In my first year as an undergraduate in Melbourne, the first thing I did after settling in was to buy a bicycle to commute to campus instead of spending a small fortune on tram tickets. Cycling was somewhat troublesome: 10km to the city centre, 10km back. 60 minutes a day. A test of the will, especially when it was cold in the mornings and evenings, or during winter. Most of my cycling route involved cycling on roads in dedicated bike lanes. This was a new experience for me.
I quickly learned the most pleasant routes to take: which had trees for shade; which took me through fragrant parks; which had the gentlest inclines; and which had fewer potholes, tram stops, or traffic lights. Detours occasionally led to (mis)adventures.
One memory still stands out starkly for me. I remember leaving class early one afternoon. A cool breeze was blowing, perfect cycling weather. Halfway home, I pulled up at a red light. Beside me, a blue car with a white top straight out from the 1970s pulled up on my right blasting heavy metal music and bellowing cigarette smoke. From inside the car, four caucasians started shouting at me.
I couldn’t make out what they were saying but it had something to do with me being Asian and living in their country. Something like that.
I ignored them as best I could. When the lights turned green, I pedalled off, relieved to put them behind me. Or so I thought. A few seconds later, with tires screeching, that same blue-white car shoots into the bike lane centimeters ahead of me. I instinctively swerved away and toppled into the kerb. They sped off cheering.
As I picked myself up, the first thought that formed in my mind, strangely enough, was that living, working, or studying in a foreign country can be very educational. This was my first (but not the last) experience of being targeted because I’m Asian. I had heard and read anecdotal stories about such incidents but never imagined that it would happen to me.
It’s not difficult to discriminate a person or a group based on some (in)visible trait: as I see it, all you need is 1) a belief system that rationalises your group’s superiority over others, 2) a bias against another group whose behaviours you neither understand nor approve of, and 3) a worldview that pins the blame for some/all of your perceived troubles on the aforementioned group.
It’s not difficult to discriminate out of hate or fear. It’s not surprising that some people do. What’s truly remarkable is that most people - when encountering someone different from them - are able to put aside their biases/stereotypes and treat the Other as they would like to be treated.
I’ve revisited this memory several times over the years and came to three personal realisations. The first is that this wasn’t personally motivated; I had never met those men before. Instead, to them, I resembled and represented a group of people that they felt antagonised or threatened by - Asians - and I happened to be conveniently within reach for them to act out their hate or fear, maybe both.
The second is that I couldn’t allow this experience to affect my attitude towards other caucasians or Australians. Most, like my coursemates and hostel mates, are decent folk who would not condone or commit such an attack. Just as it was senseless for those four men to see me as representative of Asians in general, it would be equally senseless for me to see them as representative of all caucasians.
Thirdly, returning from a country where I was in the minority, to Singapore where I’m identified as part of the majority race, I realised that this experience has shaped the way I interpret our brand of discrimination. A lot has been written about empathising with the Other as a way to build stronger communities and societies. It is. But even with the best of intentions, practicing empathy remains an intellectual exercise for many people.
Perhaps, to truly walk in someone else’s shoes and understand their feelings, you would have to actually have a proper conversation with them and acknowledge their experiences; and when you're ready, step out of your world into something akin to theirs. I’m not suggesting that you seek out creative ways to get discriminated against. I mean voluntarily entering into fish-out-of-water situations where you do not enjoy the normal privileges assigned to your position; situations that flip the majority-minority ratio so that you’re no longer comfortably ensconced in whatever majorities you find yourself a part of. I wonder how your views about discrimination and diversity might shift from this encounter.
We're curious about your experiences.
Which majority/minority are you a part of? What do you feel about being identified with them?
Recount a firsthand experience of being discriminated against. How did you respond then? How would you respond now?