Why do we feel uncomfortable when we talk about race? We are simply not used to having an honest and open conversation on a topic that feels loaded with potential sensitivities, yet it is a topic that is common to the human experience. It is time to confront this discomfort in order to open a way for more understanding through discussion.
The Engaging Race Project welcomes stories from all, independent of colour, culture, or ethnic origin. This project provides a space to share thoughts and experiences; it is, in other words, a forum to facilitate discussion, to inspire dialogue, reflection as well as a deeper understanding and awareness of race and cultural diversity.
We wish for you to lend your voice and share your stories. We will publish the stories below in hopes to further conversation on a difficult topic.
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London, United Kingdom
I grew up in quite a racist environment – not that my parents were, thank god – but at school and with other family members I encountered some pretty ignorant stuff – vocabularies punctuated by racist slurs. Not that this was an unusual experience for someone growing up in white rural England in the 1980s/1990s. I’m sure it wasn’t.
I had a mixed race friend at primary school (I think the only Black kid I knew until I moved to London), who endured horrific abuse – called all kinds of names, chased and beaten by the older kids, and even in role play games among his friends he was always made to be the bad guy – the ‘Indian’ in Cowboys and ‘Indians’; the Nazi in WWII games (I mean, what the fuck?!). His parents moved away in the end. Small wonder. Now, when my parents complain about their racist friends, it reminds me why I never want to move back.
Desiring a less homogeneous environment, I chose to study in Leeds, though that didn’t work out as I’d hoped. It’s a multicultural city yet my course and accommodation were almost exclusively white. Now I live in East London. Admittedly the cheap housing was a big draw, but being in a multicultural area makes all the racial differences so much less important. Seeing my kids playing on equal terms with their friends, from diverse backgrounds, and not asking ‘why people call them names’, like I used to ask my parents, I feel I’ve discharged my duty to give them a less prejudiced start in life than the one I had. One of the most instructive experiences was walking into a local African restaurant and having all the clientele stop eating and stare at me, the only white person in the place. Finally, I know what it feels like!
I talk about race quite a lot with my wife, as we both had similar experiences growing up and like to read about race issues, emigration, empires and decolonisation, but through different mediums – she reads books while I’m more likely to check out what museums are doing through displays and exhibitions.
California, United States
When I first arrived at the University of Cincinnati, Ohio, as an international graduate student in September 1989, I noticed that most of the white students and black students on the campus tended to hang around and sit together in their own groups, whether it was in the lecture halls, cafeterias or on the campus grounds. As a newly arrived student from China, I could also sense tension between black and white students when we discussed certain topics in the classrooms or in small groups. I didn’t know why.
It was strange to me as in China we have just Chinese which include Han and minority people or “foreigners” which include all white, black or brown people from outside of China. I did not understand this automatic segregation.
My friend Annie who came to study a few months earlier before my arrival told me that she had felt the same way. Now, after living in America for the last three decades, I realize that racism and bigotry are still present and take many forms.
Hate groups and xenophobia exist in America today. From my personal experience, I had been called “China girl”, “China doll”, and sometimes “That Oriental woman” or “Yellow woman” etc. With strangers and people I didn’t know very well, I usually ignored them and got on with my own business. But with people I know well, such as neighbors and co-workers, I usually said,” Hey, I have a name. Just call me Youfeng.”
I have observed over the last 30 years in America that these degrading racial slurs have slowly diminished as many Americans became more educated and sensitive to minority people and ethnic groups and treat them with more respect and dignity. President Obama even signed a bill eliminating “Negro” and “Oriental” from federal laws. I welcomed and deeply appreciated the passing of this bill and President Obama’s leadership.
When Trump became the president in 2016, I noticed a resurgence of prejudice and racism. It is getting worse day by day, especially during the current Covid-19 pandemic. Trump called the Covid-19 a “China virus” targeting the Asian-American population. Instead of leading the country to fight against the virus, he downplayed the virus and then blamed it on China. He took no responsibility while our country suffered terribly from the pandemic and resulting economic crisis.
But I have been encouraged by the recent protests against police brutality and the “Black Lives Matter” demonstrations in America and across the world. Hundreds and thousands of protesters, young and old, as well as middle-aged, from all races and background stood up and demanded meaningful changes. It has reinforced my belief in the Constitution of the United States and made me even more proud to be an American citizen. I have reacted emotionally many times while watching T.V., listening to the news on the radio, and checking the updates on social media. It was truly emotionally healing for me because I feel we have reached a positive turning point in American history and world history.
I hope we will have more honest and open discussions on the topics of race, equality, justice and hope. Only by sharing, appreciating and understanding other cultures and human experiences, can we then really validate other human beings and reach a mutual understanding between people in our country and people all over the world.
It’s always a complicated process to explain who I am. When people ask, I’ll usually say that I’m Canadian. The next question I’ll get is, “Ok, but where are you from?” My typical response is that I’m born and raised in Vancouver, BC, Canada. Then when they proceed to ask about my “background” or “heritage” or “origin of parents”, I’ll reply with the following: “My mom is from Taiwan, my dad is from Hong Kong, I was born in Canada, but I’ve lived extensively in other countries as well.” Now that’s a mouthful!
Upon graduation from university, I set out to explore other cultures by living and working abroad. A funny incident in China in 2008 comes to mind. My friends and I were on the subway in Beijing during National Holiday. One of my friends is Canadian with a South Asian background, another Filipino-Canadian, yet another Canadian had a Dutch background, so she had the “look” people expect. Chattering excitedly, we were interrupted when someone asked if I was their translator. Insulted, I replied, “no, I’m their friend and we’re all expat teachers at an international school.”
I also remember a time in Dalian, Liaoning (where I worked for 3 years) when a taxi driver asked my Dutch-Canadian (quite strange to see those two identities hyphenated, eh? Whereas it feels normal to see the term “Chinese-Canadian”) friend if she was an English teacher. My friend chirped in Mandarin fluently, “I am the Math teacher and she is the English teacher!” while pointing to me. The befuddled taxi driver was rendered speechless.
It’s interesting how we tend to jump to conclusions based on superficial markers of identity: eye colour, hair colour, skin colour.
Living in India for 6 years has also produced quite comical moments. I remember once a coworker and I were driving back to the children’s home when we were stopped by police. They blocked the rural road and requested that we open our doors and trunk for closer examination. They were stopping every vehicle and searching for cash to prevent crooked politicians from bribing villagers to vote for them. Apparently the cost of a vote is a mere 100 rupees, or approximately $2 CAD. A few days later, one of my coworkers took the same route home after a groceries trip. The police stopped him again to examine the car. “Where’s the Italian lady?” they queried. Apparently because my skin is “fair” (heck, everything is in the eye of the beholder!), I had suddenly become Italian. My coworker laughingly told me this when he returned to the children’s home. The police had assumed that I was Italian because apparently the only other foreigners seen in that region were Italian nuns.
One time I was travelling in India and was visiting the Red Fort in Delhi. By then, I was used to requests from Indians to have my photo taken with them because evidently they viewed me as “beautiful” because of my “fair” skin. A little girl around the age of 8 came up to me and requested a photo. As I bent down to talk to her at eye level, she grasped my face in her hands and asked me in amazement what cream I used to get such lovely and fair skin. Perhaps this girl didn’t have preconceptions about “race” yet and just thought I was a very light-skinned Indian. After all, I do have black hair and brown eyes.
