movie, probably because all-Asian casts in Asian-made romcoms and family tragedies are standard fare in movie and television soap operas. Crazy Rich Asians famously flopped in China. The weight and significance of racial representation, then, differs for majority and minority groups, the powerful and the disempowered – which is why majorities and the powerful often dismiss the discomforts by minorities and the disempowered over how they are portrayed as being “overly sensitive”. In my case, having grown up as a member of a privileged majority, and a powerful minority within it, I was as an adult naturally impervious to racial slights and insults, which I did not receive, notice or consider significant, even after I had “become a minority” in the US. In my profession and generation, white men overwhelmingly dominated the ranks of my MBA students, professional colleagues and business associates, from the classroom to the boardroom. But as a professor, I myself was a high-status individual for whom power transcended many disadvantages of race and gender (being tall also helped). I was also psychologically inured to any slights, laughingly dismissing the occasional “you speak English very well” quip as reflecting the ignorance of the (typically white) speaker, whereas an African-American colleague might bristle – like a Chinese-educated colleague in Singapore, where “speaking proper English” has become a marker of status and accomplishment. But I can understand the concerns and sensitivities of Asian-Americans who grew up as minorities in a world of white dominance and privilege, even as their numbers swell to “over-representation” (just like men) in academia, the professions and business. Singapore siblings offer ‘subversive’ apology over rap row Once, when my daughter was about 10 years old, in our affluent, liberal, highly educated but then extremely white university town, she asked me what it meant that a boy at school had said to her: “Connie Chung, back to the kitchen!” Connie Chung was the first Asian-American and only second woman to co-anchor a network evening news broadcast, on CBS television. I presume the boy had heard someone, probably a parent, who objected to her role or performance, say this. He then repeated it to my daughter, who was one of only two Chinese pupils in her primary school, and only half-Chinese, but well identified since every year we did a Lunar New Year cultural celebration for her class. My daughter, accustomed to white privilege in the US, and white and Chinese privilege in Singapore, was unperturbed by the incident. But I can imagine, having heard from friends and students, how painful it must be to be repeatedly singled out for your race, and particularly to be taunted or slighted for it, throughout your childhood. Most of the jibes and stereotypes are not intentionally hurtful or demeaning. But that does not make them any less inappropriate, offensive, and yes, racist. Just as supposedly humorous 1930s Fu Manchu caricatures are hurtful and offensive to Chinese children in the US, with “ching chong Chinaman” ringing in their ears, so too is being called “blackie” or told (laughingly), “you so black” by their classmates to Indians in Singapore – which I was shocked to learn still goes on in our schools today. Indeed, Darlie toothpaste (marketed until the late 1990s as Darkie) is still a popular brand, selling on the stereotype that black people have especially white teeth. Singaporeans deservedly pride ourselves on “racial harmony”, meaning the lack of overt racial animosity and, especially, violence. But has racism, more broadly defined, actually diminished, or simply been muted or transmuted? Here’s what an Indian-Singaporean with whom I had never previously discussed the issue, despite being friends since childhood, told me when I asked: “I was fortunate to grow up in a very multiracial neighbourhood where kids accepted each other as friends and equals. And it was the same in our school where teachers did not foster racial prejudice and classmates were not cliqued racially. “But as an adult I was more aware of the privileges and power of race which I did not have. Applying for jobs, I realised that the criteria of being ‘bilingual ’ essentially meant being able to speak English and Chinese. In restaurants, service is better in Singapore when one speaks Chinese to the waiters. In fact, if there is one Chinese in a group, the waiter assumes that’s the person who will make all the decisions. “Even in social gatherings with good friends, the Chinese-ness comes through with their dialect jokes and references to our neighbouring political leaders’ inabilities being due to their race. “My daughter has dropped [her Indian surname] from her name. She says that using her [English] first and middle names is more ambivalent and opens more doors for her. “There is a growing trend of Asian-Asian biracial couples. This is positive, though children of these biracial marriages have their own problems. But it is being overtaken by a more aggressive trend of having more China-Chinese in Singapore. These people grew up in an all-Chinese environment and have no language skills nor inclination or incentive to adapt to a multicultural society. This trend is more worrying and I balk at where it is leading.” Racial privilege is not something the privileged – whites in America or Chinese in Singapore – claim, accept or exert for ourselves, but rather something that others accord us, usually unconsciously. Even individuals of the same race will experience race differently, depending on their location, majority/minority and socio-economic status, and relative to others of the same or different race. Thus in my international business classes, I emphasise the importance, indeed the necessity, to “see the world through the eyes of the other” – not just to avoid offence, but because individuals who can “code switch” are more adaptable and better able to deal with ambiguity, as corporate employers increasingly demand. Often, it is members of powerful majorities – white men in the US, Chinese men in China (not coincidentally, those now leading us into a trade war ) – who have the greatest difficulty managing in racially, ethnically and culturally diverse social contexts. This is because they take themselves as the rational norm and standard by which the world operates, and everyone should feel and behave, rendering all others irrational, and thus inferior and unequal. When a class of young executives from China I was teaching could not accept that workers in Indonesia couldn’t be motivated by money alone, I knew they had a long way to go to prosper with the Belt and Road Initiative . Singaporeans have the potential advantage over whites and Chinese of being able to see the world through the eyes of the other, particularly in our regional neighbourhood. But to do so, we need to first open our own eyes at home. Linda Lim, a Singaporean, is Professor Emerita of Corporate Strategy and International Business at the Stephen M. Ross School of Business at the University of Michigan.