[In Real Life is not affiliated with the opinions of the writer and will not be held legally accountable for any claims made in this article. Reader discretion is advised.]
Note: The names of some participants have been changed to maintain anonymity.
During my recent visit to Brunei to stay with my family, I made a new friend – a West African friend named Daniel.
As we got to know each other, I asked him what he thought about Malaysia.
“Oh,” he recalled, “I had visited Kuala Lumpur just last year, but I had an awful experience.” He told me he was scammed by the driver who brought him from KLIA to his hotel.
“Not only that – but the very next day we were stopped and interrogated by the police for half an hour,” he said.
Daniel told me how they’d been walking in broad daylight to another friend’s condominium, but were stopped for looking ‘suspicious.’
Both him and his friend had valid visit visas for Malaysia, stamped fresh on their respective passports just a week ago. Yet the police refused to believe they had a right to be in Malaysia.
“They acted like we were about to commit a crime,” he said, incredulous.
Only after a half hour of showing their valid visas, answering very specific, personal questions, did the Malaysian police release them with a warning.
For the rest of the trip, he and his friends were wary of being stopped by the police and questioned for seemingly no logical reason.
All I could reply to my friend was, “Yes, I’m sorry, but that’s just Malaysia for black people.” There was no other or truer way to put it or try denying it, really.
The reality, and the bitter truth
When I first began dating my black boyfriend in university, I felt disturbed whenever we would go on dates. To the movies, to the park, karaoke, the club; whatever it may be, I could feel everyone’s eyes watching me – watching us.
Being stared at wasn’t new for me; as a plus-sized woman, I’ve always noticed people’s eyes on me, judging me.
But these stares, these over-the-shoulder looks were different. They lingered and whispered amongst themselves, watching our every step as if we were doing something wrong.
[Image via SCMP]
Meanwhile, condominiums and houses in some parts of KL have signs outside barring Africans from renting them.
To find a unit to rent in Bukit Jalil, they’d have to go through an agent who charged them a lot more – because local landlords backed out of the rental agreement when he told them his race.
Taxi drivers will avoid picking them up
Chatty taxi drivers in Kuala Lumpur have often told me to ‘be careful’ if I mention that I’m in a relationship with a black man.
“You know these blacks ah, very dangerous. The boys find these innocent Malay girls and influence them, give them drugs and corrupt them. Better avoid, young miss,” they tell me.
“Aren’t you generalising?” I tell them, outraged. “Bad people can belong to any nationality. You can’t simply say all black men are like that.”
Eventually, the taxi drivers fall silent, leaving me with the usual ‘be careful’ and continuing the remainder of the ride without comment.
My boyfriend tells me taxi drivers in Malaysia tend to drive past black people who are flagging down a taxi.
One time, my boyfriend and I were taking a Grab to a mall nearby to catch a late-night movie. When the Grab driver saw us coming towards his car, he rolled down all the windows. On the way to the mall, I requested if he could please roll up the windows and switch on the aircon.
He refused, saying that there’s a bad smell in the car. I told him there’s no smell, we were both freshly showered. He eyed my boyfriend through the rearview mirror. My boyfriend didn’t quite realise what was going on.
I stopped the Grab driver in the middle of his sentence.
“You’re very rude to your paying customers right now. If you feel so bothered, you can drop us off right here. If not, I want you to please stop talking right now.”
Thankfully, the ride was short. Afterwards, I gave the driver a one star and reported him to Grab for being rude and having a racial bias.
Is Black Lives Matter relevant in Malaysia?
I’m sure you’ve come across news of the Black Lives Matter (BLM) protests, ignited by the murder of an African-American man, George Floyd, by the American police not two months ago.
In the widely circulated video, a cop tackles George Floyd to the ground, and kneels on his neck.This results in George pleading, “I can’t breathe.”
The cop ignores his pleas and continues to kneel on him for another eight minutes. George passes out, and when paramedics are called, it is too late, and he is dead on arrival.
George was merely under suspicion of using a counterfeit note. Was the use of force justified? Or was there a racial bias?
