As far as being brown-skinned goes, I think my bona fides are pretty well-established. Like the Bridgerton star Simone Ashley, I am proud of my Jaffna Tamil roots and the generous endowment of melanin that comes along with it. Amid the ongoing hand-wringing in Hong Kong about the “brownface” saga involving a Canadian-born Chinese actress who darkened her skin to play a Filipino domestic worker, I too, have been doing some self-reflection. How offended should I be that it’s 2022 and this is still happening? Why do casting directors in a metropolitan city like Hong Kong – which prides itself as Asia’s World City – insist on darkening a light-skinned actor to portray a person of different race rather than embrace diverse casting? Having contemplated these questions, I find that, more than being offended, I feel an acute sense of second-hand embarrassment for those who have sought to suggest there is nothing wrong with the practice of brownface or blackface. Brownface episode reminds Hong Kong it has work to do on racism I remember having similar thoughts when in 2019, a similar incident took place in Singapore. In that saga, an ethnic Chinese actor darkened his skin to portray an Indian man in an ad for a payment app. After facing social media consternation, the actor Dennis Chew, and the national broadcaster that managed him, apologised for “any hurt that was unintentionally caused”. There was no formal official censure over the ad, though the media regulator noted that it had been “done in poor taste and had caused offence to minority communities” , adding that the parties concerned were given a stern reminder to take religious and racial sensitivities into consideration. That saga remains on the minds of many Singaporeans and sparked a conversation about the portrayal of minorities in national media. Singapore’s ‘brownface’ saga sparks debate on race Etched in my mind from that episode was a government official’s suggestion that there was no need to view brownface as offensive in the Singapore context. The official had noted that the city state did not carry the baggage of African-American slavery in the US, which underpins why blackface – and its dehumanising undertones – is so offensive there. He instead asked: “Is it because other people felt it is offensive and that’s why? Or is it because if a minority plays a majority, it is okay, but if a majority plays a minority, then it is offensive? As a policymaker, what do I do?” I think that’s the wrong way of looking at this issue. Societal norms are changing, and institutions, officials and industries (yes, the entertainment sector, especially), and officials must move with the times instead of seeking to maintain an outdated status quo. I don’t think there is a huge cost to do away with race-swapping in casting. In this saga, TVB missed an opportunity for embracing diverse casting, like Bridgerton did by casting Ashley. Netflix has been hailed for its decision to cast a dark-skinned South Asian woman in one of its flagship series. It’s good to see that TVB and the actress in question, Franchesca Wong, have apologised. Let’s hope this mini-publicity disaster will see all concerned do better in portraying minorities in this city.