4 days ago, I was summiting Mt. Frosty in Manning Park, BC. This is one of my favourite hikes, and I was ecstatic to be doing it again after 9 years. On the way up, my cousin and I ran into a guy with a non-North American accent. He mentioned that he had a Youtube channel called KurdFit, so I then asked him if he was Kurdish. He told me he was. Later on, he asked us where we were from. I then relayed the same question to him, and he said “Suri”.
“Oh cool, Syria!” I enthused while conjuring up all the BBC articles I had read about Syria and the Kurdish fighters’ role in pushing back the Isalmic State (or ISIS) in order to make more small talk and possibly grasp the chance to learn about a different culture. “Which part of Syria?”
“Fraser Heights,” he responds.
I begin racking my brain trying to decipher what he had said. Northern Syria? No. Wait…. Fraser Heights! That was an area in Surrey, BC! To confirm, I then exclaimed, “oh, Fraser Heights, Surrey, right?”
How ironic. The very thing I rail against I am guilty of. I hate it that people can’t take the fact that I’m Canadian at face value, but always feel compelled to dig deeper. I mean, how Canadian can I get? I was born and raised here! The only people more Canadian than me that I can think of are the First Peoples. Everyone else has immigrated over, whether it’s 400 years ago or 2 years ago. At the same time, I was asking the hiker questions to find out where he was from, not accepting his ‘Canadianness’ at face value either. In fact I was so busy fitting him into my preconceptions and schemas that I had totally misheard his replies to my questions. What complex, contradictory, convoluted individuals we are!
California, United States
Born and raised in a remote city in China where the population is relatively homogeneous, I did not give much thought about race before I came to the United States, which is probably why I felt so confused in 2017, when I was on the Skytrain in Vancouver and saw a woman who immediately stood, covered her nose, and mumbled a slur when an African man with a Taqiyah cap boarded and sat beside her.
Unfortunately, I still didn’t have a chance to dig up more on the topic of race until I enrolled in an Anthropology class with concentrations on race and racism when I went to college in the United States.
Most students in my class only took this class for the diversity requirement of graduation. I took it for the same reason, but it later turned out to be probably the most influential one for my entire freshman year. The first day of class my professor began with a story about how the famous Central Park in New York City was built on the evictions of a village of African Americans. When the video story ended, an African American student raised his hand and expressed his outrage, “Why? Why could they do this?” I looked around my class: although no one attempted to silence him because we were all quiet, the vibe was definitely not uncomfortable.
With this uncomfortableness, I started my first assignment: filling a brochure called “Racial Healing Exercise.” I was hoping that this brochure would immediately told me why we felt uncomfortable in that class, but it didn’t. It started with asking me questions like “When was the earliest time you had a racial identity?” or “What were the feelings you had at that time?”. Those questions required a lot of time for me to recall. In my short memories of 18 years, my racial identity was centered on phenotypes and nationalities: according to my mother, I met two tall white men with blue eyes on the street when I was four years old. I asked my parents why they looked so different from me, and my parents said because they were foreigners, and I were yellow. My feelings were confusions. Why did I recall so clearly? Because till these days I still don’t see which part of me is yellow if we’re talking about skin colors.
As our class went on, we finished filling out the brochure and covered more topics like color-blind policies, funding from conservative groups and its influences on the U.S. legislation, prison-industrial complex. One thing I was sure about this class was that it certainly did not “heal” me: I started noticing that some questions my roommate asked me in the class could be categorized as “racial microaggressions,” such as “How did you get here? Do you have airports in your hometown?” or “Why did they teach you Shakespeare in high school?” This was probably why I did not go trick or treating with him on Halloween (Yep, college students still do trick or treating). Deep down I knew that my roommate was a good person, but I suddenly didn’t know how to deal with my uncomfortableness or the most fundamental questions like who I am and what kind of person I want to be.
Things didn’t go any easier for me. In the last few weeks, COVID-19 started landing on the United States. Fortunately, I didn’t experience any explicit discrimination against me probably because I’m living in California or I stayed in my dorm most of the time. Unfortunately, when we decided to write on how this pandemic will change racial discrimination against Asians in the U.S. with theories covered in class, none of my group members seemed to care because they did not read the assigned readings for the class at all (This didn’t just happen in my groups; in fact, this class was designed to be relatively easy and known as a “GPA booster” around students). I ended up writing this group paper alone, and during the whole time I was thinking, “Why didn’t they care? Should I always stay silent like this by simply writing a paper that no one other than my TA read? Is there anything else I could do?”
Those doubts and confusions also cast upon my passion about my major, Political Science. When most people around the globe were outraged by the death of George Floyd and the notorious long-lasting issue of police brutality in the United States and started protesting on streets, the thing I got was that all my finals were made optional. I didn’t feel relieved from the pressure from finals exams; on the contrary, I feel so guilty that I had this “imposter syndrome” in which I thought that I do not deserve these optional finals because I didn’t protest, donate, or do anything: every time I looked at emails from the school and the news, I was filled with self-loathing. I could not sleep, so I decided to pull an all-nighter writing my optional final paper for my Introduction to American Politics class. Ironically, we were asked to write on possible policy and institutional reforms for eliminating police brutality and racial injustice. The next day morning, when I tried to catch up some sleep, the protest finally came around my apartment by the road. It was completely peaceful: people stay in their vans as followed by the COVID-19 related social distancing policies, and they honked as a form of protests. While I was to start revising my paper because obviously I was not going to sleep, my new roommate during this pandemic, also a Chinese international, knocked on my door and asked what happened. After I told her it was the protest, she rolled her eyes and swore in Chinese because obviously the sound of honking interrupted her precious sleeping time during finals week.
I shut my door and sat on my bed. I started crying out loud till my nose clogged because the honking sound would perfectly cover for me. I was extremely frustrated and kept thinking: “Why a humanities major like her would be so apathetic about these things? But hey, could my major do better? I don’t know.” I’ve spent a lot of time reading from Plato to contemporary influential political scientists some of whom happen to be my professors, but obviously I could not do better because I did not do anything. I’ve spent a lot of time contemplating and discussing about how to avoid the abuse of power and how to acknowledge our privileges so we could use them better to achieve equality or equity for people who don’t have them. I was wondering why we Chinese students didn’t or probably never realized that it was such a privilege for us to stay at a well-decorated, quiet, and safe apartment to prepare for our final exams without worrying that their living places would be burnt by radical protestors or the next second our families would be violently treated by the police. But what position did I have to say such seemingly terrible accusations out loud? All I knew was that I was sitting there writing a paper which in Chinese would be called “Academic Trash” since it was produced by an undergraduate student who couldn’t even pull her own thoughts together and it certainly would not change a thing about either police brutality or racial injustice in this country, and again I did nothing.
Then without me noticing my first year at a U.S. college ended. I found an internship for political campaigns, hoping that I could start doing something. Till these days I still don’t know how to deal with my feelings during this special period, but one thing I’m sure is that I cannot allow myself to stay silent anymore if I want my major, my passion, my ultimate causes of liberty and global justice to come true. I don’t know if I should end this piece of writing with a famous quote like “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere,” but one good way to end it is to say that I’m making progress on my way to the ultimate “racial healing”.
