In case you’ve been living under a social media rock over the past week, the latest debate that everyone is embroiled in surrounds Jack Neo’s fourth instalment of the Ah Boys To Men movie franchise. Long story short: Indian actor Shrey Bhargava auditioned for the role of an Indian soldier, and got asked to “be more Indian” by putting on a thicker Indian accent. Read his post about his audition in its entirety here.

This sparked a discussion over casual racism and racial stereotypes in our mainstream media. Ah Boys To Men actor Maxi Lim and blogger Xiaxue also jumped into the debate with their two cents’ worth.

We get it – privilege can be a testy subject to talk about. But that’s precisely why we should be talking about it because this discussion paves the way for actual social change. Here’s what you might want to consider before you jump into the “check your privilege” debate.

This story was first published in the March 2017 issue of CLEO Singapore. 

Gender. Education. Wealth. Race. Religion. Appearance. Like it or not, these are just some of the factors that affect our standing in society. The fact of the matter is that we’re all privileged in some way. Consider this: just by being a Singaporean – where it’s the law that education is compulsory up till Primary Six – we’re already privileged, because not everyone in this world has access to education.

But privilege can be a sensitive subject to talk about, as you can see in the comments section of just about any article or video that broaches the topic. “Check your privilege” is now an oft-used expression, especially on online platforms.

So what’s privilege?

The Oxford Dictionary defines privilege as “a special right, advantage, or immunity that is granted or available to only a particular person or group.” In this case, it’s something that gives you an advantage in life. For instance, if you never had to juggle a part-time job as a student to make ends meet, that can give you an advantage because you’d have more time for your studies.

Or, if you’re Chinese, that gives you an advantage when applying for tuition assignments where parents state they prefer a “female Chinese tutor” (yeah, that actually happened to a first-class honours English Literature student from a mixed Malay-Chinese family when she was applying for English-teaching assignments).

Of course, people with privilege also have problems, and they’re not necessarily bad people. As writer Sam Dylan Finch explains, “It simply means I gained an unearned advantage, in comparison to other people – by no fault of my own, but rather, because of prejudice.” In other words, some people may get preferential treatment by default simply because they’re part of the majority, for example.

What’s your benefit?

Most of us are aware of certain privileges – for example, how much easier it is in life if we’re able-bodied. But we may not notice other privileges until someone else points them out.

“We don’t often think about gender, ethnic or racial privilege. This isn’t discussed as much in the public sphere, although organisations like AWARE are doing a lot to educate Singaporeans,” says Dr Laavanya Kathiravelu, assistant professor of sociology at Nanyang Technological University.

This brings to mind a video that YouTube duo Munah and Hirzi did, which parodied Rihanna’s “Work”. Flipping the script, they left out English subtitles for parts of the video where Malay was used.

“If you guys panic and say, ‘uh, Munah and Hirzi, there’s no translation in this video,’ don’t worry, don’t panic, that’s the concept of privilege,” Hirzi explained at the end of the clip, adding cheekily that if you want to know the meaning, “make friends with Malays.” This highlighted a blind spot: we expect the video to be accessible, to provide translations for non-Malay speakers… but why should it?

The point is, privilege exists. To demonstrate the concept of privilege, a Buzzfeed writer recounted a lesson where a teacher made his class play a game. The students had to throw a crumpled piece of paper into the bin at the front of the classroom. Students sitting in the back rows complained, because those in front obviously had a better chance of hitting the target.

As expected, they were right. Most of the students in front made the shot, while only a few from the back rows got their paper into the bin.

The teacher pointed out that the only people complaining about unfairness were those in the back of the room. By contrast, people in the front of the room were less likely to be aware of the privilege they had. All they could see was the 10 feet between them and their goal. This is why it’s important to let minority voices be heard.

Using a similar concept, a couple of social experiments went viral last year. One experiment was done in the US and another in Singapore. The videos showed participants doing a Privilege Walk, where they had to take a step backwards or forwards based on their answers to questions about privilege.

In Singapore, UNSAID, a student-led arts and social enterprise, gathered 16 Singaporeans aged 21 to 26 from “diverse racial, religious and family backgrounds” to do this activity. Everyone started from the same place, but at the end of the video, some people were way behind, and some were way ahead.

At the end of the exercise, the participants were interviewed. People who ended up further in front said that while they were aware of their privileges to a certain extent, it had never occurred to them before just how many more advantages they had, compared to their peers.

The Privilege Walk

Watch THE PRIVILEGE WALK: On our nation's 51st birthday, we conducted an experiment to put our social privilege to the test.We have much to celebrate and cherish in Singapore, but do we all start from the same place in our meritocratic society?To view the full list of questions asked during the Walk, check out this link on our website: http://www.unsaid.sg/the-privilege-walk/

Posted by UNSAID on Monday, 8 August 2016

“The minorities did not progress forward as much compared to the majority. But then again, it’s also interesting to see that the majority is quite widespread – [some ended up] right at the front, to all the way to the back, as well,” said one participant who ended up further back in the experiment.

It shows that privilege is more than skin deep – it includes visibly obvious factors such as gender and race, to subtle ones, like sexual orientation, income and mental health.

Privilege in society

So will the current debate prompt significant change? Who knows, but the fact that this conversation is happening is encouraging.

“Awareness is the first step towards change. It’s difficult to say if this will have any large-scale impact at the level of society, but it is a good and necessary first step,” assures Dr Laavanya.

“There is enough evidence around to show that those who do have the benefit of privilege are usually not aware of it… this is especially the case for less obvious privileges, such as being part of a majority,” adds Dr William Wan, general secretary of the Singapore Kindness Movement.

Citing the social experiment by UNSAID, Dr William said it was effective as it’s non-confrontational, yet allowed participants to see how far ahead or behind they ended up.

“The first step towards a conducive discussion is for all parties to be aware,” says Dr William. “Awareness helps us check ourselves, so as not to flaunt or abuse that position.”

War of words

You may not feel all that privileged – after all, if you’ve grown up in Singapore, you’ve probably slogged through school, endless enrichment classes and long days at work. Perhaps this is why even using the phrase “check your privilege” can trigger a war of words on social media.

But as one Privilege Walk participant puts it, “Issues like your finances, your race, your family connections and your gender still play a huge part in the kind of privilege you can have in Singapore. If we can acknowledge those differences and think about how to discuss them sensitively, I think we can make a lot of progress in the kind of social disparities some people face.”

So when someone points out your privilege, they’re not attacking you or personally blaming you. They’re just asking you to take a moment to think about certain advantages you may have.

Some academics argue this can help us see the bigger picture, and help us shape the society we want. Dr Laavanya explains, “Redistributive tax regimes can reduce the privilege of the wealthy. Another example is the policy of multiculturalism that values all races and ethnic groups equally. Affirmative action ensures women and ethnic minorities have better representation and opportunity.”

But what can we do on an individual level?

“We can reflect on our choices, such as our business partners, employees, or even sports buddies. And we can take a small step to include individuals from outside our privileged circles,” suggests Dr William.

Not everyone starts life on equal footing, so there will always be some form of inequality. But if we’re more aware of the struggles people around us are going through, we’ll all be kinder to each other. And isn’t that the ideal to be striving towards?

Image: Nuria Ling/The Straits Times