There. I said it. Beneath all the pep talks and inspirational speechifying lies a person who has major issues with believing in and trusting others. I tend to hide this well, which is one of the reasons I went silent this time. I couldn’t find a positive thing to say, an inspirational way to spin what was going on. I submit to the court of public opinion, such as it is in today’s hyper-driven, attention-span-less world, that, upon finding out what had happened to George Floyd, I, incensed beyond rational thought, googled the phrase: “people are evil.”
I googled a few other phrases, of similar, if more specific, sentiment, but it’s not making too much sense to share them right now. The bottom line was the realization, that I found myself so close to a point of view wherein humanity is believed to be nothing more than “bad code” that my immediate knee-jerk reaction in response to these horrendous acts of brutality was to look for material validating that view. But, I suppose, after all, isn’t that a big part of the internet’s function, intentional or not? I understand the perverse logic behind the concept of conflict, and I, like all of us in some way, have witnessed where it ultimately can lead. I understand the vile workings of prejudice, and I have seen personally where they can lead. I am no stranger to the abuse of power. So what is it about what’s going on right now that has me stumped?
I “met up” with a dear friend the other day, who is a cultural muslim with a muslim-sounding name and a distinctly arab-indian bearing. There’s always been a high degree of shared common experience between us, and, unfortunately, the experience of prejudice is one of them. I’ve always appreciated and respected his counsel, in part because he’s a few years my junior and as a GenX-er I value the raw opinion of an actual, in-the-flesh millenial, and in part because he’s one of the smartest and most observant people I know. He works for a big company, and had this to say:
I just think it’s not really the time for bandwagoning. If you have something you want to say personally, as an individual, for example, I’m donating to… [BLM]… or, this is my personal experience with racism… [or] what are the tangible actions you can take [such as] checking your hiring policies? But the idea of just: “We have to be part of the conversation!” I don’t know. When it comes down to it, I’m just not sure how interested I am in some brand telling me how to think right now.
It was affirming to hear this, because I realized that precisely what I was looking to do was share—share my story, for what it was, without the burden of it needing to match the experiences of others in order to be valid. Could there be a way for me to speak to my specific experiences of racial prejudice, discrimination, and abuse, different as they are from, say, the plight of black America, and still be contributing productively and effectively to the greater discourse? Or is the issue, at this point, no longer personal?
I think I am in agreement with funnyman, pundit, and commentator Trevor Noah. In a segment of his I recently watched, he distinguishes the conversation of reparations from the more general subject of disenfranchisement of other races, and, for that matter, of other people struck by misfortune, essentially saying that they are two separate topics, though each one is valid. I see and appreciate what he is saying here; I do not claim that my experiences have anything in common with, say, the atrocities suffered by black South Africans under apartheid, nor, for that matter, do they bear any resemblance to the systemic patterns of discrimination, violence, and abuse suffered collectively by black Americans from day one.
But I am feeling motivated to talk about some experiences I’ve had with racism, even if briefly, because I believe that what all of us are all striving for, in this struggle which has come to a head this year, is a better way for humanity to move forward, a way where the murdering of itself, the warring with itself, the pitting itself against itself for petty gain has finally ended, and humanity can at last come into the light and work together, respecting and honoring itself, so that it may rise and be the best that it can be. So while I recognize the systemic societal issues that, ludicrously and sadly, so many people still experience every day in this and other countries (including the one of my birth), I wish to add my experiences, my song, to this dialogue, in the belief that, through the remembrance of the events, and by looking the ignorance and fear that prompted them squarely in the eye and seeing them for the illusions they are, I, and, therefore, we, might take a step or two closer to creating the world we seek inside.
At a young age, I experienced racial prejudice, discrimination, and racialist sentiment, as well as violent actions directly stemming from each of them. I’ve also experienced, as someone with a mental health record, the abuse of power by, as well as abusive behavior towards innocent individuals and patients, by police officers, as well as more than one of those who call themselves mental health practicioners within “the system.”
Prejudice, bigotry, ignorance and fear, have accompanied me, in a number of forms, throughout my life. And I’ve been on both sides of the coin. The first thing to note is that I am a Malaysian, and moreover a “Malay” Malaysian. Those of you who are themselves Malaysian understand exactly what this means and likely can predict what I am about to say. For those of you who are not Malaysian: the status of being a Malay Malaysian, or bumiputra (“son of the earth” #faerworld) is a privileged one. There are subsidy programs available, types of credit that can be established, types of high-yield bank accounts that can be applied for, that are simply not an option for non-bumiputras (I’m simplifying a little bit; if I’ve deviated too far, you can let me know in the comments).
Essentially, however, the bumiputra program is an affirmative action program for an already-privileged majority of the population—the Malays. It’s really just a way to institutionalize racism and racial entitlements in the country, by disenfranchising the ethnic minorities more than they already are. I found out some years ago that I had one of these bank accounts opened in my name. I got rid of it as quickly as I responsibly could, giving the money to a combination of charities and to help get certain aspects of BlueDorian up and running, which felt like a double win, helping grow the company, where the company’s operations are intended to help and bolster philanthropy and charitable causes. In any case, it just didn’t feel right to be involved in this system despite the “good returns,” so that’s what I chose to do.
Bigotry was something I sadly didn’t have to travel too far to experience. I had a close family elder who believed quite firmly that “the Malays” were lazy and unable to amount to anything worthwhile, ironically bestowing upon one of these Malays (my father) countless positions on various directorial boards, so that the company could take advantage of various bumiputra programs and advantages. In any case, he was happy to remind me of this “universal truth" (that the Malays are inherently lazy) each time we met. About twenty years ago I stopped visiting him altogether. The fact that he didn’t understand why was not cause for me to think, as I might have, per his logic, that all Chinese people were stupid. I’m sure I’ve shared other stories, such as his whole beef about me and my cousins being genetically impure (a weird dig at my Eurasian grandmother, and, of course, once again, my Malay father) and that we should all find Chinese spouses in order to “swing the genes” in the right direction. I thank him, actually, for being the bigoted billionaire that he is. It’s primed me well for the past four years, and made them immeasurably easier to weather.