Emile de Bruijn
Swindon, United Kingdom
I am probably passively racist, or subconsciously racist. I am white, and my earliest years were spent in Delft and Schiedam, near Rotterdam in the Netherlands. I can remember there being some black and brown children in our class, but later we moved to the more easterly province of Gelderland, where my schools seem to have been almost exclusively white.
Intellectually my parents were fairly liberal, but socially they were quite conservative. Our cultural interests were shaped like concentric circles: Dutch, Anglo-Saxon and European cultures were most relevant to us, then Asian cultures, then the rest. Those cultures of ‘the rest’ were not despised, they were just very distant. There was a certain hesitation towards them, a lack of familiarity, and I think have inherited some of that.
My parents had both been migrants: my father emigrated from Holland to New Zealand with his parents and brother in the early 1950s. They were expected to fit in, to learn English rapidly, to become New Zealanders. My father met my mother there – she had been born in New Zealand and her ancestors mainly came from Britain, although one of them had been Italian. After my parents married, they saved up to go on a world trip. When they got to Holland they stayed a while with my father’s relatives, and then I was born, so they stayed a bit longer, and then permanently. So by this time both my parents had migrated, albeit in opposite directions.
Being white people in a European country did to a large extent mask our migrant identity, even to ourselves. Once my parents had decided to stay in Holland, my mother was keen to learn Dutch, to become Dutch. Even so, I learned English from her as a second language: although I was born in Holland, I was also partly Anglo-Saxon. But English was a popular foreign language in Holland anyway, practically everyone took English classes at secondary school and there were constantly British and American films and series on television.
When I was about ten years old, my New Zealand grandmother gave me a small book about the landscapes of the Japanese 19th-century printmaker Hokusai. I was entranced by those images: their lines were clear and yet unfamiliar, their colours vivid and un-European, their compositions bold and reminiscent of abstract art or design. I was reliving the shock and delight of the western rediscovery of Japan in the late 19th century. That little book was one of the factors that subsequently led me to study Japanese at university. Japan was in the news a lot in the 1980s, as a country combining cultural otherness with enviable economic success, so that was probably another factor.
In many ways my fascination with Japan was a form of orientalism, as Edward Said has described it: an encounter with a culture very different from one’s own, experiencing the pleasure of the unknown and the half-understood, projecting of one’s own hopes and desires onto that cultural Rorschach blot, coupled with a wish to learn the secrets of that other culture, to master it – in the sense of mastering a language, but probably also in the sense of learning to control it.
Looking back, it now seems to me that the Japanese department at Leiden University was structured in a deeply orientalist way as well. Western forms of linguistics, sociology and historiography were being applied to this non-western culture, with the implicit and explicit understanding that these western methodologies were the only route to understanding Japan. And on a practical level they were indeed essential: we had to learn the language, we had to acquaint ourselves with the facts of Japan’s history, the structure of its society. In that sense it was a rigorous academic programme. But there was always an assumption that this way – the western scholarly and scientific way – was the best, indeed the only way to really analyse and understand Japan. This, I can now see, was classic orientalism, in its late-20th-century, post-imperialist, liberal incarnation: cultural relativism armoured by scholarly superiority.
I have subsequently researched and written about the impact of Chinese and Japanese art on the west. As part of that I finally got round to reading Said recently, and I realised that in some ways he is describing me and my research: even when I am analysing the western attitudes to Asian material culture, I am to some degree using the orientalist methodology of knowledge-gathering and description as a means of control. I am an orientalist writing about orientalism.
My wife and I have settled in Britain and our son was born here. Initially that was just a practical choice: we had found jobs here, we liked Britain. We spoke the language, we fitted in, we did not reflect on it. But then in 2016 the Brexit referendum happened, and suddenly we were foreigners, ‘citizens of nowhere’ in Prime Minister Theresa May’s chilling phrase. Populism and xenophobia were not just sociological concepts, they were visceral emotions alive all around us and directed at us. I do not want to over-dramatize it: we have never been physically threatened or verbally abused. Our whiteness probably helps to disguise us to some extent. But it has led me to the realisation that I am a migrant and that quite a few people around me (perhaps half the British population) see me as part of a problem.
So I am a migrant as well as an orientalist and a latent racist – a curious mixture, but probably far from unique. Friedrich Nietzsche wrote that the different attitudes to history – antiquarian, monumental and critical – shouldn’t be mixed up, because that leads to perverse conclusions – using the fact that an artefact is old as an excuse not to examine it critically, for instance. But in my own situation I think it might actually be quite productive to scramble the different facets of my world view. The migrant can say to the racist: ‘Hang on, you’re actually an outsider, too.’ The racist can explain to the orientalist why ‘othering’ is such a deviously attractive mental process. And the orientalist can use the tools of the western scholarly tradition to place migration and otherness in their historical perspectives. Like turning the compost heap to add some air and moisture to the leaves.
Milton Keynes, United Kingdom
“When your face colour makes a girl scream”
As a child, I lived in Iran with my parents from 1968 to 1972. My father was serving in the British Embassy. I was sent to a boarding school in the UK but spent the holidays in the Embassy compound in Tehran.
My parents had Iranian friends and colleagues, but the Shah was on the throne and in the context of diplomatic life, the style of life was very western. Even so, for a nine-year-old the sensual impact of living in Iran was massive. I remember the brilliant blue and turquoise tiles of mosques, the ochre and sand tones of the countryside, the spicy (and some less savoury) smells in the bazaar, strange tasting food and the impact of the heat of the summer. I was also impacted by encountering beggars on the streets – at that time rare in the UK. All these experiences felt exotic, but none gave me a sense of racial difference.
That came during one of my parents’ trips. They covered the country searching out famous historical sites, mosques, and palaces. During one of these trips near Shiraz, we visited an ancient mud brick town. It may have been Bam. As we wandered the streets, I was surprised to realise that people were living in these ancient buildings. That was when I learned what “race” meant. I turned a corner ahead of my parents and a local girl of about five was playing. She looked up, stared at me hard and burst into tears and ran off howling to her mother who scooped her up. I was shocked and retreated to my own parents. What had I done? I had been perfectly friendly. The guide explained that it was likely that the girl had not seen “white people” before. It still took a while to internalise that he meant it was simply the colour of my skin that had made a child scream. I hadn’t “done” anything, I simply “was”.
This experience made a deep impression and I feel a useful one because ever since it made me think carefully about the effect of “appearance” and “difference”.
I grew up in communist Czechoslovakia. As the borders were essentially closed back then, it was extremely seldom to come across people of different races. Yet, the country had its own racial problems: gypsies that moved to Europe over one thousand years ago. I was too young to remember who it was that warned me not to associate with them, but someone did.
To avoid them was impossible. They were part of our lives and living in my community. I remember one afternoon after school, a friendly gypsy kid in my class invited me and another white kid over to his house. My insides were immediately filled with red flags and warning signs. “What are they going to do to me?” “Will I get out of there?” These were just a few of the questions I asked myself. I was 8 years old and I thought was risking everything.
For me, this was probably the first time in my life I made my own decision based on courage. When we arrived at his place, it was not nearly as bad as I had anticipated. I remember it being tidy, simple, but it was a home treated with respect. Then something else happened. The gypsy kid was hungry and asked his mom for a meal. She told him she’d bring it right away. Without waiting to be offered some food, I announced that I didn’t want anything whatsoever.
I have no idea what she thought or if she felt the insult in my comment but at the time, I didn’t care. For me, the priority was not to eat what I thought would be dirty, stale, maybe even rotten food. When he got his plate of meatballs and mash potatoes, I was salivating from the delicious smell. But even this wasn’t good enough for me to try the food. The racism was too deep.
