Finding the words for richer conversations about race

Academic Views, Editorials / Wednesday, July 28th, 2021

At the Singapore Writers Festival in 2020, the writer Zadie Smith talked about feeling “bullied” into having opinions about everything, immediately. Like Smith, many scholars also experience this — the pressure to take positions, signal sides, and state views on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram or elsewhere online have intensified over recent years. The writer feels especially pressured for reasons an academic also should — because there is an unavoidable lag between the slow tempo required of research, reflection, and writing, and the high speed of online exchanges; an oppositional pull between the sensibility of consideration and rethinking and nuance required in scholarship, and that of articulating definitive-sounding stances in 280 characters. 

Yet, to be a scholar today requires attentiveness to the high-velocity, real-time expressions of views and ideas outside the academy. This is crucial if we claim to want to understand our societies and the world, as well as if we hope to effect positive change through the production of knowledge. But the tension between scholarly processes and public engagement needs recognition and attention, in order to turn what is challenge and friction into opportunity and possibility. Scholarly knowledge may contribute in specific ways to social discourse, but to do so we have to be attentive to our core practices and cognisant of both our strengths and limitations. 

When race and racism took on public prominence in recent weeks, academic colleagues made good use of such possibilities — drawing on expertise they have spent time building up to shed light on evolving incidents and encounters. Discussions about ‘structural racism,’ ‘critical race theory,’ ‘privilege,’ ‘lived experiences,’ or ‘everyday racism’ are by no means neatly resolved even within academic disciplines; outside of academia, they are frequently misapplied and misunderstood. In public discourse and policy debate, there are inevitable disputes over which groups have sacrificed most at the altar of multiracialism, and what attitudinal changes are needed by whom. The fraught history of ethnic Chinese communities in Singapore adds layers of complexity to these discussions. These ground realities notwithstanding, it is remarkable that terms and ideas that have been circulating primarily within academic circles for decades have travelled into the mainstream, in ways that can and do broaden people’s understandings. 

There are many things scholars cannot do, but building vocabularies and frameworks is a core part of our work. Recent developments are good reminders that ideas are slow-moving things with unpredictable trajectories. 

AcademiaSG has published a number of articles on race with the purpose of contributing to vocabulary-building: an interview with Mohamed Imran Mohamed Taib explores the historical and global context that form the backdrop to current tensions around race, and the sensibilities and structural conditions necessary for more productive conversations; two articles, by Saleena Saleem and Adi Saleem Bharat, and Priscilla Chia respectively, shed light on the various ways in which race is relevant in political elections; a long essay by Sai Siew Min (also translated into Chinese) explores key features of Singapore’s historical context which help us make sense of racial categorisation and hierarchy; a commentary by Shannon Ang considers whether and when it is useful to disaggregate data by race.  Our editors, too, have contributed views: Chong Ja Ian expounds on media responses to recent incidents of racial discrimination, with particularly focus on the uses and misuses of Critical Race Theory (Chinese translation here), and Linda Lim urges us to also be attentive to what economics and business research has had to say about the causes and consequences of racism. We also organised a roundtable discussion among a group of thinkers—Mohamed Imran Mohamed Taib, Lai Ah-Eng, Nazry Bahrawi, Anju Mary Paul, Jerrine Tan, in conversation with Kenneth Paul Tan—who shared diverse disciplinary tools for how concerned citizens might think about race and respond to racism.

In the short time that AcademiaSG has been in existence, this has been part of our goal: to forge a space in public discourse for academic research that usually lives behind paywalls, accessible only to specialist audiences. By doing so, we have also helped to introduce Singaporeans to scholars who may not be thought of as ‘influencers’ or ‘key opinion leaders’ — but whose expert views are worth hearing. Colleagues have written to us to express appreciation for the public face of our work and the timeliness of certain responses. But we are well aware that embedded in every webinar we have organised and essay we have published is accumulated labor — of scholars who spend most of their time and energy doing work in quiet solitude, situated within the space of academia, whose orientations are not primarily toward how to respond to passing debates. We hope to continue to contribute to much-needed conversations now emerging around race and aspire to do so by drawing from the particular strengths of this academic research — deep and reflexive, attentive empirical exploration, and open toward new evidence and insight. It is not easy to defend the place of slow and careful academic work in a fast-moving world, but in a context of hot takes, weaponised umbrage/grievance, and trigger-happy escalation, this seems more important than ever. 

– Teo You Yenn, Chong Ja Ian, Cherian George and Linda Lim