Sunday, December 6, 2009

When she was a young hatchling..

The past week, had this Spectral Turkey's giblets in a twist. Not only was it Thanksgiving when many of my fellow feathered family were mindlessly slaughtered for dinner, there were a slew of letters to the ST forum really bringing the crazy.

Ethnic stereotyping has been discussed here, thanks to my bovine barnmate, but this fowl feels she should weigh in, with perhaps a personal story on the consequences of what may be to people harmless stereotyping.

Many many years ago, this fowl was but a primary school-going hatchling. She loved going to school, and loved playing with all her fellow barn animals. She used to play hopscotch and five stones during recess, and after school she looked forward to playing with her little friendly neighbourhood barnyard creatures. The hatchling had a friend, a little foal and they soon became the best of friends.

One day she realised that the foal (let's call her Fiona) did not want to play with the hatchling anymore. The hatchling felt, and asked Fiona for the reason. "Hatchling," Fiona said. "Look at us - I'm a goldet tan colour, with hooves and a glossy tail. You? You have a dull brown plumage and two little claw-like feet. My family says that because of that, you can't achieve as much as me. And that I should find friends similar to me."

The hatchling did not understand what Fiona meant. She had never noticed the differences before. She started noticing that her classmates used to tease her for being "smelly", and ask her if it was true that her plumage was brown because she didn't shower. The hatchling's classmates would refuse to include her in games and projects. Soon, little hatchling meekly accepted that she was different, and sought out her fellow brown-plumaged hatchlings to play with. She was finally happy.

One day, the teacher told all the brown-plumaged hatchlings to report to the Principal's office. The hatchlings were petrified - what had they done??

The Principal eyed the hatchlings, and admonished them for segregating themselves from the rest of their classmates and refusing to mix with them. This was unacceptable, said the Principal, and directed that the hatchlings be arbitrarily assigned to groups in the class. The hatchlings found that her group-mates would frequently meet without her and would frequently fail to assign her duties, saying that they didn't think she'd know how to perform them adequately. They almost exclusively communicated in a language she did not understand, though it was a project for English.

The hatchling had never realised how different she was from the rest of her classmates and consciously tried over several years to fit in.

Many, many years later, she would realise that children learned prejudice from the world around them, including but not limited to their parents as well as the media. And it's true isn't it? If a child consistently hears its parents denigrating a member of a certain ethnic or religious group, it is likely the child will grow up harbouring that stereotype. Similarly, if the child grows up exposed to constant stereotyping in the media, then these stereotypes will continue to be harboured in the child's consciousness. Sensitivity in programming therefore has less to do with "political correctness" and more to do with engendering a substantive consciousness to eradicate such stereotyping. It is from "harmless" stereotypes that stems systemic racism.

Both parents and the media have a duty to not pass on this sort of mindless ignorance on to their children. But of course, the majority will never realise this, until they are an ethnic minority in perhaps another country. Believe this Turkey, she knows. And feels that perhaps, "family values" of this sort should be encouraged. You know, teach your kids to be colour-blind. Not tolerant in spite of differences.


  1. Many, many years later, she would realise that children learned prejudice from the world around them, including but not limited to their parents as well as the media. And it's true isn't it?

    Thank you for illustrating this so clearly.

    I wonder if Fiona remembers what she said to you, and how she views it now, if she does. By teaching baby animals to discriminate we make it all too certain they will be hateful adults: if only because many will choose to rationalise their own young acts of obedience to their parents' cruelty.

    I remember my own Chickenshit actions with shame.

  2. To her credit, I think she realised she was parrotting mindless prejudice (maybe because grades-wise I didn't fit that stereotype? I don't know!) so we did remain friends for a long while after.

    What I can't really comprehend/rationalise are my teacher's actions: what is the likelihood of a bunch of brown kids voluntarily segregating themselves over the rest of the kids ostracising the brown kids? That continues to baffle me. I reckon it was the easier choice for her?

    The thing is, I can't blame kids - kids are kids after all, they absorb so much from their environment. Hopefully, the kids will realise otherwise, but who's to say?

    Even now it happens in the workplace - colleagues speaking Mandarin in mixed company is viewed as ok. But in a way, is that not exclusionary? Another way to draw divisions?

  3. Glad to hear she rose above the parental stupidity... but yes, we shouldn't be putting them in the situation where they have to.

    And yeah, I also wonder what prompted the teacher's actions. Besides the total wrongheadedness of picking on you as being responsible for the situation... are schools required to enforce mixing to begin with? Is there some kind of Ministry directive or policy on the subject? Or did the teacher and Principal in question have some particular fixation of their own? I wonder how many other schools and kids have faced the same situation and been blamed/dealt with in the same totally inappropriate way.

    The Mandarin business is incredibly rude. I used to get really pissed off about Mandarin songs and sketches being performed during school assembly, for the same reason... like hello, do you expect everyone who doesn't understand it to just sit there for half an hour bored witless?

