Trigger warnings - violent racist language, outdated and offensive terminology.Programming note - the author is a Fellow. The Institute is non-partisan. It neither agrees with, nor endorses, its Fellows’ viewpoints. As ever, individual Fellows are required to sign an affirmation on the issue of Rwandan genocide denial.
Hate is in the Hair
“Can I touch your hair?”
The clarion call of the microaggressor. Well-meaning, but emotionally draining at best and deeply wounding at worst. Especially when you experience it every single week of your childhood.
My classmates used to stare at me, morbidly curious, as if I were a Legendary Pokémon. Teachers asked me where I was really from. The school magazine published an article about ‘diverse’ pupils, in which I and the other four ethnic minority pupils in my school were listed with our race, as if we were three trophies in gold, silver, and bronze.
Then there was my hair. My thick Black mop of unruly, curly hair became an object of fascination. The other children would stick pencils in it, ask if it was a nesting site for parrots, and touch it constantly – with and without manufactured consent. In doing so they colonised my personal space, just as their great-grandfathers had colonised my great-grandfathers’ personal space.
It wasn’t the obvious racists who bothered me. Their lack of subtlety left them scorned by the student body. When I, a second generation East Asian refugee, was called a P*ki, I was not so much offended as bemused: Pakistan was thousands of miles away from my ancestral home.
No, my struggle was with well-meaning micro-aggressors’ persistent reminders that I was Other. They didn’t understand the effect that their carelessly violent words could have on the mental landscape of a developing and vulnerable person of hidden colour.
White of hand
My first real job was in a prominently Non-white field. Within days, I realised to my chagrin that I didn’t fit in there either. I was passed over for promotions for being ‘too posh’. I was treated by colleagues with a chilly formality. On one soul-crushing occasion, a senior colleague called me out publicly for ‘sounding too white’. I was Other among whites, and Other among Non-whites. Condemned by an institutionally racist society, never to belong anywhere. Where was I to fit in?
White on time?
As you might have guessed by now, I am what is commonly referred to as mixed race. My father is Brown, and my mother is white. My hair is black, thick, and curly, my skin tone is Nonwhite, but not exactly Brown. In all communities, I am treated as Other. My lived experience leads me to conclude that the term “mixed race” is problematic. It implies both the constant benefits of whiteness and the oppression of Non-whiteness. Race-Fluid neatly encapsulates the fact that these people’s experience of race (and therefore their race itself) changes drastically depending on their context.
Among whites, I am Other. I am treated as not a human being, but a curiosity. But fully Nonwhite people treat me as just another oppressive gwei lo.
Robin DiAngelo, Reni Eddo-Lodge, Ibram X Kendi, and other activist scientists have proven that race has no basis in biology whatsoever. It was invented by white people - mostly straight cis men - and is inextricably linked to colonial and postcolonial systems of power and oppression, where white voices will always dominate the conversation. Colonisers tolerate racism as they tolerate Rwandan genocide denialism: it doesn’t affect them. Race is a social construct; reliant on the hegemony of whiteness.
A horse of a different colour
People whose lived experience includes being perceived both as Non-white and as white can be considered Race-Fluid: their interaction with race and racism changes drastically depending on their current lived experience, and whether they inhabit the role of oppressor or oppressed in their immediate cultural milieu.
We do not force people to choose between being cis and trans: we admit the existence of the Gender-Fluid, whose gender depends on their environment and feelings. As a cis ally, I have never experienced their pain, but I listen to them, as I urge allies to listen to the lived experiences of Race-Fluid people.
Our language needs to evolve to acknowledge this fact of life. We must free ourselves from this verbal trauma.
The Dark white rises?
My white mother directly benefited from colonial systems, and yet, her genes, her DNA are in me. Am I not a beneficiary, unaware of my privilege? When my Black and Brown colleagues pass me over for promotions, are they not justified? Are my ancestors not guilty of colonising their space too?
The racism I face is nothing compared to the racism my fully Black and Brown friends face every day, but when I am surrounded by white people, I too am Othered. Race-Fluidity is the only way to describe my lived experience.
The whitewash recedes. Nature is healing.
But there is hope. As awareness of Gender-Fluidity rises in cis allies, I hope to raise awareness among mono-racial allies.