The Black Lives Matter Movement has brought to the forefront the complexities surrounding race relations, discrimination and systemic oppression.
The task of confronting these issues, although daunting, is without a doubt something that can’t be curtailed around. Singapore for some time has prided itself for having a diverse and multicultural foundation; however, in recent years there have been instances of discriminations towards ethic minorities inside the country. Some of these discriminations have manifested themselves in the form of rental discrimination towards Indians & Malays and Blackface/Brownface popping up in ADs and TV shows in recent years.
Consequently, it is also noteworthy to mention the breakthroughs within Singapore to further develop cultural understanding and awareness. Last year, the theatre performance Ayer Hitam was released and detailed the lost and untold history of the African Diaspora within Singapore. The performance for many was a true eyeopener that artfully weaved the complex tale of some of Singapore’s first black inhabitants from 18th century.
Sharon Frese, the British-Jamaican actress behind Ayer Hitam, discussed with ELLE Singapore over the phone about what it was like when she first performed the piece, “For me when we did the first performance, seeing the standing ovation and having a very rich discussion and post show talk. [Showed me] that the work [we did] was valid, that it was authentic and not only did we give factual information but we gave it in a way that was palatable for not just adults, as we also had some young ones, who stayed [attentive] during the show.” says Frese.
Although, Ayer Hitam is well received by many now, this wasn’t always the case.
Frese was quick to mention that it was extremely hard to get the piece accepted by theatre companies. The first time she and her small team, behind the performance, pitched the story to a major theatre company it was met with radio silence “We had interest from one of the major theatre companies to buy the performance and it fizzled out to nothing, they didn’t even come back say and yes no or anything,” she expressed.
Frese also talked about how amused she was when people presumed that she got a lot of work, since she is one of few black actresses in Singapore; however that’s far from the truth. She did receive a decent amount of work opportunities but surely not to the full capacity that she desired. Which is why she was grateful her friend, renowned poet Ng Yi-Sheng came to her with the idea to do this production. She also added how much she appreciated her director, Irfan Kasban, for being so dedicated to making sure that the performance was as authentic and genuine as possible. “He understood the power of the work and that must be told it’s [whole] truth.”
She went on to mention that Netflix Asia Pacific bought access to the performance and is using it as an aid for their future cultural sensitivity staff trainings. Ayer Hitam is certainly a good start to conversations regarding the nuances surrounding race and culture but it shouldn’t end here.
As the conversation around the Black Lives Matter Movement continues to transform globally, ELLE Singapore found it vital to talk with creatives from the African Diaspora in Singapore about how they are navigating their careers, their experiences with discrimination and views on the expanding BLM Movement.
Writer, Actress, Model & Entrepreneur
1. As someone who’s an expat/ immigrant in Singapore, what are some distinctive discriminations and or microaggressions you feel that you’ve been faced with?
I think the most obvious is getting stared at in public. Constantly. I’ve conditioned myself to ignore it or tell myself it’s only because my outfit is fantastic, but sometimes it can be exhausting. I have been filmed on a few occasions, which wasn’t pleasant, to say the least. My mum says this is all training for when my acting career takes off; I’ll never be bothered by paparazzi by the time I become successful, she says. I try to find humorous ways of dealing with it.
2. How do you believe the BLM movement reaching global levels is setting a precedent for equality for other minority voices around the world?
I think that it’s important because people are realising that BLM isn’t only limited to the US. Black Lives Matter everywhere, because Black lives are being discriminated against everywhere. If you think it isn’t happening in your country, you aren’t paying attention. In many Asian countries, the movement resonates with darker skinned people too, because colourism/racism in this part of the world can also be systematic, layered and insidious.
I think that BLM is opening doors for conversations with people who know nothing about it, but what makes me more excited is that it is challenging people who think they do. It’s no longer enough to be ‘woke’ and parrot twitter threads. The word has been abused and overused. Allyship is a journey of learning and unlearning, a never-ending process. It’s about saying ‘Yes. And?’ and demanding so much more than a black square, or a retweet.
3. I saw you are the founder of two small startup companies, please let us know some background about them and your plans to further evolve them.
