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Crazy Rich, Multicultural, Asians

A Personal Perspective: How US microaggression followed us around the globe.

Key points

  • According to a 2022 Gallup survey, 41 percent of Americans reported "a great deal" of worry about race relations.
  • The US must push for a comprehensive, nuanced understanding of race and multiculturalism in homes, classrooms, and workplaces.
Supertree Grove
Source: Cegoh/Pixabay

By Yoo Eun Kim and Yoo Jung Kim, M.D.

My sister and I traveled to Singapore for a trip designed to introduce us to the nation's business and political leaders. Visiting Singapore would show us the workings of a multi-ethnic, multi-lingual, multicultural society and provide a comparable counterpoint to the United States.

Unfortunately, we encountered a minor hurdle on the first day, when we met a white American couple at Singapore's Supertree Grove, a popular tourist attraction featuring gigantic and colorful tree-like structures.

Initially, our interaction was benign: The couple offered to take a picture of us. After we thanked them, they exclaimed, "Wow, we've been traveling in Singapore for a week, and you're the first people we've seen with perfect English."

We looked at each other and quipped, "Oh, we're not Singaporeans, we're Americans. We're from Los Angeles and Chicago." The couple, who were from a small town in Colorado, didn't appear fazed by our response.

The couple probably meant well, but they had based their compliment on a few flawed assumptions. One was that Singaporeans didn't speak "perfect English," even though Singaporean adults have one of the highest English proficiency levels in the world. Furthermore, as their second mistake, the couple held up the American accent (which features many regional dialects) as the "perfect" standard (and there is the Queen's English). Finally, this couple did not recognize the possibility that two Asian women like us could be American citizens traveling the globe like them.

After the couple had left, we shrugged off the interaction by laughing, we couldn't escape American microaggression even on the other side of the world. Fortunately, the rest of our trip went smoothly. Unlike our fellow American travelers, our Singaporean hosts didn't bat an eye when we described ourselves as South Korean emigres with citizenships in the United States. Many other Singaporeans also held multi-hyphenate identities.

As a part of our trip, we shared a fascinating exchange with a Singaporean minister of state who had studied in America. We asked whether he had any advice for us Americans to improve racial relations, and he shook his head. He pointed out that many of Singapore's deliberate interventions to foster cultural harmony would be illegal or politically unpopular in the United States.

For example, in 1989, the Singaporean government passed policies to curb racially homogeneous neighborhoods in public housing (which, in Singapore, are high-quality and highly sought after). Today, certain percentages of public housing are allotted to individuals of different ethnicities and religions. The architects of the policies wanted to ensure that people of diverse backgrounds–particularly children–would work, learn, and grow together.

The public housing policies weren't necessarily focused on preventing one race from oppressing others; rather, they were proactive measures to increase the likelihood that people of different backgrounds would co-exist peacefully. The minister of state pointed out the Singaporeans called this policy "ethnic integration," and he acknowledged this particular term was burdened with historical baggage in many other parts of the world, including the United States.

These proactive policies extended into business as well. Recently, Singapore Exchange mandated that all listed companies provide a comprehensive policy that covers diversity targets in board membership. Furthermore, Singaporeans are also encouraged to learn about the world beyond their city-state. Singaporean citizens benefit from government programs that allow them, at no financial cost, to pursue studies at foreign universities.

Now, Singapore is by no means perfect, and the country has many of its own problems to contend with, but the minister of state was right. Many of Singapore's racial policies would be highly controversial in the US. Much of the controversy would stem from the fact that Americans prize individual freedom over the collective good, and many past examples of racial quotas were designed to segregate rather than unite.

However, something about our national discussion about race needs to change. According to a 2022 Gallup survey, 41 percent of Americans reported: "a great deal" of worry about race relations.

A large part of our conversational impasse is because many American citizens refuse to acknowledge that systemic racism even exists. Or, even if we acknowledge it, we fail to see its insidious effect on our lives. The same ingrained assumptions led to our unfortunate exchange with the American couple in Singapore, but our interaction was merely a small annoyance. On a more serious level, people have died and will die under bigoted policies and institutions.

Yet, many politicians and individuals continue to vilify Critical Race Theory, an academic framework that illustrates how race has affected American society. We have to push for a comprehensive, nuanced understanding of race and multiculturalism in our homes, classrooms, and workplaces. We need to teach children about race and its historical impact on American society; we need to combat the effects of zoning laws that have prevented minority homeowners from living in wealthier communities; we need to invest in study abroad, and cultural exchange programs so that Americans can immerse themselves in different cultures. Without such initiatives, racial polarization will remain a challenge within our borders.

Overall, preventing oppression should be the minimum standard for our policies and laws; unfortunately, we are nowhere close to even that point. The US needs a better framework to acknowledge the diversity of racial and ethnic backgrounds of our citizenry to ensure that everyone can co-exist peacefully and pursue life to the best of our potential.

Yoo Eun Kim is an MBA candidate at Stanford University Graduate School of Business. Her writing has appeared in USA Today, Chicago Tribune, The Mercury News, The Korea Times, and other publications.

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