As a small child, when you are told that gypsies are dirty, lazy, liars, bullies, always trying to trick you… these ideas stay embedded in your head and your mindset is flawed. Some people would say this approach is simply a preparation for life with gypsies. I say it’s a preparation for life with a racist outlook.
Yes, during my childhood I encountered unpleasant situations with gypsies, the same way I experienced bullying, lying, cheating from white kids. But what I inherited was something that created a wall against anything that differed from my own race. It took me a while to change this.
What helped was travelling, moving abroad, and getting to know a diversity of races. It was exhilarating and inside my heart, it created a form of freedom that I will always be thankful for. To rid myself of racial prejudice allowed me to love my neighbour, but also to love myself more.
I was lucky to have lived in culturally and racially inclusive countries and saw that it isn’t the utopia that many of us are told. I do believe that people living in single race populations, there exists a certain level of fear and carelessness towards other races. This should never lead to or justify any form of intimidation, violence, discrimination or incarceration.
London, United Kingdom
I was born and raised in London and I would be lying if I said I felt isolated or excluded because of my race. During my time in school – primary, secondary, and in university, I had a sense of belonging and acceptance. I do recognise, however, that as a professional working in the media, I am the only Black guy in my current position and in my previous positions.
I know there’s inequality and discrimination but I personally have never experienced it at school or at work. My supervisors have always treated me with respect and courtesy.
To me, I have always thought that being the only Black guy in this industry made sense because in university, I was always the only Black student taking multi-media courses. The other Black students seem to be in Business, Science, or Humanities. Perhaps their family experience was similar to mine. I was always encouraged to become a doctor, a lawyer, an accountant, or a teacher. “What about film?” I asked one day. The answer was blunt, “That’s not a job.”
The negative experience that I have had were people making assumptions and using stereotypes to characterise me. A recent example was on an online first date. The woman assumed that I had multiple kids and wives because, she said, “That’s what Black guys are like.”
These stereotypes bother me. Where do people get their ideas? Perhaps their assumptions are shaped from what they see on TV or what they watch in film and then they apply them onto the people they meet.
Overall, I would say that I have been very lucky. I have not encountered physical violence or extreme negativity in my life or in my travels; nor have I felt discriminated against because of my race. I am aware of race issues and am lucky that I have always felt accepted among family, friends, schoolmates, and colleagues.
London, United Kingdom
I’m not able to remember my first encounter with race because I was born and raised in Malaysia. I reckon all Malaysians would understand this. What I mean is that Malaysia is made up of a variety of races, and when you grow up in an environment like that, you’re exposed to the idea of race from a really young age. I would talk about our family’s Indian friend, Uncle Siva, or the Malay teacher, Puan Husnah. I understood that my family are Chinese and that the society around us is generally made up of Malays, Chinese, and Indians.
Most people in Malaysia can tell someone’s heritage just through their names. Malay names take on the father’s first name as surnames, for example. There are the Chinese names, which are usually phonetically written in the family’s dialect. E.g. my surname Ooi is the word for yellow in Hokkien (Huang 黄 in Mandarin). And there are those with Chinese names who have Christian first names. There are Indian names who take on the father’s first name as surname, and Indian people with fully anglophone names. And because Malaysia was a British colony, there are many with English heritage either through mixed marriages or from families who remained in the country, and we recognise them too, of course. But they make up the population that is not Malay, Chinese or Indian. They’re what the census marks as dan lain-lain—’and others’.
Malaysia has quite a lot of public holidays because most of the main cultural and religious events are celebrated. And even if it’s an event that’s not of our personal heritage, we learnt about it growing up and it’s common for us to join in the celebrations, where we would often learn from the hosts on how to respectfully do so.
In primary school, my two best friends were Malay-Muslim and Chinese-Protestant. My family are Buddhist-Taoists (though I was brought up a ‘free-thinker’). When my mother made cakes or food that I could share with my friends, she would make sure that all the ingredients were halal and that the food hasn’t been blessed (we used to place fruits and cakes on the altar to be blessed as a Buddhist-Taoist practice). Even at a young age, I would let my friends know that the food was ok for them when I offered it. It was just something we learnt about each other and something we learnt to do, to be respectful to each other’s race and religion.
Going back to these memories of my childhood (I moved to the UK as a young adult) made me realise how much I took for granted the openness of race education in Malaysia. We were aware of our differences, but also fully accepting that we were all Malaysians. It wasn’t perfect (what society is?), there were socio-political issues, and of course we practiced stereotyping and knew loads of racist jokes (which I still remember!). The thing that felt right was that we knew and understood we were all in it together despite our differences and that there was never any malice in how we dealt with race.
Perhaps it was just the naïveté of being a child, but my childhood made me consider that maybe the idea of race—when it’s not armed by political forces, or controlled for power—in understanding and exploring differences between people, if managed in an open and kind manner, is actually a good thing.
London, United Kingdom
What I write I am not bitter; I am tired of racism. Blackness is politicised from before you are born. Your mother seeking maternal care is at higher risk of dying. Housing, educational, jobs, career development, religion, law, crime. It’s endless. Blackness is a social political concept. There is not enough in this piece I write to explain the life of a black person when society views white is right, and black is not.
What I have found is when you mention racism, ‘white’ people get offended. They also get offended when you call out racism more than the actions of being racist.
I identify as a black British woman of Nigerian heritage. In my thirties, I am not an expert in race, but I see a lot of parallels in treatment of black people today and in the past.
There is a source of pride when I say Nigeria. There are so many of us across the diaspora.
I was born in the late 80s and am the first generation of parents originally from Nigeria. My mother was a teacher and my father was a man of faith I can’t imagine how it must’ve been for them in Tory Britain when Margaret Thatcher was our prime minister. In that time, my parent’s qualifications were not recognised. Already we have parallels to characters from Bernadine Evaristo’s book ‘girl woman other’. My mother became a domestic and then developed a career in something else, worked hard to put food on table for all of us.
Being a black woman, you have to have strength, you got to be smart. Because in the words of Malcolm X:
“The most disrespected person in America is the black woman. The most unprotected person in America is the black woman. The most neglected person in America is the black woman.”
Although he referenced America it can certainly be applied to black women globally. The older I get, the more my eyes see, and I am appalled of what woman in generations past suffered for me to be able to lead a successful life.
I am very connected to my history as it shapes the life I have today. Women fought hard for the right to vote. All you will see is films based on white women. Look at someone like Harriet Tubman. I can’t imagine slavery times when she fought so hard for freedom. She could have been captured, tortured and whipped to death. Because that is the evil that black people faced those days.
I am the first in my family to graduate university and the first again to be close to obtaining a master’s degree. I work within the walls of the NHS. I have been a patient on one side as well as a nurse on the other.
In 2014 an episode of Scandal resonated with black people globally when Olivia Pope’s father Rowan was so angry and said to her:
Rowan: Did I not raise you for better? How many times have I told you? You have to be what?
Olivia: Twice as good.
Rowan: You have to be twice as good as them to get half of what they have.
Growing up my parents gave me no options but to study hard and get good grades. You have no options, and I couldn’t understand it until I worked within the walls of the NHS. And Scandal’s quote became all too familiar.