If you ask any black man or woman in Malaysia, they’d tell you that the BLM protests hit close to home. I’ve never met a black person in Malaysia who doesn’t have a story of being stopped by the police.
But I didn’t really understand why until my boyfriend told me what it was like.
We had been staying at home, having dates inside the apartment, and we’d rarely go out for dates. And whenever we did, we’d be anxious the entire time.
Why? Because my boyfriend was constantly worried about being held up by the Malaysian police, or worse.
One fine day I had an outburst about this, asking him, “If you’re innocent of no crime, then why are you worried about an encounter with the police?
“Myra,” he said, “Did you see the news last year about the Nigerian man who died in custody? At a detention centre right here in Kuala Lumpur? The man had all his valid documents on him and was completely innocent! And even if he was not, would he really have deserved to die?”
Beaten down, he said in a low voice, “I’d rather stay confined in the comfort of my home than go out in fear of my life every single moment.”
Racial profiling happens to all of us
Racial profiling is the word you’re looking for – or, in more layman terms, stereotyping.
Many of us are the victims of that, you and I included. When Chinese are assumed to be good at making money, Malays are assumed to have institutional benefits, and Indians are assumed to be violent.
It’s an unconscious behaviour which doesn’t have any major consequences until it threatens our daily lives; our movement & our safety in our own home.
From the amount of time I’ve spent with my black partners, I was shocked to see how often they were racially profiled.
Stories about police raids constantly used to bombard my black partners; it was a weekly occurrence.
Entire apartments in Kuala Lumpur housing many black individuals are the usual targets, and everyone is rounded up and carted off to detention centres to be poked and prodded.
This includes those with valid resident permits, who have never touched harmful or illegal substances in their entire lives. They were racial profiled, all for no crime but the colour of their skin.
The portrayal of black people in the media – film, television and even music – doesn’t help either.
For example, the majority of black people are portrayed in film and television as one of five roles: The Black Best Friend, The Thug, The Angry Black Woman, The Domestic Helper and The Magical Guide.
“The Thug” stereotype is why most black men are targeted — every black man is assumed to be a thug. But black students, black doctors, and black accountants exist too. What about them?
Look inward to see if you have a racial bias
If one hasn’t been personally exposed to a certain race – just like I hadn’t until six years ago – it’s easy to form inaccurate perceptions.
These perceptions are reinforced by the media and transform into the giant umbrella of racism we see today.
To this, I’m sure you would say: “But the black residents in my apartment are always causing a ruckus, always bringing women over, always being a nuisance!”
I say: “Is it really just the black residents? Even if there are nuisances around, does that mean that every single black person is like them?
Let’s say that you don’t drink alcohol. But your friend gets drunk often, and causes a public nuisance whenever you’re out together. Is it fair for other people to assume you’re also alcoholic?
Doesn’t quite make sense, right?
So why must every black person in Malaysia be treated like he or she is a criminal?
It hurts seeing the ones you love suffer
All around me, especially during my university years, I saw examples of bad relationships, unappreciative, unsympathetic men.
And over the brief few years I’ve been dating, my only two serious relationships have been with black men. I’m grateful for having a partner who respects me and loves me so entirely.
I attribute a lot of my own personal growth to them, for the support they provided me with, and the love they gave me. They are two of the most decent, humble, intelligent and loving people I’ve ever met, and will always hold a special place in my heart.
My most recent black partner has been in Malaysia for seven years now. He has a stable job in tech. He pays his taxes and is kind to strangers. He stays at home for the most part, playing video games and watching football matches in his leisure time.
What wrongs have black people like him committed for Malaysian society to treat them without an inkling of humanity?
Leave the racial bias behind
As beautifully diverse as Malaysia’s racial landscape is, I’m well aware that we Malaysians have racial tensions amongst ourselves.
Leave the racial bias, the stereotyping, the self-righteousness behind and educate yourselves, expose yourselves to those from cultures and ethnicities unlike your own, and you might just end up meeting some of the most wonderful people – just like I did.
For more stories like this, read: The Racism I Experienced Dating In Malaysia and I’m Dating A Syrian Refugee. Here’s What I Wish People Would Stop Saying.