Raffles Institution Issues Statement on Former Students 'Blackface' Group Photo Issue
A tough lesson for a group of former Raffles Institution (RI) students who took a problematic photo four years ago.
Anything posted on the internet stays on the internet — a tough lesson for a group of former Raffles Institution (RI) students who took a problematic photo four years ago.
And it has returned to haunt them today in a particularly sensitive climate for issues on race and civil injustice.
The former RI student who posted the picture on his Instagram account in April 2016 now regrets what he and his friends did together. The photo — found and reposted on Twitter today (June 3) by someone outside the group — has since been taken down from his page.
In the photo, a student who’s believed to be of Sri Lankan descent is posing in front of a paper bag that’s labelled with his name and the words “whitening kit”. Posing around him are his schoolmates, all of them smiling with black beauty face masks on, akin to blackface.
One of them is holding up what seems to be a photoshopped poster of the movie Slumdog Millionaire, and another a painted picture of a brown-skinned man standing next to sports cars. Another is holding up a bottle of Nivea lotion, while another a can of deodorant. Others are holding fake cash, presumably in reference to Slumdog Millionaire.
It’s a lot to take in. The fact that this was posted in 2016 is interesting as well — it’s the year when righteous outrage erupted online after the local Chinese-language series I Want To Be A Star featured a Chinese actor dressing up as a black actor with black make-up on his face and an Afro wig as a comedic bit.
Funnily enough in that same year, Raffles Institution’s own school press published a student op-ed about the offensive issue of blackfacing.
‘Stupid teenage behaviour’
The original poster — who is now a student in a local university — has since addressed the photo on Instagram Stories.
“It was not a racist commentary but of course in hindsight, it was insensitive as f*** because it is literally blackface, and I’m not denying that, but we posted these pictures with the full consent of our good friend,” he wrote.
“We consulted him and asked whether he was okay with it, and even if he was, it was still wrong on our part to perpetuate such stereotypes.”
The former RI student went on to say that it was “stupid teenage behaviour” carried out “in good fun with the intention of bantering with [their] friend”.
He also referenced the Black Lives Matter movement and acknowledged that African-American culture has played a huge part in his life as a dancer.
The student ended his statement with an apology, acknowledging that there is no excuse for what they did.
Cultural insensitivity has been something that continues to cause public anger, though individuals are coming to terms with past oversight. Expressing his solidarity with Black Lives Matter, Singapore’s biggest YouTuber Tan Jianhao acknowledged that a recurring character in his skits — a caricature of an elder Indian man — is insensitive and will no longer appear in his future videos.
10 former RI students behind blackface group photo issue apology;
Prominent playwright Alfian Sa’at reposted the photo on his Facebook page, remarking how he felt “visceral revulsion and shame” as a former RI student himself.
He expanded on the post by sharing his own uncomfortable brushes with racial jokes at his former school, where he had been a minority.
“Let it be known that I encountered jokes like these not in my ‘neighbourhood’ primary school, nor when I was serving in the army, but in the hallowed halls of Raffles Institution,” he wrote.
“At that time I never spent much time wondering where my schoolmates picked up these jokes — their parents? Cousins? Friends? And what made them think it was all right to share these jokes in front of me? And that I would not retaliate? Because there were so few people who looked like me in school?”
It was yesterday afternoon (June 4) that Alfian made another Facebook post after receiving a note from the 10 former RI students who donned blackface in the problematic photograph. He republished the apology they wrote as a collective.
“We wholeheartedly and unreservedly apologise, to our friend and the community. What we did was wrong, and in no way justifiable. It is no excuse that we were young, immature and ignorant. It is no excuse that we had no malicious intentions. It is no excuse that we were celebrating our friend’s birthday. With our insensitive, racist, and cruel celebration, we clearly failed him instead. We are deeply sorry to our friend, and to the many others whom we have caused distress. We know that our apology cannot undo years of microaggression and casual racism, but we hope it goes a small way towards making things right.
Race-based banter, like what we engaged in, is not funny, and never acceptable. Like other forms of racism, it marginalises minorities and perpetuates discrimination. Moving forward, we commit to unlearning these behaviours and will continue to reflect on our actions. We will work harder to amplify the voices of the minorities in Singapore and educate ourselves further. Once again, we are truly sorry for what we did.”
School condemns their actions
RI also issued a statement of its own in response to the controversy, condemning the former students’ actions. The 10 students have also reached out to their former school to apologise.
“We do not condone such cultural insensitivities and regret that their actions have caused distress and hurt to the community,” RI wrote on Facebook. “Their teachers would have intervened and counselled them if they had known about their birthday celebration plans.”
“This incident is a timely reminder to all of us that our work in building a more inclusive school and society must continue.”
Reactions to the students’ statement of apology have been commended for its sincerity.
This article was first published in AsiaOne and republished on theAsianparent with permission.