I gave a testimonial to Stuart Hall at the 3rd British Association of Film, Television and Screen Studies (BAFTSS) Conference. This testimonial was intended to segue into John Akomfrah’s brilliant The Stuart Hall Project (2013). Here’s what I said.
I first went to University to do what any other undergraduates go to universities to do – to get a degree so that I can get a job. Throughout the first year, it was fun. Just fun. Fun because I got introduced to all kinds of interesting concepts, fun because I got to watch really interesting films, and fun because I got to read very interesting play-texts. But, really, just fun.
In my second year, I took a module on the representations of African, Caribbean and Asians in the media. Unsurprisingly, Stuart Hall’s name featured heavily throughout the module. The module exposed me to the amount of abhorrent injustice the Black community faced in society from history to now. I immediately connected to it. When people come up to me and say ni hao, konichiwa, and sawadikap; or when I tell people I am from Singapore and they ask me which part of China I am from; or when people say, with genuine surprise, that I speak really good English, and then react with even more surprise when I tell them that it is because English is my first language; I get angry.
I get angry because I feel unjust. And I want to speak out. But I was never equipped with the language and vocabulary to do so because all I could do was to say “I’m not Chinese!”, indignantly. And it was not until I chanced upon Hall’s works on race that something changed. Race, as Hall has demonstrated, is a discursive construct, and that we should view and study the body as a text, to understand that what we think of a particular racial group is never definite, and that these beliefs, alongside mine, should always be subjected to scrutiny.
Because of Hall’s thoughts, my view towards university changed. His attitude towards race and culture inspired me to look at things in different ways, and not just from one myopic angle. Nowadays, if I don’t agree with a person’s belief on my race, my sexuality, my faith, my political alignment, and so on so forth, I no longer get angry for the sake of being angry.
I get angry because I want to know why they would think like that. Returning to my earlier examples on my experiences with casual racism, perhaps people think like that because the Chinese form about 75% of the ethnic make up in Singapore’s demographics. Or perhaps it is because of their Orientalist attitudes towards the East.
More importantly, I think, I get angry because I want to know why I think like that. I want to know why I react so strongly to the term “Chinese”. Perhaps because “Chinese” is such a loaded word. It refers to the language, the nationality, the ethnicity and the race, for example. And I don’t necessarily identify with everyone of them. So maybe next time, when I’m angry, I will reply with a more nuanced “I do not identify with the Chinese nationality. I am a Singaporean and that is a small island in the South East Asia. I speak Mandarin, but that’s just one out of the many versions of Chinese spoken by people all over the world. I can’t write or read enough Chinese to save my life. I quite like Fast and Furious 7. And I’m not going to apologise for that.”
But, putting the now more nuanced, angry, and political me aside, I think, after reading Hall, university has become more than a place for me to get a degree and to get a job, university has become a place for me to learn and to understand. In short, I realised I wanted to research, and I really have to thank Hall for that.