Anti-blackness in Malaysia, performative activism and effective allyships

by Emily Shahira, Farhira Farudin and Maira Zamri

Peace activist, George Floyd, was recently murdered in broad daylight by police officer, Derek Chauvin, alongside a few other complicit officers. Floyd was arrested for allegedly committing a fraud for using a $20 counterfeit bill. The four officers in charge arrested him and Chauvin knelt on Floyd’s neck for 8 minutes and 46 seconds, even after Floyd repeatedly saying “I can’t breathe.”

Floyd died minutes after and the four officers were fired the following day. But his death causes rage all over the country, with Americans revolting against the authorities to condemn the racial injustice and police brutality that has persisted in America for decades. It has become impossible to fight against police brutality in America without confronting the horrifying racism and anti-blackness that comes along with it.

Police brutality and systemic racism in America is alive and thriving but so is anti-blackness on this side of the world. Anti-blackness is so heavily embedded into the fabric of our culture that it has become a permanent stain that no one has been able to successfully get rid of. There is so much casual and learned racism indoctrinated in Malaysians that most people never end up questioning the things we do that perpetuate anti-blackness.

One of our equivalents to the boogeyman is the orang minyak whose representation in films is literally just a man in blackface. Black and darker skinned people find their skin colour to be the punch line in jokes and insults on a regular basis. The colour white in our national flag is considered a symbol of purity and all things clean which is arguably a projection of what the general consensus is when comparing light-skinned and dark-skinned people. People often refer to kuih peneram with it’s alternative name which happens to include a derogatory term– kuih telinga k***ng1. 

Sumpah Orang Minyak (1958)

Anti-blackness starts in these “little” remarks and actions that appear “harmless” at first but consequently end up further manifesting itself into outright racism such as the blatant exclusion of black people from rental opportunities2 and blackface used as comedic material3 that have been allowed to happen time and time again without real repercussions.

As non-black people, we should address and call out these aspects of anti-blackness that are normalised and create an environment where closet racists are no longer comfortable making nonchalant remarks that feed into anti-blackness in the country. The myth of Asian complacency and meekness needs to go now more than ever. 

When a high profile case such as the unjust murder of George Floyd reaches the shores of our inherently racist country (re: Bumiputera rights and detainment of migrants), performative activism becomes another thing we must tackle.

Performative activism refers to the implication that individuals participate in forms of activism on social media for the wrong reasons such as vanity, clout or going along with the status quo4. Although it’s a good thing in a sense that performative activism means that more people are talking about a certain issue, it doesn’t guarantee that after the heat of the moment has gone cold, they will keep fighting for other social issues on a level deeper than surface. 

It’s important for us to step up as allies that challenge the institutionalised and internalised racism that’s present all around the world and as Malaysians, the racism that happens within our country. When people start protesting as a show of solidarity with causes such as the Black Lives Matter movement, a lot of Malaysians choose to stay silent. “It’s another country, it’s not our problem.” “It’s not our business, we should stay out of it.”  It is our problem.

It is everyone’s problem until black lives are not threatened just by the colour of their skin. Until justice is served and the murderers serve their time justly. Until workplaces allow black people to embrace braids and natural hairstyles. Until they’re able to walk on the streets of KL without parents holding their children closer, passengers on the MRT moving away, locals doing black-face and singing the N-word in rap songs without a second thought. It is all of our problems as allies to stand in solidarity until they can have the privileges that their non-black counterparts enjoy.

Image via The Fader

So what can you do as a good ally in Malaysia? First of all we need to recognise that being an ally is a lifelong process, not just a phase for a certain period of time. It’s the constant practice of unlearning harmful stereotypes and re-evaluating our privileges. The responsibility of educating yourself on other cultures should not fall on anyone else but your own self.

There are many resources out there such as articles, videos, podcasts, films, TV shows and a handful of organizations to follow on social media 5, 6 to learn about black history and their oppression. We need to understand why things like using AAVE 7 (African American Vernacular English) in our speech, using the N-word as well as appropriating braids is harmful and racist. 

Next, avoid drawing attention away from #BlackLivesMatter. You can extend solidarity to other minorities but don’t gaslight the struggles of black people in doing so. Why is saying “All Lives Matter” absolutely hurtful to the Black Lives Matter movement? L-Mani S. Viney explains it best.  

If All Lives Matter, why is the black community continually asked to justify its anger and grief? If All Lives Matter, why does the court system continue to put the victims of racial discrimination and police brutality on trial, rather than punishing their assailants? If All Lives Matter, why do our fellow Americans continually challenge African-Americans to justify our pain instead of empathizing with it? Do all lives matter? Of course! And you will be hard pressed to find any African-American who would say otherwise. But we will continue to say Black Lives Matter until African-American lives are given the same value as the lives of people from other countries, our police officers, your property, a lion named Cecil, and a gorilla named Harambe.8

Instead of just partaking in performative allyship, there are many ways in which we can show our support and solidarity in a way that is helpful to the black community in the long run. Ranting on our social media can help alleviate our own guilt but actually donating to or sharing those funding pages could do more for the cause. 

© Jim Mone 2020

Another important thing we can do is to play our parts in educating our families and friends. Correct their words and educate them on how their language or actions oppresses black people and perpetuates anti-blackness. Acknowledge that anti-blackness exists in our country and households even as people of colour. This is a situation where Asian “timidness” should be unwelcome. As an ally, we need to realise that our silence makes us complicit and automatically puts us on the side of the oppressors.

This includes staying quiet when people make racist jokes or hearing our friends use the N-word. We should share petitions, donation pages, resources as well as help elevate black voices instead of speaking over them. It is important to acknowledge that black people are shouldering this injustice and not us. As non-black people, remember that although we face discrimination it is not the same.

We will never understand the intergenerational trauma that black people experience everyday. It is our duty as allies to help break the cycle of hate and abuse and to back up and stand in solidarity when they are speaking out. We are way beyond the point of just ‘spreading awareness’. We must take action and it is as simple as listening to and amplifying the voices of black people at a time of injustice.

Here are some resources for you to get informed on American anti-blackness as well as donation and petition pages set up in support of our black brothers and sisters.

Petitions:

Donations:

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2 Comments

  1. Nur Delisha Dania

    blacklivesmatter

  2. Hi! I loved every word of this. Racism is swept under the carpet too often in the interest of “peace”. Keep doing what your doing ❤️

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