Malaysia is complicit: Why the #BLM movement isn't far from home
Get off your high horse
By now you’ve all heard of the Black Lives Matter movement. George Floyd, a 46-year-old black man, is another victim in a seemingly endless stream of mindless atrocities at the hand of the American criminal justice system. Out of respect for him, I won’t recount the details of his painful and senseless death as it has already been well publicised on social media, but it’s certain that you won’t have to look very far to find it. The sombre point is, if you have seen it, it probably made you sick and angry, but it wouldn’t have shocked you.
There’s one thing we can be absolutely sure of: The abhorrent mentality towards black people in America is nothing new. To paraphrase the saying: ‘Racism isn’t getting worse–it’s just getting filmed’. That, in itself, is so hateful–that Floyd’s last moments had to be documented and made viral for his case to receive its due justice at all; and even then, it hasn’t been fully served as three of the four cops responsible for his tragic death still walk free.
Now, as I write this, there are violent protests that span the country which has, predictably, spawned a colourful array of criticisms towards the black community. I urge you, however, to reserve your judgement–if anything, the riots go to show that this isn’t an isolated case. It has been like this since forever–black people have already tried peacefully protesting for their basic human rights, but in a system that speaks in guns and murder, sometimes violence is the only option (and the last resort). You don’t have to condone violence (I certainly don’t), but you should try to understand things from their perspective: Time and time again, the US system lets the black community down, and it has been that way for centuries. They are perpetually being promised progress with every coming generation, yet nothing ever changes.
That said, I don’t speak for the black community, nor do I claim to understand even a fraction of the horrors they have to live with. So instead, take it from the countless black activists who are taking a stand for the #BLM movement, and sharing their experiences. Or, if you’d like a quick summary that covers the bare minimum, take it from Trevor Noah.
It’s easy, in times like these, to feign shock and horror at the well-established institutionalised racism in America. It’s easy to say ‘Thank god we’re a multi-cultural country’ or ‘It’s good we’re so progressive’, but the truth is that Malaysia is no better. It’s really no secret–our racist ideology is rampant and the ‘Malaysia Truly Asia’ narrative that we perpetuate to everyone is a complete lie.
Let me begin by stating that the instances of racism I’m about to discuss are only a small, small part of the much bigger picture. Racism is all around us, it’s pervasive and is much more deeply rooted in our society than these issues go. That said, although minor in comparison, these issues are still pertinent and are a good place to start.
Unfair and lovely
Let’s start in our pharmacies. Every aisle is stocked to the brim with skin whitening products–we’re spoilt for choice with whitening pills, creams, scrubs and even injections at our disposal! The idea that fair is lovely (note: paraphrasing here) is nothing new–in fact it's an incredibly prevalent belief across all of Asia. As evidenced from data showing that skin whitening was a $4.8 billion dollar industry globally as of 2017 (and is projected to double in growth by 2027), it’s clear that the pro-white skin mindset isn’t going anywhere.
It’s a little bit more than just wanting fairer skin, though; for many, whiteness is the door to opportunity–fair skinned people are objectively given preference and the widespread belief is that the lighter your complexion is, the more beautiful you are. In fact, the extent that many women will go to for a fairer complexion doesn’t even stop at literal poison–it exceeds it. The industry is unregulated, so common ingredients in the various products include both hydroquinone (which is a proven carcinogen in rats) and mercury (yes, the highly toxic heavy metal that leads to acute neurological symptoms is also an effective skin whitener).
More importantly, though, the obsession with fair skin has resulted in the ostracisation of darker-skinned people, especially in this neck of the world. It’s everywhere, it is horrible and if you come from a Chinese or Malay background, you’ve definitely stood witness to it. Think about every time you have heard relatives and aunties advise you (or your friends) against bringing home black or dark-skinned partners because ‘it will take generations to clear their skin’. I say this, however, from my personal experience—I can't speak for all. Sometimes it’s meant as a joke in poor taste, but more often as a thinly veiled threat–either way, it’s toxic and completely unacceptable.
