Resource on brownface, racism, and racial discourse

In the past week, Singapore has been ablazed with controversy and debate over the brownface Mediacorp ad campaign and the police investigation into the rap video response by Preetipls and Subhas. As a community of students concerned with Singapore’s civil democracy and racial discourse, we at CAPE are disappointed by the knee-jerk preference for censorship and blind condemnation instead of discourse and a sincere attempt to understand and reflect upon the experiences of racial minorities in Singapore.

CAPE presents a primer of 6 infographics reflecting on racism as more than just a “western SJW thing”, discourse versus censorship, and questions to ponder with the state planning an enhancement of current judicial firepower in regulating race and religion.

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Compiled by: Isaac Neo, Suraendher Kumarr, Jiang Haolie, Alexander Goh, et al.

Further commentary by Suraendher Kumarr

The current discourse on brownface suffers from anxieties from both sides- the ethnic minorities’ lived experiences of racism not being validated and those who are suspicious of minorities deliberately broadening the definition of racism to justify victimhood.  

To identify if brownface in Singapore is racist, the concept of racism must first be rigorously understood. A dictionary definition of racism typically refers to the belief that one’s own race is superior.  The concept of racism first originated in western colonialism, which propagated the ideology that the whites were the superior race because they were “most civilised”. The colonialists employed scientific disciplines (or pseudo-disciplines) to propose that human beings can be classified into discrete races, superior and inferior, based on their physical characteristics. A similar racist ideology was employed by Hitler in Nazi Germany in the 1930s, claiming the Aryans to be the master race and the Jews most inferior. In a literature review of the definitions of racism, Brown and Miles conclude that there are historically specific racisms but there must be common attributes that identify them as different forms of racism. 

A significant contribution to conceptualising the common attributes of different forms of racism has been the scholarship shaped by the political struggle of African-Americans against their position of inequality in the US.  In Black Power (1968), scholars defined racism as ‘the predication of decisions and policies on considerations of race for the purpose of subordinating a racial group and maintaining control over that group’.  This definition thus implies that racism can only exist in the context of ethnic inequality. They distinguished between overt, individual racism and covert, institutional racism. The former is defined as explicit actions by individuals and the latter as those actions and inactions which maintain ‘black’ people in a disadvantaged situation and which rely on ‘the active and pervasive operation of anti-black attitudes and practices’. By this definition, the intention to cause racism is not a necessary criteria for something to be defined as racist as long as the predication of decisions and policies result in the subordination and maintenance of control of a racial group. 

Several scholars apply this definition of racism to British colonies  as centuries of colonisation resulted in a similar predicament of inequality between races in these colonies. An example of a common racist practice shared between the US and Singapore is the act of dominant ethnic groups caricaturizing the physical features of subordinate ethnic groups. This is otherwise known as blackface in the US and brownface in Singapore. While both practices are substantially similar, they are historically specific. While blackface originated in the US in the 19th century during slavery, public knowledge of brownface in Singapore only first occurred more recently.

Brownface currently exists in the context of the Chinese ethnic group dominating the political and economic spheres of Singapore. Within this context of ethnic inequality, the act of Chinese persons caricaturizing the appearance of ethnic minorities by performing brownface is akin to reminding them of their inferior status in society. Not all Indians and Malays have the same dark skin colour and curly hair or wear a tudung. Yet, brownface makes it seem as if ethnic minorities all share the same physical characteristics. This connotes an even more archaic 19th century definition of racism- as the scientific doctrine that members of each race share distinctive characteristics and behaviours that are immutable. The continuous performance of brownface by the Chinese actively reminds the Indian and Malay that they are inferior to the Chinese, hence maintaining the structures of racial inequality. This makes brownface akin to overt, individual racism. 

From Prof Lim Sun Sun’s commentary: “While blackface has appeared in varied incarnations around the world, what unifies these representations is their capacity to denigrate black and dark-skinned people, serving them up as crude, campy and unidimensional caricatures with no other purpose than to entertain. Therein lies the link to “brownface”. In darkening his skin, slapping on a wig and donning a tudung, Chew’s portrayals harked back to the crass bigotry of the minstrel shows, leading many netizens to remark “Brownface? In 2019?”.”

“As scholar Kenneth Paul Tan has identified, Malays tend to be portrayed as buffoons, Indians as disagreeable and fearsome, and Eurasians as shallow and unintelligent. Minority characters in Singapore productions are introduced and plumbed for their comedic value in narratives dominated by Chinese characters. Fundamentally, such stereotypes are exercises in reductionism and diminution. Not only did the Nets ad use skin colour as an expedient shorthand for our ethnic minority groups, but it also implied that minorities cannot represent themselves, or are so simplistic that they can be easily represented by others.”

“When the richness and diversity of an entire ethnic group is reduced to their skin colour, that denial of individuality is dehumanising. When the complexity and sophistication of an entire culture is condensed into negative stereotypes, that disavowal of heritage is demoralising. Blackface or “brownface”, media representations matter. When media portrayals of diverse age groups, ethnicities or gender traffic in tired stereotypes, they propagate and entrench superficial conceptions of differences that do not deepen mutual understanding. And when members of the ethnic majority engage in facile depictions of ethnic minorities, the act is doubly marginalising.”



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