I am the co-founder and Design Lead at Panalyt, a business and hr data startup based in Singapore and Japan. Our team is growing, and we have a fantastic mix of people from all over the world, from recent grads to ex-Google/Uber/Microsoft team members. We are currently working on closing our seed round of funding, and both our teams are doing a fantastic job.
My other company, a new passion project, is called Kuumba., which means to ‘create or craft in three dimensions’ in my mother tongue, Shona. It is an Afropolitan brand that sells jewelry and homeware sustainably sourced from Southern and East Africa, as well as my own artwork. I had intended to launch before COVID-19 hit, but this pause has given me time to reflect, plan and set more realistic goals for myself. I hope to begin selling some of my products soon, because I’m so excited to bring even more Afropolitan creations to this part of the world–Singapore and beyond!
4. What does self-care and wellness look for you as a woman of colour, especially during such chaotic times as now?
Thriving. Flourishing. Growing. Laughing. Black success, Black wellness, Black existence is a protest, an act of rebellion. Personally, my first step of self-care was deleting Instagram and Twitter for a month. I didn’t need to ‘join the conversation’ because I’ve been having this conversation all my life. I was drained, exhausted and in pain. I chose to put my mental health first, because now is the time for allies to step in and do the hard work of convincing people that Black Lives Matter. Black women deserve a break.
I wake up on a Sunday and open a chapter from Shameless by Pastor Nadia Bolz-Weber, a book about sexuality and the Bible. I pray and thank God for guiding my path. After a long brunch, I turn on my carefree Black girl playlist. I read articles about Black women/non-binary folks starting their own companies and brands, or creating new careers and spaces like Kimberly Drew or Shelby Ivey Christie. I work on my own earring and art brand, Kuumba., for a few hours, then I switch over to Scrivener or Adobe to create content aided by copious amounts of tea from my two-litre pot.
Manicurist & Artist
1. As a Singaporean mixed with both and African-American and Indian descent, what are some specific discriminations you face coming from two minority groups?
Being half Black and Indian, I have been called the “racial slurs” that both minority races go through. I was always being teased. For being Indian, dark skinned, having curly hair, and ALWAYS being called the N-word. It got so bad, to a point that I wanted to change who I was because I wasn’t happy with myself. Instead of telling people that I’m mixed, I’d just tell them I’m African American. Being teased for being Indian, made me reject my Indian side. As I grew older and matured, I realised “this is who I am”. I shouldn’t tell people I’m one race, because I’d be disrespecting the other.
2. I read you have plans to have your own salon in the future, how do you plan to get it set up and do you hope to empower women with curly hair like yourself?
Ever since I was little I’ve always been interested in the beauty industry, especially since my mother worked in the beauty industry too. Finding an affordable hair salon that was able to handle my afro textured hair was pretty much impossible.When I went to salons here, they’d either turn me away or simply damage my hair! Since there are more Blacks coming to Singapore, I want to open my own salon catered to those with similar hair textures as mine. Our hair are our “crowns”, so hopefully with me, being a Black person too, it would give them a sense of reassurance knowing that I won’t screw it up.
3. In what ways do you see yourself having the capacity to be a changemaker for other multicultural women like you?
“If no one tries to change things, things simply are never going to change.”
Ever since my Mothership post, I’ve received a lot of lovely messages from Singaporeans especially those of minority/mixed races thanking me for being able to speak up about racial discrimination here.This has also helped them to be open and talk about their experiences. Just as racism is a global structure, anti-racism is a global movement.We’re fighting the same structures, we need to share our knowledge and I want to continue to spread awareness to educate others.Solidarity is the only thing that will enable us to change the world.
4. As someone who has family in America, what is it like watching everything unfold from Singapore?
I am grateful that such degree of racism does not exist in Singapore. But It does hurt, having to hear everything that is going on there, the deaths of my fellow Black brothers and sisters. Having relatives still there, I’m always constantly checking up on them. As being Black in America, you constantly fear for your life.
Model & Artist
1. What was it like all the way back in 2013 when you won the The New Paper New Face modelling event?
When I participated in the 2013 New Paper New Face competition I had no expectations whatsoever, all I knew was that I had a passion for modelling and I wanted to see what this experience had to offer. Winning the competition was a big boost for my self confidence as I had often struggled with body dysmorphia and low self esteem, this showed me that I don’t have to be worried about what others may or may not think about me as long as I have confidence in myself and my abilities, I will succeed. I was also especially proud to be a woman of colour who won this competition, I hoped that this had opened doors and opened the minds of many out there to accept a wider perception of beauty in the fashion industry here in Singapore.