Time and time again I have been rejected on the basis of my skin colour for promotion. Excuses are poor ‘there was a better candidate’ who you trained up yourself. You look around in senior management role and its very white, rare to see someone of Asian descent or black in senior roles. But hilariously, I have been asked to train white nurses who are consistently less experienced and then they get promoted in half the time and still don’t know how to do the job but they boss me around? Sound familiar?
This happened a lot to the Windrush generation. Nurses who were given very little opportunity to develop their careers and that did not change until decades later when the BBC covered a documentary on this. They arrived in the UK from 1948 and the racism they faced was disgusting.
I have moved from job to job when I am denied the option for career development. I simply refuse to kiss arse to get ahead. I am very vocal and will stand up for myself. Why? Because if you don’t as a black woman, who will? As a result, I am reviewed as aggressive or rude because I refuse to be silenced when rudeness is directed at me. I simply refuse to be paid to be abused. People’s microaggressions will not simply cast my way and I remain silent. In the UK they love to use the BAME ‘Black Asian Minority Ethnic’. Non-whites clumped together in a category as other. And research has shown that BAME nurses are more likely to be bullied, discriminated and face disciplinary procedures than their white counterparts.
And that’s happened to me far too often. It has been very painful to discuss the bullying and procedures I faced in an inner London hospital. When I handed my notice the white nurses who consistently bullied me were suddenly nice. What was it about me that I was keen to learn, I was punctual, kind to children and their families? Many white people are not able to confront their privilege and racism that has been indoctrinated from society. Reni Eddo- Lodge’s book ‘why I am no longer talking about race with white people’ resonated with me well. I am reviewed in such a way by colleagues who will not confront their unconscious bias.
I have had parents’ recoil and ask for another nurse without saying the words ‘don’t touch my child with your black hands’ (because that was the language Windrush nurses faced). As a black person you can develop a 6th sense for someone who is prejudicial against you for the colour of your skin. To the point that even my white New Zealand manager saw this. Most of the time the nurse they sent in to replace me was inexperienced and they ask for me back. I would refuse to go. I am very experienced and pride myself in teaching others. So, when I refuse, I pass it onto the manager, and they can explain their actions to my boss. And the excuse is extremely poor.
Some of my bosses have been very anti-black with their actions not their words. As I got older, I find myself outsmarting those who really try to destroy my career. My advice: keep a diary, write everything down. Send emails always to have an electronic copy as proof. It’s no surprise there is such a low morale within NHS.
I often think of what black nurses endured before I worked as a nurse from the early 2000’s. All you have to do is google the racism that Windrush generation nurses endured and has time really changed? Very little. Racism then was very loud and in your face. Skin heads attacking Asian and black families. But my generation have faced racism in ways that they will deny and gaslight you. Quickly throw stats to say they’re not racist. But the evidence suggests otherwise.
Sadly in 1999 a report highlighted the institutional racism within the police force. Have a look freely available on google by Sir William Macpherson. Stephen Lawrence was murdered in 1993 and the police force did nothing to help his family. Murdered by racist white people. That was when I realised, I am in a country that doesn’t like me all because of the colour of my skin. Stephen could easily have been my brother. My parents were hooked to news reports about this. They interrogated his friend and his family. Police has tried to do a lot of overcome this but unfortunately, they are as racist as they have been. Read the book by Michael Fuller ‘Kill The Black One First’. He was the first ever black Chief Constable. My brother, stopped and searched, minding his own business. Over criminalised. And I won’t share his story. It’s hard and he should be the one to share it if he likes. It’s only fair, I protect his anonymity.
Time and time again police force and racism are raised. But the NHS? Zero and it’s equally important. Swept under the rug and denied. I’ve seen children come in within sickle cell crisis mostly black and parents suffering at the sight of their child in pain. To see white doctors deny and ignore them. Because I am only the black person they see, they plead for my help. One quick phone call to the senior doctor to roast that white junior doctor who ignored them. I often find doctors of Asian or black decent will take them very seriously very quickly.
I have consistently seen nurses of white background give the bare minimum at their jobs and pass easily into senior positions. When I try, I got to make sure I can demonstrate I am smart, I study harder and to the point doctors always want to work with me as I am knowledgeable and get duties done efficiently.
As a patient, I had a mental health break down and this doctor didn’t take me seriously. I have worked in emergency care and seen suicide attempts. Some die and some survive. I was at my lowest. I went back two days later and asked for a black doctor and was placed on medication and referred to therapy. That’s when I realised even that nice white doctor can ignore a patients pleas like this? Racism in the NHS is insidious.
Interestingly The Human Rights Committee released a report on ‘Black people, racism and human rights’ at 00:48hrs on 11th November 2020. Imagine at this time. It speaks volumes. You can access it, but the fact is that 60% of black people do not believe their health is protected in NHS compared to white people. 85% are not confident they would be treated the same as a white person. 75% do not believe their human rights are protected. There is a lack of representation at high levels. This won’t cure racism BUT it shows that there is a brick wall, not a glass ceiling, when you are black. This report also shows that black women are 5x more likely to die in health care.
To summarise I don’t speak for all black people but like me, we are tired of reports after reports that study racism and we wonder what they could do next. Less talk more action. We all know what happens. Now with Twitter and social media, light gets shinned on racial injustice. Even white people are tired of hearing it. Great. If you are tired of hearing it imagine how tired we are dealing with it?
London, United Kingdom;
It is only now that I am in my mid-forties that I realise how fortunate I am, or rather, how fortunate I have been. I grew up on the outer suburban edges of London in the 1980s and ‘90s. I am white. I am male. I am British. And yet, when I was a child, I never really realised that this equated to any sort of privilege.
The place where I grew up was very multicultural. From the earliest age, attending ordinary state schools, my classmates were of very mixed backgrounds, and because of that I was aware of different races, different religions, different nationalities, and different cultures from the start. Moreover, this diversity was something which interested me, and as a result, I was never shy of asking about my schoolfriend’s family backgrounds, or how they might be different from mine. I’ve always been very interested in people in this way. And so, I suppose, it’s not so surprising that I ended up studying anthropology for my first degree at university.
I think my earliest memory of encountering race goes back to my childhood, before I started school aged 5. Our local Post Office was run by an Indian family, and I remember whilst my Mum was busy at the Post Office counter I used to wander off and look at a display cabinet filled with little ‘Matchbox’ toy cars. Mrs Patel, the elderly mother of Mr Patel, the man who ran the Post Office, was a silver haired and deeply wrinkled old lady. She was always dressed in a beautiful brightly-coloured sari. She would open up the counter and get the cars out for me to look at until my mother was finished and it was time to leave. As Mrs Patel put the cars away, she would often keep one out and then slip it into my hand with a kindly wink and a beaming smile as she said goodbye to me and my mother, refusing to let my mother pay for the little toy car. I still distinctly recall the warmth and softness of Mrs Patel’s hands which mirrored the warmth of her kind soft-heart.
I’m sure it was early experiences such as this, as well as the fact that many of my friends at all the schools I attended (and even later on at university too), were of mixed backgrounds: White, Asian, Afro-Caribbean – and of mixed religions and cultures: Christian, Jewish, Hindu, Sikh, Muslim, and Buddhist, which unconsciously seeded diversity in my mind as something which was normal. I remember one day when we were around 8 or 9 years old, our teacher invited my school friend’s mother into class to teach us something of his culture. He was Japanese, and his mother came into class dressed in a very colourful kimono. She had also prepared some traditional Japanese sweets which we all tasted. Later on, this same friend taught me how to write my name in Japanese phonetic script.