When I was sent to boarding school in the 90’s, I found myself in a Great Britain that was facing a wave of renewed nationalism. I was given “the treatment,” that every “brown-boy” was expected to endure. I was told that I was not welcome, that I should go back to where I came from. But that wasn’t enough. I was referred to as “cow-pat” (cow dung); I and my fellow brown-skinned Malaysians were generally aggregated along with the Indian members of the community, and were referred to, along with the Pakistani members of the population, as “packy” (a racial epithet: the fact that we were all different ethnicities didn’t matter much—it didn’t matter much for us either, we all just didn’t want to be attacked).
I had clothes ripped to pieces, belongings of mine smashed and broken, I was physically assaulted, and I had things stolen from my room, because, I was told, I was a brownie, so those things that were taken belonged not to me but to the white boy three doors down. When I protested and tried to take back what was mine, he came into my room with a metal chair, and threw it at my head. Thankfully, I raised my arms in time to protect myself. I was left with cuts, a broken cassette-tape player, and some heavy bruising (from the beating he gave after he realized that the chair hadn’t hurt me nearly enough), but, again, thankfully, not a serious head injury. When I was asked to explain what had happened, to the teachers and monitors, and I did, accurately but probably favoring my assailant for fear of retribution, I was told not to be such a softie, and that I should simply ignore what the white boy was saying. I remember thinking to myself, “Oh, should I also ignore the flying furniture?”
Many years later I found myself in a mental hospital, because my bipolar disorder was turning my brain into mush, and I was feeling extremely manic and extremely suicidal at the same time. I was asked to describe my experiences growing up. So I did, honestly, being quite open about what had happened in school, which was what I just shared with you. This doctor, who, incidentally, was Jewish, and who I guess I thought would have a certain degree of empathy regarding racism, looked coldly at me, and said, “So it seemed you experienced some bullying.” Right, I remember thinking (and fuming), the way your kindred had a minor inconvenience somewhere in the mid 20th century. (I suppose it wouldn’t be the internet if I didn’t invoke Hitler at some point.)
Other experiences were more sporadic, especially after 9/11. Odd looks here and there, furtive glances. Lots of third-degree-type behavior from immigration and customs officers. I remember learning to “act innocent” when traveling—to make sure that I had shaved, and ideally had a haircut as well. Wear something that connects me to something about where I am travelling to, such as a baseball cap etc. It didn’t matter a lick, apparently. One immigration officer stopped me and said I wasn’t allowed to carry a social security card if I only had a visitor’s visa. And that, kids, is how I lost my social security card forever. I later found out that, guess what, it was illegal for that officer to take my social security card. I don’t know about you, but in my opinion: you shouldn’t need a lawyer to accompany you through customs and immigration in order to be treated fairly.
I’ve been doing some practice embracing the world’s paradoxes lately, thrusting this subject back onto my radar. Part of me, perhaps too big a part of me, is able to look at these instances and rationalize them away with spiritual jargon, such as convincing myself that people act cruelly because they don’t know better, and, in the fullness of time, once they learn to act differently, they will. And I believe this, fairly strongly, in the same way that I tend to believe that souls go through many lifetimes, and thus it is possible for us to have lived lives as both victim and perpetrator. But to refocus on the way this subject is manifesting itself more globally today, this kind of passive compassion may be what has led us to where we are now. I’m not judging what’s happening, rather I’m merely acknowledging the inescapable inevitability of it, given the decisions that have led up to it.
My experiences with racial prejudice are nothing compared to what others have gone through. I’ve come out relatively unscathed and despite them I’ve had the freedom to create for myself the life I desire. The same cannot be said for so many who have pinned their hopes and dreams on social systems that, by all accounts and appearances, have not only failed them, but are actively rigged against them. My support is wholehearted to any who face the indignity of being forced to self-demonstrate every step they take, still only to have basic rights rationed, hidden, or flat out denied from them (the same goes for any organization I represent).
On a very small, very personal level, I remember being required to climb the unscalable range that is the esteem of the intolerant, and of the fearful. I remember needing to do it both in this country, and, in a different way, in the country of my birth as well. There’s a phrase in my native language, Bahasa Malaysia, “sama tapi bukan”—similar, but not the same. To this end, I might know how to bake every cake in the world, and, yes, that makes me a baker, but that doesn’t automatically mean that I know how to make great scones. Empathy and compassion aside, I cannot speak to anyone’s experiences other than my own. However, we are all still bakers in this scenario, and collectively, our rolls and loaves and sweetcakes and buns and bagels and scones all have value and meaning. In that vein, hopefully my stories and recollections have some value and meaning to the dialogue that is going on right now.
I hold to the fact that people can, must, and will contribute to the world song in the way that is best suited to who they are, be it speaking up on youtube, posting passionately on facebook, or else baking a cake (or a scone), writing a poem, painting a picture, or composing a song, and, furthermore, that the sooner it is understood the extent to which our fates are intertwined, the sooner we start self-identifying as a tolerant, pluralistic global society, the sooner, in this blogger’s humble opinion, will we get down to actually creating solutions to the world’s ills.
May this dialogue persist. May the people of conscience continue to be outspoken, to express themselves, and may they continue sharing their stories, their experiences, and the wisdom they’ve gained by going through what they’ve gone through. Your lives matter. Your stories are the cure among us that we seek. Share them.
Travel safe and talk soon.