My first encounter with Chinese privilege occurred when I was nine years old. We’d just got our final exam results and I was bouncing off the walls because I’d placed third in my class. It was a pretty big achievement for me because the first two years of my primary school education were a real struggle. My stellar results meant I was eligible for the second-best class in the next academic year. Yet, it was stated in my report card that I’d been assigned to 4C, the third class in the rankings.
When I enquired as to why this was so, my form teacher curtly informed me that 4B was going to be an all-Chinese class.
I felt the blood rushing to my face as I walked back to my seat, but I didn’t make a fuss because my elderly Chinese form teacher was known to hit students with a heavy wooden ruler. Later that day I went home and showed my parents my report card. They were overjoyed with my exam results but equally as confused about my class assignment. The look on their faces when I explained the school’s rationale behind it was priceless. This was one rare occasion where my dad was fuming, hopping mad, and I wasn’t the cause of it.
The very next morning he rang the school and gave the principal a piece of his mind but, unfortunately, the school’s stand prevailed. They put it down to modus operandi and convenience for teachers. The worst part about the episode was finding out that a Chinese classmate, who’d placed behind me, got into class 4B.
This, to me, is Chinese privilege. Growing up as a Singaporean Indian, being compared to the Chinese standard always led me to believe that I was somehow inferior. Many of my Chinese friends don’t realise that Chinese privilege exists, but I don’t blame them. For those who deny its existence, however, let me put it this way.
I hated wearing shorts because they’d make fun of my hairy legs. I never talked about my favourite Bollywood movie because they’d ridicule it. I always wore cologne, otherwise I’d have that “Indian” smell. Chances are, you never had to worry about these things.
Peggy McIntosh, an anti-racism activist, describes white and male privileges as having an “invisible knapsack” filled with implicit advantages. Chinese privilege is not dissimilar. It affords certain luxuries that minority races here lose out on. Most of these luxuries are often taken for granted, like not having to worry if your race will affect your employability. It even happens in our offices when members of the company break out into Mandarin halfway through a conversation I’m in and continue at it for several minutes, either unaware of our lack of comprehension, or indifferent to it.
If you’re a Singaporean Chinese, and truly believe in equality, it’s time to speak out for your minority brethren. Your words and actions have the power to inspire change. As with any other social issue, the most vital step is awareness. If you’re unconvinced by my personal experience, I encourage you to speak to a friend who’s an ethnic minority. They’ll have some stories, I assure you.
This story was published in the February 2017 issue of AUGUSTMAN