Sunday 8 May 2005

Help! My mother is a racist

Since today is Mother's Day, I want to say something about the woman who gave birth to me, raised me and still nags at me to get my hair cut.

She is a racist.

Mum used to warn me not to play with the neighbour's kids - of another ethnic group - as they were 'dirty'.

And she also forbade me to marry anyone outside my race. And even if the girl is Chinese, she absolutely positively could not be Khek (or Hakka). Why?

Because, my mum said, we were Hainanese - as if that explained everything.

Even when young, I had been easily unnerved by blanket assumptions made of whole swathes of people.

So imagine the shock of hearing such vileness from my own mum, otherwise as loving and caring as mothers are supposed to be.

The struggle was to reject her racism, but not her. To embrace her, but not her bigotry.

She's my mum, after all.

For many children, unfortunately, this is how racism is handed down from generation to generation.

My mother probably learnt it from her mother. Like charity, it begins at home.

I'm not saying that the parents of the PSC scholar who made the racist comments in his blog should take all the blame.

But surely parents have the responsibility not to turn their kids into bigots.

They should teach their children not just 'racial tolerance', but to celebrate the diversity of all races.

Mind you, like most people, I suffer lapses.

Once, I had an argument with one of two Indian colleagues in my office. He denied saying something that I knew he had.

In exasperation, I blurted out that, if it wasn't he who said it, then it was the other Indian - because they both looked alike to me.

I regretted it the moment I said it.

And I've come to realise that he, as a member of a minority race in Singapore, has learnt to accept such incidents as part of life here.

I experienced the same thing when I was a student in the US.

My best buddy in college was a blond Irish-German Protestant named Darren. He had befriended me because he mistakenly thought I could teach him gongfu.

He was fond of calling me 'Chinaman' and 'ricehead', and half-jokingly saying 'Chinks have no soul'.

So was he a cardboard-cutout bad guy?

Yet Darren also took me home to meet his small-town family for Thanksgiving, who seemed good people.

Ironically, he would move to Taiwan to teach English and marry a 'chink' girl he met there.

I wonder how her mother felt about the marriage. Mine would freak out.

Happy Mother's Day, Mum!

- Published in The New Paper, 8 May 2005