  4. "She started noticing that her classmates used to tease her for being "smelly", and ask her if it was true that her plumage was brown because she didn't shower. The hatchling's classmates would refuse to include her in games and projects."


    Poultrygeist, this is just horrible! What really strikes me is the cruelty that children can inflict on one another so innocently because they do not fully comprehend how extensively they can hurt others with their actions. This is the constant theme of Margaret Atwood's "Cat's Eye", in which the narrator recounts her abusive friendship with friends who made her feel shitty and insecure about herself by mimicking a lot of what little they understood about adult life and the real world.

    And I mean, seriously, the worst thing you can do is spread disinformative stereotypes based on largely unchangeable qualities like the colour of people's skin, their sex and probably any nascent sense of sexuality (or at least attraction) that kids can possibly have. Those things are just who you are, and it's not like you can seriously change anything about it.

    (When, as a very young porcine school-goer, I decided quite consciously to make friends with the female of the species, I began to experience stereotyping and exclusion from my pork peers.)

    I still get really upset thinking about the shitty things that my grandparents and even my parents told and sometimes still relate to me (mostly my freakishly Feminist Mentor™ like grandmother) about how animals should be a certain way to fit nicely into various images befitting of class and status. (Like screw fucking you!)

    Anyway, thanks for sharing this. You've totally put me in a mood!

  5. Aw BDP thanks! :D

    Am truly glad you were able to question what was said to you instead of just accepting it as most would be wont to do.

    That being said, I do believe most kids will not grow up with a similar level of ignorance. However, reading comments online from Singaporeans sometimes can be troubling. So many human characteristics are glibly ascribed to one's race - which is not only ignorant, but wholly unwarranted.

    If anything, my personal experiences made me wonder a lot. Let's take SAP schools - are they a good idea? Their primary aim is to make students effectively bilingual, as they place a higher emphasis on Mandarin. But on the flipside, would you see students of other races in that school, given that the school does not offer other mother tongue options? I'd say it results in indirect segregation which runs contrary to social cohesion.

    I do share the same view of Madrasahs as well. I think the end result inexorably would be division along ethnic lines.

    Another gripe is how MOE breaks up statistics by race - why race? Why not socio-economic background, given the tuition culture we have in Singapore. Would that not be more appropriate, than arbitrarily saying "Students from X race perform less better than their peers." Creates an illusory causal link, no?

  6. @Poultrygeist,

    I completely agree with you that most kids won't prolong sins of the parent. Actually, I'm extremely hopeful of today's youths; even if we still spout nonsense, I think the situation is only getting better.

    I do have concerns toward the Conservative adult population and political movements that hold the ower to limit structures, and make life more difficult for people.

    Incidentally, I was from a line of SAP schools, where I couldn't make any friends outside of the middle-class, Chinese-speaking sample until I finally got online and discovered IRC. Who'd would have thought that the many hours 'wasted' chatting online was also the much needed opportunity to really make friends with people outside of my immediate worldview. (That was most liberating!)

    Although I must say that I'm absolutely thrilled to know that kids thesedays can more easily learn a third local language at school, and begin to speak outside of their imposed mother tongues.

    Completely agree with your point about breaking analyses along socio-economic factor instead. I must add that when they break along racial lines, it's almost always done to highlight how a certain race is always underperforming, entailed with a laundry list of other apparent social ills that make certain Ministers feel "malu" (embarrassed) :\

  7. > reading comments online from Singaporeans sometimes can be troubling. So many human characteristics are glibly ascribed to one's race - which is not only ignorant, but wholly unwarranted.

    The strangest example I came across of this was just a few weeks ago. Long-distance cycling in Malaysia with two others, one of whom is a Singaporean of Chinese origin in her early 40s. Somewhere along the way, on a wide road with no traffic, we heard a car screaming past us from behind, horn blaring at us. Completely puzzled by this behaviour and slightly pissed off (there were two other empty lanes next to us for safe passage) but totally pissed off by my co-cyclist's next comment: "Malaysian drivers, ah, very racist one. That's why they honk at us."

    Which nonsensical statement pissed me off for more than one reason:

    1. We had no idea who was in the car. It could have been a little green man from Mars for all we knew.
    2. I'd be very surprised if the driver had noticed what colour we were before he started honking miles behind us.
    3. Actually, Malaysian drivers are, for the vast, vast majority, extremely courteous. I've lost track of the number of times drivers have gestured me on even if they have the right of way, the number of times I get a friendly toot and a wave, etc. Things that would never happen in Singapore.

    Sadly, I wouldn't be surprised if the guy just honked at us because he thought of us as "these horrible Singaporeans". If that was it, my co-cyclist certainly gave him sufficient reason to form his own stereotype about us.

  8. Hey Murli,

    Thanks for stopping by.

    Yeah. Racism is never logical and often really stupid if you don't subscribe to it.

    The unfortunate thing is that too many people _do_ take for granted that their racist assumptions are accurate so they don't see how stupid they sound.


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