Racism and racial prejudice are hard topics to broach, whether you’re in multicultural Singapore or in Europe where the migrant crisis gets more complicated by the day.
Is Singapore a racist country? Quite recently, a foreign student living in Singapore answered this question in her blog, and her story went viral after being featured on Mothership, a local community news / content aggregating site. She talked about her experience with racial prejudice, and she’s right; it is often in details that make you wonder if you’re perhaps being a tad too sensitive.
But I’m not going to discuss race, racism and racial prejudice in Singapore right now. Instead I’ll be sharing about something that happened to me. For some time friends have encouraged me to write about this incident, and I’ve finally decided I shall.
It was the winter of 2012.
The-Husband-Then-Boyfriend (hereafter abbreviated as THTB) and I were flying to Sweden to celebrate Christmas with family. We transited at Amsterdam en route to Stockholm. Before boarding the flight, we had looked at our passes and noticed that we might not be seated together.
Perhaps it’s a full flight, we thought.
…except that it wasn’t. As I recall, the flight was about half or two-thirds full, with plenty of spare seats between passengers. THTB was ushered to his seat, and the spots beside him were empty then. I was ushered to mine, one in a row of three, beside a Muslim woman (she was wearing a Hijab) carrying her fussing toddler on her lap and a Malaysian Indian girl (we spoke briefly with each other).
THTB and I exchanged glances. We wanted to sit together, and we were perplexed as to why we were assigned seats so far apart. It wasn’t that we were simply separated by an aisle; he was actually seated several rows away, across the aisle. It didn’t make sense given that he had booked our flights together.
We waited to see if the seats beside him would fill. Minutes passed and still no one came. Soon, the cabin crew began checking that our seat belts were fastened, and that was when I decided to speak up.
I had grown increasingly uneasy at the situation I observed. The plane was nowhere near full, and throughout the aircraft, passengers were spaced out comfortably – some sitting solo in empty rows (like THTB), others seated with empty spaces between them.
Why on earth were the only three non-white (and I assume non-European) women plus one small child in the flight squeezed into a row of three?
I raised my hand and a stewardess walked over to attend to me. I asked politely if I could please move to the empty seat beside my partner, several rows away. Also, perhaps the lady by the window with the baby could have more space for her and her child, seeing that the flight was not full?
The stewardess spoke with another (I presume someone more senior) and she agreed. So I grabbed my bag and plonked myself down next to THTB. I was glad to move but was also feeling unsettled.
I asked THTB if he had noticed the strangeness of the seating. He said yes he didn’t understand why we weren’t seated together. I said no, I mean, did you realise that the only three Asian women (make that four Asian people, to include the child) in this plane were huddled together in a row of three while the other passengers were spaced out comfortably? He looked around, and said oh. He saw what I meant then, and was also upset.
During the flight, THTB and I had our first long discussion about white privilege, racial colour blindness, and how he (a white male) had not read the situation as I had. In a way it was good that this happened, because it paved the way for a deeper discussion about race and racial prejudice, sexual discrimination, and of course, stereotypes of The
Third-World Asian Girlfriend with Rich Ang Mo Boyfriend, which we would have to confront in the course of our relationship.
THTB also decided then that he would watch out for such situations in future. Not that he thought I couldn’t stand up for myself, but he wanted to be more aware and supportive. As a mixed couple, we knew we could not be colour blind – not when THTB gets ang mo tax (which means we get charged more because he’s white) when we visit countries like Malaysia and Thailand. Plus countless other instances of discrimination we’ve both experienced together. On that note, I might add that The Husband and I both sometimes refer to him as ang mo, but jokingly, without prejudice.
Anyway, you might be wondering if there was any follow-up to that incident. Well, we didn’t do anything about it, beyond my request for the seat change. I’ve retold the episode to family and friends on various occasions, and the responses have ranged from dismay to disgust. “You should have filed a complaint,” someone told me recently, when the topic of racial discrimination came up and I had shared my personal experience. “The airline would have done something to make it up to you.”
Maybe we should have, but we didn’t. Perhaps the airline might have apologised, or perhaps they might have explained that the seating was an honest system mistake.
Why didn’t we speak up? For the most part, the situation had been resolved with the seat change. We didn’t want to make a fuss. We were happy to be with his family, and soon the festive celebrations pushed the incident to the back of our minds.
The truth is, I had also wondered then, and even now: Was that really racist – or was I being too sensitive?
That’s often the question, isn’t it?
Photo of airplane interior: Ryan McGuire