2. As one of the few Afro-Singaporean models in the field, how do you keep yourself motivated? Also have you had experiences of discrimination in this industry?
Honestly being one of the few Afro Singaporean models is a blessing, because for the designers or brands looking to diversify their shoots or shows, I am able to provide that for them. A lot of the time I feel like the token black model [laughs], and it is ok to admit it, it’s the truth. But in Singapore being African or mixed is seen as beautiful, in my experience, and the people here really appreciate our differences.
The only thing I wish for more is that brands in Singapore would be more open minded to accepting more diverse groups of models in their shoots and shows and know that there is a bigger market that they can cater to, by including a wide range of diversity. I want them to realise that they should have more than one Black, Indian, Malay or mixed model in a campaign or shoot.
3. What are some of your aspirations when it comes to modelling and other future ventures?
I love being a model! Naturally I feel I am born to be a performer and an artist in various fields and I feel that modelling lets me express that through my body and my expressions, it is truly one of the most beautiful forms of art in the world to me. Besides modelling I love to create, I love to draw comics, I love taking photos of random things I find interesting, and I also love to act and dance. I’m still on my journey to finding out what I truly want to do with my life, but the thing is I know I will never be doing just one thing, I will always be performing as many forms of art as I can for as long as I live.
4. When it comes to the BLM movement, what is the greatest impact you’ve seen it have on talk surrounding representation in Singapore?
To be frank, Instagram as a social media platform has done so much to help educate Singaporeans on how to stay informed and aware of racism as a whole. From people spreading petitions to sign, to people creating posts on how we as Singaporeans can implement the values we are learning from our Black brothers and sisters in America here in our own country.`People started calling out the use of racial slurs and how discrimination is happening not only in America but in our own country, from the discrimination of our foreign workers, to people not getting equal job opportunities, the BLM movement was a true lesson on racism and its effects that we all needed.
Model & Chef
1. How was your experience of being a model of colour in Singapore?
In my opinion, being a model of colour in Singapore is definitely not easy! We don’t get much recognition in the industry. People often sleep on us unless they need “some colour” in their portfolio, just so they can say “I have worked with coloured people too and I can prove it! But then even if they do really work with coloured people, most of them are fair skinned Indians or tan Chinese or tan white Americans.
2. As someone of both Black and of Middle Eastern descent, what are some of the stereotypes you think these two groups face in context to Singapore?
People run their mouth around me and call me a lot of different names. Some even think I’m a “fake” Black woman just because I don’t have the assets and I don’t sound like one. So being both Black and Arab, I usually have to deal with a lot of ignorant comments such as “Oh half Arab? Do you know how to make bombs?” “You don’t sound like the typical black girl, do you always smoke weed?” Now weed is illegal in Singapore, so that’s one thing I don’t understand why people ask that question.
3. I read you are also a chef, how was it in the past balancing modelling and being in the culinary field? Also what are some of your future careers goal?
It is definitely hard balancing both careers, especially when you’re trying to be good in both! But due to an unfortunate injury, I had to take a break from the culinary field so that I can recover from it. I will be using my time now to focus on modelling career. I do plan to get back to my culinary in the future because at the end of the day that is my first love. My goal is definitely to open my own restaurant. It is something I been wanting to do since I was young. But before that I will make sure I establish my name nicely in America in the modelling industry. Once that happens I will work on opening my own restaurant. Be a celebrity chef maybe, we’ll never know but that’s the plan.
4. You’re now based in Chicago and just recently had a son, how does the BLM movement resonate with you now as a new mother?
Well being a new mother is already a hard thing but having a Black husband and a Black son definitely makes me feel like I have to be extra careful wherever I go! I have to protect them both as long as I can. All I can say is, be wary of what you consume on social media as things may be distorted. Things are still somewhat the same in the real world out here. Or dare I say it’s getting worse! People are still sleeping! It’s time to wake up and spread awareness as much as you can.