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White Minority: A Case for Tolerance

Pamela Young - Tuesday, March 15, 2011
I recall June 1992 was when I first experienced being treated as 'white minority'.  I was in Orchard Road, Singapore at a sandwich bar one week after I had arrived to establish a satellite office and commence a client assignment.

Culture shock
I asked the sandwich maker for wholemeal bread in my usual way: long rambling sentences with lots of interesting double negatives.  He screwed up his face, tutted his tongue against his teeth, huffed at his colleague and moved to serve the Chinese person next to me. (It was months later that I learned to speak 'Singlish' which is the local person's way of enunciating English in a shortened form that they understand).

I was shocked at how it felt to be diminished and humiliated by someone who belonged, when I did not.  While this experience in no way compares with centuries of discrimination that people of some cultures have endured, it did make me realise how much we take for granted and that we need to be much more aware how things look and feel to others. 

That day I searched my memory long and hard to consider if I had ever treated a Maori, Polynesian or Asian person that way back in New Zealand.  Fortunately, my conscience was clear.

From Inclusion You Find Understanding
The 30 x 40 kilometre Island of Singapore then had $3m people of which around 10% were expats sent by their foreign bosses to work and live there to expand their international operations.   The expats were not only white, but every colour and race possible, including people from other parts of Asia, Africa, Europe, the Middle East, the America's and beyond.

We did not segregate largely due to the small size of the country and we all lived and worked together in well organised condominiums.  I will always remember a dinner in 1996 (the year I moved to Singapore to live and work full-time); it was at the home of some friends.  They were from Laos and had lived in the USA for 10 years prior to coming to Singapore so they both spoke with America accents.  Our host was the Food & Beverage Manager at the Shangri La Hotel and he cooked an Italian style dinner. 

I immediately felt like I was attending an international event and then I discovered that the 10 other guests represented 8 nationalities, 5 religions and 7 languages.  As my first experience of being in such mixed company it felt surreal.  But mostly it was fascinating.  We indulged in and explored one another's journeys, values and traditions for hours.  The conversation was stimulating, the experience nourishing and it imprinted on my memory an image of unity, creativity and energy. (Read more about Pamela Young's own global journey).

Our Challenge
Back then I truly felt like I lived at the centre of a unified world.  Now in Australia, I feel like I live on the periphery, in a largely white-male dominated society that is trying to break-out.  Women are slowly being recognised and given more opportunity in some areas, but relative to leading countries around the world, research shows that women are slipping behind their peers in senior management (see here).

Non-white Australians do tend to segregate into corners of our cities.  While there is some integration and sharing, extra effort is required to benefit from the energy that more evolved cities of the world enjoy.  Despite decades of change, racism is still visible and it is felt by indigenous and immigrant people and we have a way to go to become a unified nation. 

Your Challenge
There is a lot to be said for totally immersing yourself in a very different culture to develop tolerance and understanding that will help you to be more inclusive in the way you live and work.  If you haven't experienced that yet, why not make it happen sometime soon.

Please feel free to share your experiences and comments below.

Pamela Young

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