Growing up I was always drawn to TV programmes about travel and other cultures, consequently having completed my first degree I managed to get a job working for one of the large national museums in London. It was a job which enabled me to spend long periods of time working overseas alongside my counterparts in other museums across the world. In such close collaborative situations being aware of cultural differences and nuances, trying to see things from different cultural perspectives, trying not to assume or to impose my own cultural norms upon others, was a real eye-opening experience. There were occasions when I found myself having to mediate between my own colleagues, whose conscious or unconscious actions and biases could sometimes lead to misunderstandings or cause offence. Sometimes it was a diplomatic tightrope to walk. But it was also something which for me, with my anthropology studies background, made the tasks at hand all the more interesting and rewarding, especially when things went well. Happily, as a result, I made some really strong and lasting friendships around the globe which, I’m grateful to say, still hold firm and true even now, many years later.
Cross-cultural relationships have always interested me. My sister’s husband’s grandmother was the first Tibetan woman to marry an Englishman and settle in the UK in the 1920s. My PhD research grew out of my interest in this particular couple. This, allied with the fact that my wife is a Japanese national, and so I can also call Japan ‘home’ as well as my native Britain, has made me acutely conscious of the ways in which our perceptions of race, culture, and ethnicity inform our own experiences. And how our own cultural biases can often guide us. As a ‘foreigner’ living for extended periods in Japan I have experienced both the subtle and not-so-subtle ‘othering’ that can occur both consciously and unconsciously on the parts of other people. In some ways, in Japan at least, it can work to your advantage – in many respects you are expected to get things wrong, and as such, as a foreigner, you are automatically excused from not getting it right. But sometimes there are instances when you are not wholly welcome. Being politely frozen out can sometimes be more awkward than having the door unequivocally slammed in your face. Learning to recognise the codified signals is essential in any culture, but it can sometimes make things very awkward when you perceive these things and your compatriots don’t. I’ve found myself in difficult situations when my British colleagues have wanted to enter some restaurant or bar where I’ve sensed as ‘non-Japanese’ we wouldn’t be welcome and hence have found myself wobbling, precariously balanced upon that invisible cultural tightrope once again.
In more recent years I have been profoundly dismayed to realise how deeply and invisibly entrenched certain racial and xenophobic prejudices are in the UK. Perhaps because of my multi-cultural upbringing I’d assumed that Britain was a liberal and cosmopolitan place, and that this positive trait was something which was becoming stronger with time. But the stark changes which have become evident in recent years with Brexit and the Windrush scandal have shocked me to the core. It’s also made me very angry. To see and hear how many of my colleagues from Europe, many of whom have lived and worked in the UK longer than they have in their homelands, have been affected by the changes here has been truly awful. Even more directly, to have experienced myself, and heard worse from other friends who have married partners from other countries, when dealing with the present bureaucracy of the UK Home Office, has been deeply unsettling. To see how quickly a socio-political and cultural climate in one nation can seemingly change and turn-about-face so quickly, the so-called ‘hostile environment’, has definitely reframed my outlook on life. And, as I said at the start, it makes me realise how lucky I have been.
It baffles me how people can be prejudiced simply based upon the looks, colour, beliefs, or cultural differences of other people who are perceived as being different to ourselves. I can only assume it’s something not many white people have had happen to them directly, or if it has, they are either too thick-skinned or too thick-headed to notice. But having travelled abroad widely it is something I have experienced. To give one example, I was once buying some dried noodles in a Chinese grocery store in Tokyo. I went to the counter, but the woman there was busy so I stood waiting for her to call me forward when she was ready. But after a moment or two a man jumped the queue, placing the things he wanted to buy on the counter. He then noticed me and said something to the woman behind the counter. They were speaking Chinese. I don’t speak Chinese, but I have travelled and worked often enough in China to recognise the key word in her reply to him: “The foreigner can wait.” I had been about to say in Japanese: “It’s OK. I’m not in a rush. Please go first.” But I held my tongue, as it was clear I was being ignored anyway. I suddenly felt very unwelcome there. The woman behind the counter then served me in what felt like a decidedly unfriendly silence. When the transaction was finished, I thanked her in Chinese. Her eyes nearly popped out of her head, and the next time I went into that shop she was much more polite!
I suppose it’s all too easy for many of us to make unfounded or unsound assumptions about the racial and/or cultural differences we perceive in others. But actually, if we were more sensitive and more sympathetic to such apparent differences, more often than not we’d most likely find we have much more in common than we realise. Like me and my diverse group of friends at school, we all assumed we were the same, and yet we were interested to know how some things made us different without that sense of difference adversely altering our shared sense of similarity, rather than the other way around.
In later life I’ve been lucky enough to travel and work in places such as Hong Kong and Singapore, where cultural diversity is clearly the norm, and other places where diversity to some people’s eyes (i.e. mine) isn’t quite so apparent or is too subtle to be seen simply on the surface, as well as to places where I’ve stuck out like a cultural sore thumb and so been stared at open mouthed. I’m sure nowhere is free from bias. I’ve certainly been to some places where racial divides have been particularly palpable, notably in the US. But attempting to find the balance between our differences and similarities is the key thing which I think we’d all do well to learn from as early an age as we can. If we do so, I feel sure our lives and our societies will be richer for it.
Richmond, United Kingdom
Writing about race and races other than my own has helped to shed light on my consciousness of being white. Inevitably, the awareness of my whiteness had already begun in practical everyday life, but I had to experience, encounter and engage with the subject of race before I could mindfully write about it.
I grew up in Oxfordshire, United Kingdom in a predominantly white area, went to schools where the pupils and teachers were predominantly white. In my early twenties, I travelled a lot. The concept of white privilege would manifest on trips abroad in interactions with people, for instance in crossing the border from Thailand to Cambodia, when I was called a ‘white beauty’ by someone who asked for a photo with me purely for the colour of my skin.
I remember this situation distinctly because it presented a real moral conundrum to face around racial issues and heritage. I was too polite to risk offending her by refusing the photo, but at the same time I was uncomfortable with being on the pedestal, starkly ashamed of my privileged position. It is the conflict that arises in situations like these – where race is brought to the attention of the audience, if not in conversation – I endeavour to tap-into and create in my writing.
I’m a screenwriter and script consultant, with a background and interest in creative writing. My specialism is in creating diverse and richly genuine characters. It was when I started at SOAS, University of London as an undergraduate that I first learned to challenge my own whiteness and any assumptions that I might hold regarding race, in the exposure to philosophy and the potential for micro-actions against racism. At a University that attracts students globally, I was exposed to the world through learning in a way I hadn’t conceived of encountering before.
Among the people I met, I happened to befriend many who considered themselves queer in their gender, sexuality or both. A significant proportion of this particular group of people also had Islamic heritage or considered themselves to be practicing Muslims. I would read about intersectionality in anthropology textbooks, become familiarised with more expansive racial and cultural histories, but more importantly for me: meeting the range of people I did at University taught me to consider diverse fictional characters and evaluate them as one would true living people.
In last two years, I wrote a TV pilot screenplay which features a Muslim family of South Asian heritage in West London in the 1990s. This became an active research project as much as a writing one, giving me the opportunity to engage in conversations around race and faith with many old University friends and others. The screenplay went on to make award finalist in international screenplay competitions, but it couldn’t have done so without the wisdom acquired from those conversations and the exposure to and interest I had in the intersectionalities of race and faith.
