Let Me Remind You of Your Race
Let Me Remind You of Your Race
Let me remind you of your race.
The night before the deadline of this piece, I was walking to Egg, a well-established vegetarian day-to-night restaurant in Liverpool, to meet up with a friend who is travelling to Greece to teach yoga for the summer, just to set the scene for you. As I was walking, a group of almost middle-aged men, I am assuming drunk, said to me, “Give us a wink”. My reaction was to ignore them, by looking at my feet and quickening my pace. Unfortunately, not quick enough to miss the comment that followed, “What comes after wink? Chink”. Let me remind you of your race.
When my Editor briefed me for the Privilege Issue, I instinctively wanted to write about my experiences as a mixed race person and how white privilege has affected me. I grew up in Huyton, Liverpool, a predominately white working-class area of England where, for a long time, my sister and I were the only non-whites. School assembly was made up of rows of faces with pearl-complexions and pink rosy cheeks. Our father is a white scouser from Liverpool and our mother is Malaysian from Sabah Borneo. We broke up the rows with our dark hair, tanned skin and slanted eyes.
The question that came up was how I was going to make the piece personable and not personal. Asking how I was going to make an article on privilege accessible was important to the development of my initial idea. I realised that I had never before been able to make this conversation personable. It is a conversation most people I know are not willing to have with me. I realised that, other than with my sister, I had never been able to properly talk about how being mixed race has made my life significantly different to everyone else around me. And by different, I mean at a disadvantage. All the other people in my life are white, apart from my Malaysian mother, half-sisters and half-brother. The question prompted me to think about how often I have been undermined when I have tried to talk about my race. My experiences are dismissed as, exactly what I am trying to avoid doing with this piece, personal. I am apparently over-sensitive, and here is a list of things I have actually had said to me: “You’re basically white”, “I don’t think that’s a thing”, “You’re a self-hating Asian”, “What are you on about? You’re white!” and, my personal favourite, “You’re just white to me”. Well, as long as I am just white, to you.
Calling my experiences personal is accurate; after all, they are mine. However, when we continue to reduce potentially shared experiences to the merely subjective, we create false anomalies; we leave common experiences unconnected. In turn, we fail to recognise how these connected experiences reveal the dynamics of privilege. While I can only detail my own specific experiences, they are not subjective to the point they are not in some way common. Experiencing the world as a non-white person is a shared experience.
In writing this piece, I cannot avoid talking about myself. The things listed above that I have had said to me are all things that people who are a part of my life have said: family, friends, boyfriends, colleagues. For the most part, I know they do not necessarily intend to be offensive. In fact, I once had a friend try his best to be so inoffensive that he said, “No offence, but I thought you were Filipino when I first met you”. Firstly, congratulations to him on his observational skills and picking up on my obvious South-East Asian heritage and appearance. Secondly, everyone knows you only state “no offence” before casually saying something incredibly offensive; in this context, as if not being white is somehow lesser. He and I, we are still friends. Why? Because I am not overly offended by the unintended racist things people in my life have said to me; it would be exhausting to be offended every time.
White privilege is so ingrained, how can I even pinpoint blame? There are a lot of white people acting superior, whilst not consciously thinking of themselves as any better. The thing about privilege is that it does not necessarily feel like you have it. So, understandably, white people can become defensive when you start highlighting how privileged they are. As an educated and employed Western woman, with no idea what it is like to worry about basic human needs, I might not be the best person to point out how disadvantaged I am. I cannot point to a moment in my life when I have been practically disadvantaged by my race. I do not think I have been turned away from a school or a job because of it. In fact, I would probably be welcomed with open arms to meet some sort of diversity quota. In this respect, I am a bit of an anomaly, because the reality is that so many people of colour are practically disadvantaged, simply because of where they were born and the colour of their skin.
How are all people of colour disadvantaged, then? From those practically disadvantaged by less opportunity to the likes of me, a pseudo-white girl, accepted as a Becky amongst Beckys. It is the race reminder. If you are not white, you live your life being reminded of it. Let me remind you of your race. Let me remind you that you are not white. I mean, I am pretty certain the majority of white Western people have a lot of shit going on, too. Liverpool, for example, is full of white people struggling and trying to make the best of life. The small percentage of white people monopolising excessive wealth are exactly that, a small percentage. However, for white people, it never comes down to being an issue of race. Whereas for people of colour, it overwhelmingly does.
We have made being of colour “other” and being white default. A default setting, not only in our conversations and behaviour towards each other, but that has crept into all arenas of discourse: politics, business, advertising, television, film, music and art. In this way, white people are privileged because they are not forced to think about being white. They are not reminded that they are white people. People of colour have to think about their identity in terms of race, because we are reminded of it, all the time.
As humans, we all share something, we all know what it is like to feel. The majority of us know the deep pangs of guilt in your gut, the heavy heart of failure, the stomach flips of nervousness, the hole that swallows you up after rejection, the persistent inner-nagging of insecurity. How you experience the world and what you prioritise will differ depending on where you are from, I am sure. However, emotion is relatable, regardless of your race. Nevertheless, it is people of colour that are much more likely to relate those experiences back to their race. It is people of colour experiencing the world conscious of their race – something it seems white people do not do. As humans, we all feel emotions, but it is when you are not white that rejection becomes racism, nervousness becomes racial anxiety and insecurity becomes loathing of your distinctively non-white features. For example, monolid eyes, the distinctive shape of oriental eyes – eyes that are continuously mocked. People will pull their eyes back so they resemble a more slanted eye shape and say, “Ching chang chong”, “chink” or “jap”. Oriental eyes, like black people’s afros, are distinctive, they are race signifiers, they are not typical Caucasian features and in turn have become objects for scrutiny; a medium used to make people of colour feel less than, uglier and not worthy.
Though small in comparison, the casually racist things said to me are not as urgent as the multicultural areas of the UK ridden with poverty and crime, the American Black Lives Matter movement, the East’s refugee crisis or the alienated Muslims of the world. All these experiences are connected. I have felt otherness, the experience of all non-white people. Fortunately, I have not felt it on a life-threatening scale. Unfortunately, far too many people of colour have. It is otherness that white people have the privilege of not knowing and that non-white people are burdened with.
Written by Michelle Houlston,
Editorial styled by Ib Kamara for XXY Magazine