However, how many times do people actually call out this behaviour? Hardly ever–this mentality is so heavily integrated into society’s psyche that we’re all desensitised to it: We brush it off and chalk up our Auntie’s ignorance to ‘a different time’. Alternatively, you may just politely laugh the whole thing off or hastily agree because you dread the argument that will follow if you don’t. It’s understandable, but this needs to change: Believe it or not, everything from your auntie’s comments to your willful silence are considered micro-aggressions (better known as casual racism), and allowing it to happen around you free of consequence is what allows it to thrive.
F*** being the ‘Model Minority’
On the topic of whiter, lighter skin, the reason why these beauty standards prevail is because Malaysia has an inherent preference for Eurocentric features–this stems predominantly from the colonialist era. As a result, we harbour a very toxic inferiority complex when it comes to white people–we demonise Western culture, sure, but at the same time, we place Whiteness™ on a pedestal. We call them ‘expatriates’ or ‘expats’ while POCs are reduced to 'immigrants' (not a dirty word, but used with nasty connotations). Historically, we’ve aspired to emulate them; we covet whiteness and we equate it with ‘better’ because that’s what we’ve been taught–but it's time for that to change. There is an uprising with the newer generations of Malaysia–we are finally beginning to reject and challenge this narrative, and we can do it from an educated standpoint because all the information we need is only a click away. However, not everyone is on board–some are determined to uphold the old train of thought.
You already know who I’m talking about: Miss Samantha Katie James, aka the former Miss Universe Malaysia who has made a last ditch attempt at staying relevant with her latest set of tone-deaf and ignorant Instagram Stories. It’s probably the worst thing I’ve ever read, so to save you the trouble, I’ve summed up what she said. Alternatively, you can also swipe through the gallery and see for yourself.
*Warning: Swipe through at your own risk. May cause loss of will to live.*
There’s a lot to unpack here. The first sign of no intelligent life is when she says that black people ‘choose’ to be black. Bad move right off the bat. Then, she goes on to explain this sentiment by saying that when she was a soul flitting through the cosmos, she chose to be White despite being born to a Chinese mother and a Brazilian father with Indian grandparents. Oh boy. Buckle up–it only gets
stupider worse. At the core of it, she belittles the plight of the black community and condescends the #BLM movement. Plus, no matter how many people try to call her out and gently explain that she’s wrong (including her own friends), she refuses to listen.
It’s clear that she has no idea what she’s talking about and doesn’t have a single shred of sense in her body. In fact, the entire ordeal is a trainwreck, but again, its connotations are an indicator of a much more insidious issue–people as willingly uneducated as she is (of which there are plenty) should not have the privilege of such a huge platform.
I say this because she has gained followers since the ordeal, and as the rapper Lil Asian Thiccie remarked–it says a lot about our country’s worrying attitudes to racial inequality. Whichever way you slice that cake, Samantha’s ignorance stems from a place of privilege and anti-blackness. Her claims that she is a white woman stem from the toxic ‘model minority’ ideology–it teaches us non-black POCs to align ourselves and associate ourselves with white culture and values rather than black or POC culture and values. Further, Asians speaking out against the #BLM movement are quick to feign the ‘we face racism too’ argument, but disregard the reality that our experiences with racism are so vastly different (and far less lethal) from that of black people.
It’s always difficult to broach these particular subjects because there’s always an element of ‘What if I’m not saying the right thing?’ or ‘I don’t feel educated enough’. However, there comes a time where it is immoral not to speak up and it is your responsibility to get educated and do what’s right. I’d like to reiterate that I am also just beginning to unlearn years and years of internalised racism. It’s a constant fight, but I am making it a priority to stay educated and become more actively anti-racist–and you should too. It is, at this point, our responsibility to do better and be more ethical than the society we were raised in. Speak up or be complicit. #BLM.
To support the Black Lives Matter Movement, whether through signing petitions, donations, education or otherwise, click here for BURO's directory. Alternatively, click here or here for community-compiled directories–note: resources are ample and these are just a few of many. Do your research and help in any way that you can: This is not the time for complacency.