2.8.19

Singapore wonders: is brownface racist?

I've had a crazy-busy-unstoppable week that involved the fantastic Sewanee Writers Conference, a little downtime in Nashville, then coming back to Boston to move apartments---in the midst of which, every morning I woke up to find that my phone had exploded with the latest (and increasingly ridiculous) developments in what I'm going to call the brownface saga in Singapore.

As the title of this blog post states, Singapore wonders: is brownface racist?

The longer version: In 2019, in the midst of its (neocolonial) bicentennial year and in the lead-up to its 54th (postcolonial) National Day, Singapore---ostensibly a democratic, modern, urban and multiracial society---is still trying to figure if brownface is racist.

More agile minds than mine have provided excellent commentaries on the brownface saga as it unfolded, so I'm just going to summarise the links (last updated 7 August 2019).

First, some handy primers on the meaning and implications of brownface in the Singapore context (it's tragic that these are still needed in 2019!):
A brief recap of what went down:
  • Faris Joraimi documented the appearance of a NETS advertisement for epaysg.com using brownface (26 July 2019)
  • As Visakan Veerasamy and Yogesh Tulsi have pointed out, this is at least the sixth brownface incident in the last seven years.
  • The creative agencies involved in making the ad, but not the client NETS, apologised "for any hurt that was unintentionally caused." (28 July 2019)
  • Singapore YouTube artists Preetipls and Subhas made a rap video, "K. Muthusamy", responding to the brownface advertisement (29 July 2019)
  • Someone promptly made a police report about the video. As Kirsten Han observed, "‪A government initiative can employ a Chinese actor to put on brownface and just get away with a half-assed apology, but a satirical rap video by actual brown people in response gets investigated for allegedly containing offensive content?!"
  • This comic at A Good Citizen also captures the preposterousness of the situation.
  • Or as Ruby Thiagarajan observes, "the backlash against calling out racism turned out to be worse than the backlash against racism".
The backlash continued, focusing almost exclusively (as of 4 August 2019) on the rap video, not on the original brownface advertisement:
Some excellent commentaries on the situation:
Unrelated to the brownface saga, I happened to read two other commentaries on black-white race relations in the US that transpose somewhat if you substitute "Singaporean Chinese men" for "white men":
I'll keep updating this post as things develop. I'd like to think the situation is winding down, or at least people will refocus on the original brownface advertisement instead---but knowing Singapore in 2019, I'm not optimistic.

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