On writing about race, personally I do not usually let the topic dominate the dialogue. Reading books such as ‘Why I’m No Longer Talking To White People About Race’ by Renni Eddo-Lodge has brought me further understanding of just how important conversations surrounding race are. Conversely, in writing I do not allow for academic discussions around the topic to be prevalent in the characters’ conversations. Rather, racially-experienced inequalities and injustices that surround their lives do so through actively living them. The strongest characters emerge due to their personalities, not their racial heritage, and do so because they do not slot neatly into tick boxes as one-dimensional people.
I always feel in a somewhat precarious position when writing a character whose race is not white. Through this phenomenon, I become aware that the fiction in my head is subject to stereotype just as any other, and while I enjoy the process of unpacking assumptions, I write also to continue to explore and unpack more. A character who does not have flaws and ambitions is not like a real person, and drawing attention to these aspects of character-building helps to challenge veering toward fictional stereotypes and negative connotations.
I do not write solely about race by any means, but through active discussion and a process of attaining awareness, I become more comfortable in doing so; I endeavour to write and learn.
Manchester, United Kingdom
I think conversations about race are great, but they are not safe. Talking about race is never safe, but it does require a sense of braveness.
I prefer to seek out spaces which I deem to be safe enough. I am astutely aware of what I am putting out into space, and perhaps what type of response this may stimulate, and particularly who from. So, I have been thinking recently about viewing the PhD as an open dialogue with the world. At least, that is how daunting it feels to me right now.
We must have uncomfortable conversations, but the responsibility of which is so often placed upon the racially minoritised.
On reflection, I notice that there does seem to be a ‘comfortable’ level of race talk, maybe it appears unthreatening, when individuals share the pain of being racially minoritised. But seldom do people want to listen about the strength and resilience which is instilled in the person who is aware of their racialisation and ready to talk about what this says about the world we live in.
When family, friends, acquaintances, and colleagues talk about race in our presence, do we simply hear, or do we try to listen? When they write about race, why do we only look?
I know I am trying my best to be anti-racist, but I do wonder how many could, or even would, be brave enough say the same.
London, United Kingdom
In my experience, few spaces are as white as academia in the UK, particularly in the humanities. Throughout my six years of graduate studies, I was frequently made to feel like a stain – sallow, Chinese, other – on the pristine, white walls of the academe.
At the British Library, while doing research for my doctoral project, I was told, by an elderly Englishman, to go back to where I came from. At another library, I returned from a short break to find a white man had pushed aside all my books and notes, claiming that he saw the space and decided to take it. At an academic conference I helped to organize, my name and the names of three other non-white classmates were excluded from the list of acknowledgements. At university events, I was often assumed to be either a waitress or an international student learning English. I would also be the only, or one of the few, person of colour in the room; graduate students from non-English-speaking countries rarely attended such events.
The head of department – a renowned scholar and regular contributor to leftwing publications – would pretend not to recognize me or glare at me with disdain when I greeted him in the hallways; he had previously told an international student from Taiwan that she should go back home because she obviously did not belong.
Outside the university, on the streets of London, I was frequently addressed as if I understood very little English, with short sentences shouted at me, in a tone that mixed pity and derision. At a bookstore, when I requested a copy of John Ruskin’s The Stones of Venice, the bookseller was stunned that someone like me had ever heard of Ruskin. Once, two white teenagers walked towards me and shouted, “fuck you, Jackie Chan!” then pushed me off the pavement, into the oncoming traffic; luckily, the car stopped in time. I reported the crime, and the police sent a pamphlet about anti-racism, offered free counseling, and reassured me that Britain welcomed immigrants.
Through these encounters, I became aware that the spaces – inside the walls of the university, on the streets of the city – were spaces that will never belong to me and to which I will never belong.
In the midst of the Coronavirus pandemic, I experience more acutely than ever, what it means to be a non-white body in a predominantly white space. I am now also perceived to be a diseased body. The streets, in this monstrous narrative, would be cleansed if the infectious Chinese bodies were removed. So in my hometown, Vancouver, anti-Asian hate crimes have increased by 878%, compared to 2019. A 92-year-old man with dementia was assaulted in a convenience store. A woman was attacked on the bus. Another was punched in the face, one block from where I live. Numerous incidents of verbal assault and intimidation.
Walking down the street nowadays, I must do what I have always done in white spaces: Get out of the way. I frequently have to step off the pavement entirely to make way for a certain type of white person, one who strides down the middle of the sidewalk, claiming the street that they believe to be rightfully theirs, or one who glares at me, as if proximity to a body such as mine implies imminent infection.
The experience of being literally and figuratively pushed out of the way has exposed the fragility of the sense of belonging I had cultivated through my education and readings. If home is not the city in which I grew up, nor the city that is my constant point of reference, where, then, is home?
In 2007, I spent hours in Tate Modern studying the sculpture of the Colombian artist, Doris Salcedo. Shibboleth consisted of an astonishing, gigantic crack that fractured the concrete floor of the monumental Turbine Hall, like the aftermath of a catastrophe. This spatial fissure evokes the racial, social, and economic ruptures that have torn apart the fabric of the world. A “shibboleth” is a word or phrase used to ascertain the identity of the speaker, and to distinguish an insider from an outsider. “Shibboleth” is a marker of belonging. Through a shibboleth, an individual could be arbitrarily branded as outsider, relegated to the other side of the boundary. “Social death,” Salcedo writes, “is the legacy of racism, and it means removing a person from mankind; it is to deprive a person of humanity.”
I could easily step over the crack in the floor and walk to the other side of the gallery. But it is not so easy to cross the divides imposed by race, to move out of the prison of misconception and discrimination in which my ethnicity locks me, to prove that I belong in the space of books and art that I claim as my own.
After the exhibition ended, the fissure was filled in, but it is still possible to see the faint outlines of Shibboleth in the Turbine Hall, like a kind of scar, or a reminder that such chasms still exist. But the filling-in or mending of the wound also suggests the possibility of dialogue, of reparation. I hope to contribute to such a dialogue one day.
While we often hear conversations about race that account for the irreparable scars caused by histories of Western colonialism and slavery, which is especially evident in the continents of Africa, America, and Europe, it is regrettable that racism in the East poses even more questions because of the lack of conversation about them. What does racism feel/look like in the continent and countries of Asia? If there is such a terrible thing as white supremacy, what can we say about asian supremacy? What discriminatory inclinations or fetishistic tendencies do asians have or feel towards people of the West? How do authoritarian regimes and populist democracies contribute to perpetuating or even legitimising acts (and ideas) of racism in the East?
I am pondering over these questions because despite my experience of occasional racist encounters when I lived in London for over a year and in Manchester for about two years, I have found it even more difficult to make sense of how race is dealt with when I lived in Hong Kong for three years (and this was the time of the Hong Kong Umbrella Movement). It is even more difficult to grasp when you witness asians being discriminatory towards asians, and thus the connotations of race, whether obvious or inconspicuous, are easily brushed aside and turned a blind eye on — just because we are all asians anyway. What is even more troublesome is talking about these ideas and notions, as I am expressing right now, without completely revealing the exact instances or events that demonstrate or substantiate them. On the one hand, I am a coward for not recounting publicly the first hand experiences that led me to these questions or conclusions (assumptions?), but on the other hand, I am also trying my best participate in a conversation that, as I was reminded by the proponent of this project, is utterly difficult and scarring.
