Raising children is hard enough - but what about raising children when you’re a member of an ethnic minority?
Preeti felt a sharp poke on her arm. Surprised, she turned towards it and saw the tip of an umbrella positioned dangerously close to her. The umbrella’s owner, an elderly lady who was her bus seat neighbour, didn’t look friendly at all.
“So black, don’t sit here,” the lady said.
Within a split second, Preeti left the seat and found a spot as far as she could from that lady. Tears streamed down her face. She felt hurt, frightened, and she didn’t know what else to do. She was only 11.
When it came to choosing a co-curricular activity (CCA) at his new secondary school, Nagaraj didn’t need to think twice. Of course it would be badminton. He was good at it – he was part of his previous school’s first team and was a regular player in inter-school tournaments. After playing a session at his new school’s badminton club, the coach called Nagaraj over.
“Look around the hall – do you see anyone who’s not Chinese? Do you think you can get into this CCA? Why don’t you choose another CCA?” the coach said.
Slowly – and without him even realising – Nagaraj stopped speaking Mandarin. He used to be known as the chubby, trilingual kid in the neighbourhood, but not anymore.
The taunts and jeers were an everyday affair for Geeta*. Kids would drop mean comments and call her names – always about her skin colour. They’d alway find something to say, or make nasty jokes.
“Maybe if I made fun of myself first, they’d leave me alone,” she thought.
Throughout her time in secondary school, Geeta would casually mock herself in front of her peers. Perhaps it didn’t sting so much, since she was the one who was making fun of herself. Perhaps, this would help her get more friends.
That was then, and now…
A lady was smiling as she approached Preeti and her two year-old daughter. Holding a young boy’s hand, the lady spoke to Preeti’s toddler, “Hey, girl! My nephew here can speak Tamil, you know? Boy, say andley, punnana, appunene…” The list of Tamil-sounding gibberish went on and on…
“They’re very observant”, Nagaraj says about his kids. The little ones tend to notice that random strangers comment on their naturally curly hair, as well as the size of their eyes. Just the other day, one of his kids asked him, “We sang the birthday song in class, but it was only in English, Malay, and Mandarin. Why didn’t the class sing it in Tamil?”
Like all kids, Geeta’s son really loves going to the playground. There’s the slides, the swings, and the chance to play with other kids – these are the things that get him excited. But there are also times when the playground doesn’t seem like such a fun place, especially when some kids tend not to play with him. “Why is he so black? Look at that apunene…” she heard someone say. She only hopes that her son doesn’t hear.
Raising children as an ethnic minority in Singapore
According to a survey conducted by TODAYonline, 66% of Indian respondents have personally experienced racism. A number of high profile racist incidents have also been reported in the news this year, with the most recent one being an insensitive Instagram video featuring two women shaking their heads while wishing the audience “Happy Deepavali”. While Preeti, Nagaraj and Geeta were disgusted at such behaviour, they also said they’re not surprised. Both Geeta and Preeti agree that incidents like these are common, and they’ve grown familiar with it.
It’s only natural for parents to feel the need to shield their children from harm, which then begs the question – is it more challenging to raise children when you and your family are members of an ethnic minority?
For Preeti, her past experiences have made her overly protective of her children, “At times, I will always stay at the playground to ensure that they are not made fun of. I will constantly ask my daughter about how her day was at school and if anything unusual happened… If my children do experience any racism hereafter, I’m worried that they’ll start feeling inferior and also have the mindset that being ridiculed is okay since we are of a certain race. They might also stop voicing their feelings to avoid offending their friends if they rebuke. These are all my fears with my experience growing up. I have always felt inferior.”
Hence when it comes to parenting, Preeti, Nagaraj and Geeta are determined to raise good children who are confident to speak up. “Race has nothing to do with the way we parent. We are just hopeful that times have changed, and if anything, my experiences have taught me to speak up and act if my kids encounter similar incidents as me. I’ve taught my kids to question unfairness and spread awareness when they encounter ignorance,” Nagaraj shared.
While Geeta feels sad about having to raise her son in an environment where racism still exists, she doesn’t feel helpless. On the contrary, she sees this as an opportunity to learn and teach her son to be a good person. She said, “We should teach our children to stand up and speak up. It’s not about attacking the other person or blowing things out of proportion – it’s about teaching them how to manage these negative incidents in a positive manner.” A sentiment that’s also echoed by Nagaraj, who said, “Don’t ever be afraid to speak up, but there’s no need to shout.”
It takes a village to raise a child
A child’s upbringing isn’t just limited to what they’re taught by their parents, it’s also dependent on the community they interact with. Everyone in the community has an active role to play in this. “Education and exposure should be given the most importance to growing up in Singapore,” said Preeti. On the other hand, Geeta shared that she finds staying silent is equally offensive, particularly when someone in the community says something insensitive yet no one cares to correct them. “We should not keep silent. We should focus on educating the next generation. We have a social responsibility to do this,” she said.
It takes a village to raise a child. It also takes a village to break a vicious cycle. And it’s high time we break this one.
*Name has been changed to protect anonymity.