I could hear the frustration in his voice as he confronted his accuser.
I think by now many Singaporeans would have seen or read about Dave Parkash’s interaction with a racist man on Orchard Road.
It has raised enough of an online tizzy that even Law Minister K Shanmugam has weighed in on the subject, saying that it is “very worrying”.
In the video, the unnamed Chinese Singaporean man openly admits to be racist but strangely accuses Parkash (who is half-Indian, half-Filipino) of being the same for dating a Chinese girl (she’s actually half-Chinese, half-Thai). He continues to insist interracial marriages are racist, declaring to Parkash that “if you’re proud of your own race, you should marry an Indian girl.”
He makes many other racist remarks but let’s just stick to that one. There are so many things wrong in that single sentence – where to even begin?
Race matters as much as money, religion, aspirations or any other myriad factors that make or break a relationship – for some, diversity is something to celebrate; for others, they don’t even notice the difference.
In addition, pride in one’s cultural heritage has little to do with who you date. And even if it were so, no one has the right to barge into your life to tell you how to live it.
Freedom is a double-edged sword
Yet, therein lies the rub. If we say that no one has the right to tell us what to do, then that argument has to cut both ways – as the quote on freedom of speech famously attributed to the French philosopher Voltaire goes: “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.”
(This has a particular resonance in the Covid-19 pandemic, as we continue to be amazed by the belligerent idiocy of some people over things like masks and vaccinations.)
I’m sure this will be a slightly unpopular opinion, but do hear me out.
Personally, I am disgusted by the man randomly accosting a couple having a romantic stroll down Orchard Road to berate them on their life choices. I think it’s wrong that he chose to be racist about it. I think it’s even worse that he is wearing a “Singapore” T-shirt. The imagery is grotesque and as a Chinese Singaporean man, I am angry that he pretends to speak for Chinese people and Singaporeans in general.
But I believe naming and shaming him is not the way to change his mind.
I don’t believe in call-out culture.
Call-out culture fundamentally depends on shame (or in the case of celebrities and organisations, its knock-on economic impacts) as a prime motivator. There is a winner and a loser in the argument. In other words, something is won, and something is lost. There is no win-win.
And when arguments turn ugly, losers get uglier.
In my experience, that ugliness seldom turns into self-awareness. Only in the most unlikely of cases does shaming someone instantly make them change for the better.
Dealing with overt racism
We used to think that Singapore had a problem with “casual racism” (it still does), now what about overt racism being shouted in your face?
We cannot and should not let people get away with wrong thinking. Freedom of speech is fine and dandy in a classroom but when you’re faced on the street with someone with overt antisocial views, how can anyone stay silent?
The key then is, how do you talk to someone who holds diametrically opposed views to you?
We’ve all had that interaction before, when we butt heads with someone who constantly, belligerently refuses to see our point of view, no matter how reasonable it may be.
So how do we speak to people like that? Do we call them out? Do we make them “famous”?
What do you do when you talk to someone whose views are so anathema to you that your mind literally boggles?
Other stories you might like
I suggest using this checklist:
First, assess if the person wants a debate or an argument. One is an exchange of views, the other is a shouting competition.
Sometimes, some people just want a fight. They don’t want to be reasoned with, they just want the adrenaline rush. Avoid these people.
This is where I want to give a shout-out to Parkash for keeping his cool (raised voices notwithstanding). I think he handled the situation way more calmly than I would have, especially when the man insulted his girlfriend and her parents. Kudos, sir.
Next, if it is a genuine exchange of views, stay firm and stay positive. Disagree with the points but do not attack the person. It is not just to “be polite” (although it is), it is so that both sides continue to talk about the subject logically and not emotionally.
Know your own triggers so that when you see a conversation start to veer towards personal attacks, you can pull the plug with an “I think we are getting a little heated now, shall we take a breath and revisit this later?”
Easier said than done, I know. I’ve been there. But it is still the right thing to do.
Finally, know when to walk away. Parkash says at the end of his video “let’s make this guy famous”, I disagree. Perhaps he might have been speaking passionately in the heat of the moment (I still respect how calm he was after the argument), but I don’t believe in giving more attention to people who espouse unkind sentiments.
So please don’t CSI the man, please don’t name and shame him, it will only serve to cement his racist views and give him even more reason to be aggrieved at society. This is how disenfranchisement starts.
Focus on the positive instead. Look at the lessons that we can learn from this to be better, as Michelle Obama would say, “when they go low, we go high”.
Other stories you might like
A slow thaw of the mind
Paraphrasing Ernest Hemingway, “change happens slowly, then suddenly all at once.”
A tipping point is reached when an idea or social behaviour crosses a threshold and spreads like wildfire.
A few weeks ago, the world’s largest iceberg was created when part of the Antarctic ice shelf broke off and fell into the water. The process, called calving, resulted in a 4,320 square km iceberg (it’s six times the size of Singapore).
There are many factors in calving, but one major reason is rising temperatures, coupled with water filling the cracks in glaciers. While global warming is bad, we should change people’s minds in the same way an iceberg calves – a slow thawing of the mind, until a sea change happens.
Let’s go back to the video. Parkash was not able to change his mind of his accuser. Frankly, I believe even the man’s friends and family might have difficulty doing so.
We’ve all had that experience with a particularly angry friend or an especially racist family member. We often end up leaving them be, because, well, sometimes it really gets too hard and life is too short to be constantly spent in negativity.
Nevertheless, let’s not stop trying. We need to engage them, for their sake at least, because unkindness has no place in a gracious society.
If anyone out there knows this man, have a cup of coffee and a chat with him. Listen patiently, and disagree respectfully. At the end of the day, even if you don’t change his mind, you might have warmed his heart a little or you might have sprinkled a little water into the cracks of his arguments.
And you would have learned a little bit more about yourself in the process.