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What is okayornot?

Okay / Not is a scenario-based tool to start open-ended conversations about race in Singapore. It aims to unpack differences in opinions, and help navigate the grey areas of what is acceptable or not.

This tool does not impose a value judgement on what is considered racist or not; rather, the intent is to create an awareness of what assumptions of others we might hold, and to ponder upon the conditions which make certain biases fair or unfair.

As you explore the tool, ask yourself these questions:

  1. What feelings or reactions did you have upon seeing your responses compared to others?
  2. Think about your life experiences - your childhood and family upbringing; the schools you went to; the neighbourhood you live in; your social networks; the media you consume; etc. How might these have influenced your responses to each of the statements?
  3. Are there certain situations where this statement might be okay or not okay?
  4. Have you heard someone say or do this, or have you been in a similar situation before? How did the recipient react or feel about it?
  5. How would you feel if this statement was directed at you?
  6. What about this statement made you feel uncomfortable or conflicted?
  7. What assumptions did you have in mind when you responded to this statement?

This doesn't apply to me - I already support racial equality!

Many studies show that most Singaporeans respect and believe in racial equality. Despite this, many also recognise that racism is still an issue in Singapore, and have encountered situations that have made them feel excluded because of their race.

One reason for this is implicit biases, which are attitudes or stereotypes that we may not be aware of, but which affect our understanding and actions towards a group of people. This often perpetuates racial prejudice in our interactions with others, even if we consciously believe in racial equality and have non-prejudiced intentions.

What are some issues surrounding race in Singapore?

Racism occurs both overtly and covertly. Examples of overt racism include race-preferences in jobs or housing, racial slurs, or hate crimes. Examples of covert racism include casual racism - microaggressions towards someone of another race that are based on negative stereotypes.

Covert racism tends to be difficult to identify; yet, it happens every day through words and actions, and often leaves the recipient feeling hurt and marginalized.

How are racial biases perpetuated?

Implicit biases gain power from mental associations, even if we don't act on them.

For example, imagine if a stereotype assumed that all Chinese people wrote illegibly. If you came across a Chinese man taking notes, you would assume that his writing would be horrible and impossible to read. Without even checking the quality of his writing, your belief would already strengthen - that is how easily stereotypes gain power.

Of course, you might go up to the man and ask for a sample of his writing. If the writing is neat and legible, you would be forced to question your assumptions.

In this hypothetical example, it's easy to observe if your stereotype is true or not. But in reality, how many of us would go up to a stranger and ask for a sample of their writing to verify our beliefs? Isn’t it much easier to stick to our assumptions without questioning them? What if it wasn’t handwriting, but more sensitive issues such as behaviours, intelligence, or educational background?

The truth is, we rarely examine the accuracy of our assumptions. This allows these stereotypes to go unchecked, and they will continue to gain power until we replace these associations with healthier ones.

What can I do to overcome my racial biases?

Everyone has their own implicit biases that we’ve learned over the course of our lives. To unlearn them, we need to receive consistent feedback (think back to the example of illegible handwriting, and how we need many instances of counter-evidence to disassemble that stereotype). Having intentional dialogue with others is also important. In a multi-racial society like Singapore, having open and constructive conversations on race will help to open our minds, nurture and sustain a harmonious society.

On a personal level, we can use the "Detect, Reflect, Reject" framework:

  1. Detect when you make negative racial associations. Creating this awareness is the first and most important step!
  2. Reflect on why they come to mind, in a non-judgmental way. Growing up, we have internalised all sorts of racial messages - don't be afraid to call yourself out! Instead, view it as an invitation to unlearn these assumptions.
  3. Reject our bias by developing an alternative response! You could try to recall an instance where this bias was untrue, or think of someone you know who doesn't conform to the stereotype. If you have questions, seek to either clarify politely, or do your own research online!

Educating yourself is a key element of being anti-racist as well; resource banks such as racerelations.better.sg are really useful for this!

How can I confront others' racial biases constructively?

Building an awareness of racial biases helps us detect it in others too. When you notice someone being targeted (covertly or overtly), here're some ways to intervene:

  1. Calm down: Feeling angry is natural, but being calm gives you a clearer lens to negotiate differences.
  2. Seek to understand: Seek first to listen, then to be understood. Remember that racial biases are internalised over a long period of time, and the aggressor might not have the same level of awareness that you have developed. Gently make the aggressor aware of how hurtful their remarks or actions might have been to the recipient. You can express your views without criticizing each other.
  3. Promote solution finding: Check in on the person being targeted, and listen to what they need. Receiving an apology can also be a solution! Importantly, we want the aggressor to begin detecting their own biases. Present this as an opportunity to grow, rather than to intimidate the aggressor.
  4. Follow up: If the opportunity arises, check in with the aggressor/ victim at a later date, and stay engaged! Continue to show up for targets of covert or overt racism.

Alright, that sounds doable. Does this mean my job is done?

The battle for equality is a complex and wicked problem. It is deeply intertwined with other dimensions such as religion, gender, socioeconomic status, and educational background. Viewing issues from one lens only often ignores the larger context and feeds into other kinds of stereotypes!

The implicit bias intervention frameworks we suggested above can be applied to all these dimensions as well. Regardless of what the issue at hand is, we hope that you feel a little more equipped to step in and make a difference when you see injustice at work! Importantly, we shouldn’t feel like we need to be completely rid of biases before we begin to take action - that’s an impossible ask. Rather, it is your commitment to seek positive change wherever you find it, including in yourself, that makes all the difference.

About Us

We believe that Okay / Not could be used to help facilitate richer conversations about race in Singapore. The game is open-ended: you could consider using this tool to kickstart discussion groups, integrate it into existing facilitation programmes, or even just deploy it in your social circles and teams.

We’d love to start a conversation with you! You can contact the Okay / Not team at okayornot@better.sg

References

  1. Devine, P. G., Forscher, P. S., Austin, A. J., & Cox, W. T. (2012). Long-term reduction in implicit race bias: A prejudice habit-breaking intervention. Journal of experimental social psychology, 48(6), 1267-1278.