These thoughts are becoming more evident as I write them with the pandemic raging around me (and also spilling into our home… my sister is a nurse and currently recovering from the symptoms…) and with news of asian discrimination rounding the headlines of major dailies (not to mention tabloids) in mind. Asian hate is becoming more prevalent but, apparently, this is not just about non-asians discriminating against asians, especially those that come from a particular country (this is something that I myself have experienced several times just because I was wearing a surgical mask in the streets of Manchester and London, which is merely a typical precautionary measure which I learned from my living in Hong Kong for several years). Within Asia, the hate speech and spins are amplified by the pandemic, vaccine diplomacy, territorial disputes, sea conflicts, political divides, lack of resources, and debt traps, among other things. And to make things worse for asians, the hegemony of “Western” (political) structures still prevail in the region as a “gold” or “global” standard.
Manchester, United Kingdom
At home, we spoke Cantonese. Despite our family living in Vietnam for three generations, it was important for us to never forget that we were 華人. It was something that my family wore with deep pride and perhaps, at times, with a tinge of superiority. I distinctly remember the confusion in having a cultural part of me being so celebrated at home, yet quickly dismissed and crushed in the environments I would venture out in the world. The way other kids pulled their eyes back and made ignorant comments at school. Witnessing the abuse and racism, often trivialised as jokes, in my parent’s Chinese takeaway. The racial slurs or the “Go back to China” shouted at me by full grown adults when I was a child. From a young age, I quickly realised through occasions like these that by simply being Chinese, I could provoke ignorant assumptions and reactions in some people.
“Ni Hao” I remember a teacher saying to me in primary school, expecting me to respond with a proud look on her face. “Don’t you speak Chinese?” she followed up, when I didn’t understand what she was saying. I would later learn that she was greeting me in Mandarin, another Chinese dialect. Years later, whilst procrastinating from writing an essay in a university library, I would learn that there were in fact hundreds of dialects that could be classified as Chinese. But at the time, for 8-year-old me, Cantonese was the only Chinese I knew. At least “Ni Hao” was better than “Konnichiwa”.
In my small town, being Chinese sometimes came bundled with age-old racist stereotypes that go something along the lines of us being a frugal, but intelligent people, who ate and sold dog meat and were good at maths. These well-worn notions were simplistic, passed on for generations and ingrained in the minds of even the most well-meaning people. In high school, if I were at the receiving end of a racist joke, the punchline would almost always play on one or more of the aforementioned tropes. At university however, racism played out differently.
During my first week of university, I remember walking through the sports hall with my flat mate for registration. The friendly chaperones separated us and directed me to another hall. After waiting for over an hour in a long queue, it dawned on me that I was in the queue for international students. This assumption that I was a Chinese international student would follow me around campus, through the city and for the duration of my entire university degree.
Suddenly, the stereotypes that I could not shake for my entire life had completely crumbled away in this new environment. During my language degree, I was no better than anyone else at maths (not that I was anything special at maths anyway). Here at university, most people would find comments of dog-eating unacceptable, with these comments only reserved for a truly ignorant few. I was no longer cheap and frugal. In fact, I was the complete opposite. I had somehow transformed from the son of poor immigrants into a ‘rich international student’. “The Chinese are all so rich! Isn’t it a bit extra to come into lectures at nine in the morning dressed head to toe in designer clothes?” I would often hear variations of comments like these regarding the wealth of Chinese students from strangers, course mates and friends alike.
“Oh My God! An Asian!” A drunk girl shouted in my face, pointing at me in front of her friends, as if I was an alien who had just landed from Mars. She had most likely seen an Asian before, but that was not the point. What she was trying to do, was to be funny and make her friends laugh. Racism like this often revealed itself on nights out. One night, whilst I was stood in the Student’s Union waiting for my friends, a group of lads walked by. One of them who was filming on Snapchat decided to put his camera directly into my face and the whole group started laughing. It was as if all it took was to look East Asian, and then you were somehow particularly funny, and worth being intrusively filmed without your consent like an animal in a circus.
My friend from Hong Kong told me of his experience in a night club in which a girl came up to him, dancing with him and holding him from behind. When he turned around, he noticed her friends watching from a far, laughing and filming, as if she had been dared to dance with him. From the aggressive “Ni Haos” and “Konnichiawas” shouted at you on the way out of the SU to outright hostility and nasty jokes, these acts were all done by people who were desperate to impress their friends, so willing to bring people down in order to lift themselves up.
But it wasn’t just the students. I remember the hostility and rudeness that the staff at a particular library café treated Chinese international students. Once, I overheard them complaining about how rude Chinese people were. Thinking I didn’t understand, one of these staff members gave me the endearing nickname “wonton”. It was extremely clear to me how students who looked East Asians were treated compared to other students. I remember the woman’s hostile attitude towards me instantly dissolving once she heard me answer in a British accent, “excuse me?”. Suddenly, the upbeat and friendly Yorkshire charm that was afforded to other British students appeared. My new nickname was “me duck”.
Even my own well-meaning friends would at times tap into negative ideas about Chinese international students. “Why don’t Chinese students mingle? They just stick to themselves” they would say, without making any real effort themselves to integrate with international students. “I am Chinese too, you know,” I would retort with an attempt to defuse these negative sentiments. Then the dreaded words that most People of Colour existing in white spaces have had to hear: “But you are different from them”.
I realised that this distinction between people like me, a person with Chinese heritage who has grown up overseas, and a person from mainland China, was familiar to me long before university. I remember the condescending attitudes a particular uncle held against mainland Chinese people. This is the same uncle who was proud to the bone to be 華人, and to him, we certainly were not Vietnamese! His message was clear: we are Chinese, but we are not from mainland China. “Rich”, “greedy”, “uncivilised” and “rude” are some of the ways I have heard Chinese people in the diaspora describe people from the mainland.
One day, I asked a friend I had just met from mainland China if they wanted to go for lunch. They said that they couldn’t, because they were about to go to work. I remember being slightly surprised. Then, I was deeply overwhelmed by shame. I realised that these ideas on campus surrounding Chinese international students had also influenced my thinking. I had bought into certain ideas of the wealth of mainland Chinese students and I could not be more ashamed of myself.
Ironically, it was at university, a place which I thought was going to be progressive and inclusive, where I felt most racialized and where my Chineseness provoked the most racism from my peers. With people’s assumptions of me being a Chinese international student, I saw the amount of racism that they received. It was at university where my understanding of Chineseness had completely shifted, and I realised for the first time the enormity and complexity of what being Chinese means to me as well as to others. In part, I learnt this through the experience of having unfamiliar, stagnant and at many times, racist ideas of Chineseness being imposed on me which then shaped the way people interacted with me.
This othering of Chinese international students on campus was steeped in racism, fuelled with ideas that Chinese international students were a monolithic group who were all wealthy and acted the same. In fact, many Chinese international students aren’t even from mainland China and hail from all over the diaspora, from Peru to Malaysia. On the mainland, cultures and languages vary hugely from region to region. What I have learnt is that there is not just one singular way of being Chinese.
Yet from the beginning of 2020, some people’s ideas and assumptions of Chineseness has once again taken on a new homogenous form… That of a killer virus.