Written by Althea Lim for Carpe Bloom. Graphics by Alicia.
The rapid spread of Coronavirus Disease 2019 (COVID-19), now classified as a pandemic by the World Health Organisation (WHO), has not only brought about global alarm, but also a slew of anti – Chinese racist sentiments. Despite its veritable transnational nature, contravening tangible borders and vast expanses of land, it has seemingly engendered, or at the very least emphasised, the marginalisation of minorities.
Living as part of a racial majority in Singapore, especially during a time of crisis, has its benefits. For starters, I don’t have to fear getting assaulted on the streets for being Chinese. Neither do I have to fear receiving scathing stares on public transport for sniffling —- Any sort of (un)subtle ostracism here stems from the general lack of social consideration and hygiene, not the genetic makeup of the individual. The discourse surrounding COVID – 19 in Singapore is concentrated on the rising numbers of infections, worries of a contracting economy and a resulting recession, and government actions vis a vis aiding businesses and protecting jobs.
For starters, I don’t have to fear getting assaulted on the streets for being Chinese.
But not race, virtually never race.
In contrast, the proliferation of Asian prejudice in the conversations regarding COVID-19, especially in countries with an Asian minority, are being expressed overtly through deliberately caustic memes and sensationalist media coverage. Think The Wall Street Journal’s “China Is the Real Sick Man of Asia” headline — Los Angeles high schoolers and Asian restaurants receiving both a physical and metaphorical beating — and the immense amounts of posts containing false, and often targeted misinformation against Asians on social media.
But, why is this so? What exactly is the difference between being part of a majority community and not?
Society most often finds its battles and disagreements in conflicts of interests determined by levels of well being, subjective notions of progress, and personal convictions. And like any battle, there are opposing sides. The communities we either find ourselves in, or were born into, serve as protection. A collective force binded by a shared identity, culture, and history, operationalising when its common interests are under threat. This force enables us to, instead of being represented as an individual in society, be represented as part of a collective entity. Providing us a larger practical stake in society, and ipso facto, allows our voice to swell up for a heightened volume increasing our chances of being heard in society. However, this particular voice is frustrated, or muted, when other larger communities have differing interests and priorities.
It is helpful to note that a key part of communities having a genuine stake in society involves a translation of the aforementioned combined individual powers into tangible, impactful acts ; viz, actions which shape society. The implications of this very translation alters the collective abstraction of ‘community’ into a substantial, corporeal, force; defined by its ability to influence politics, mould convention, and affect everyday life. That’s not to say that individuals are incapable of making irrational decisions, or that society solely functions on the grounds of utilitarianism. Rather, it means that a great amount of critical judgements and choices — all of which have the potential to greatly shape society — are made by legislators and politicians, who ideally, serve as a conduit for their voters, who hold a majority in the votes, in representing their interests. This is due to the fact that ultimately, those who hold the majority choose who gets to lead a country. The presupposition here is not the direct harming of the minority — because the interests of the minority and majority can, and sometimes do align — it’s the tip of societal balance when the interests of both groups diverge.
If someone were to break the social standard, we would generally consider that person rude and uncouth.
It is consensus that the way society functions is not merely determined by who we vote for, and the kind of public policy we enact, even if on a broad bureaucratic scale, that may be true. Individuals value the way we treat and interact with each other and abide by social norms on top of perspectives on how and what our government should look like. These social norms are inclusive of seemingly mundane behaviours like saying ‘thank you’ when given a gift. Adherence to these actions denote far more than just niceties, they denote respect and civility; forming the basis on how we should treat each other, thereby also constructing the expectations and conventions which we employ to control and sway the actions of another. If someone were to break the social standard, we would generally consider that person rude and uncouth. Since rudeness goes against the social standard of what we consider ‘decent’, we actively strive away from it. We tell children to be polite, and actively recite to them old fables and adages on socially desired, and expected values such as honesty. Our notions on what we should and should not strive for thus guide the way we lead our lives and conventions on how we expect others to lead theirs.
These societally generated guidelines, however, are not decided by everybody. The guidelines are chiefly defined as a set of rules widely agreed upon; it requires majority consensus, not absolute consensus.
We may expect everyone to conform to this set of rules to fulfill what we think of as ‘decent’’, a standard imposed on them and the rest of society by us, but invariably not everyone does conform. Since these individuals do not conform, we give effect to our ‘striving away’ by marking the dissidents as worthy of ostracism, frequently categorising them as self centred, and perhaps morally reprehensible; we turn away from them, sequestering their behaviours as ‘unacceptable’.
Let us take stock. We’ve established how communities not only function as entities that create tangible change, but also serve as an instrument for assembling societal expectations. Now this is where the majority-minority dynamic becomes precarious.
Consider this: Should a majority view a minority as a threat in a context when their interests divaricate, and opt to shun and condemn the minority, the majority then can use its profound influence — a level of influence which is much higher than that of the minority’s — to not only create a government whose policies and stance achieve the goal of isolating the minorities, tangibly obstructing them, but to also create an environment where minorities and behaviours, features, and characteristics associated with them to face opprobrium.
In this case, the minority has little power to either produce the practical shifts it needs or create the cultural pushback for societal survival.
So consider who you are — not so that we can clarify which lines and labels divide us, but so you can gain a better understanding of what to do from your position, to make the life of your neighbour, friend or stranger just a little bit better, during this trying time.
Edited by teamCARPE: Ngan Lin & Athena