Saturday, 10 May 2014

"Are you more black or white?"

This was my reaction after seeing my last post on Buddhism spread across the Internet, just with a bit less fur and a few less whiskers:

I presume that it was received well because people can relate to my experience, which has encouraged me to write more - so thank you! I suppose the next "big" part of my identity is my ethnicity. I'm half Jamaican, a quarter German and a quarter English. I'm mixed race.

The first time I really started to think about being mixed race - recognising my ethnicity - was when I watched Rabbit Proof Fence around the age of 13 (I grew up with a film fanatic of a father):

I didn't grow up in a Jamaican household. I don't even feel like I grew up in a British household. I definitely didn't grow up in a German household. I can't really associate a "culture" to my upbringing; it was neutral. I had the odd jerk chicken and rice dish, but then I ate chicken dippers and fish and chips too. How far do cultural practices reinforce one's ethnicity? Do I have to eat rice and peas and speak patios to "be" Jamaican?

This blog is not intended to cause any harm or offence to any readers, but to only reflect the writer's personal experiences and introspective observations.

I went to a school (a girls' school) that has predominantly Pakistani and Indian students. By the time I was in Year 10 (about 15 years old for the international readers), I found myself having mostly Asian friends. And, with this, I tended to be heavily questioned by my peers - who were not Asian - about my "reasons" for doing so. I was expected have reasons...

Why do you always hang around with Asians?
It's like you want to be Asian...

There was an implicit inference that I should hang out with my own. But who is that? Black people? White people? Jamaican-German-English people?

I have recently taken a double Honours module at university called Subject to Culture: Individuality and Identity, a seminar-based module designed to allow to critically assess their factors that contribute to our values, identities and sense of 'self'. Are we unique, different to others and autonomous? Or are our identities, on the other hand, shaped and moulded by a number of different cultural and social forces to which we must comply? Simply, whether our behaviour and thought processes are subject to culture.

One of the seminars concentrated on the "White Subject", looking at Richard Dyer's essays on whiteness. Dyer, a self-identified white man himself, explores the significance of using the term "white", which suggests that white is not a race but is instead a given and universal state of the human race. In other words, when we say coloured people, we do not mean white people; we mean non-white people. One is visible and the other is invisible.

Professor Richard Dyer

Dyer thus argues that being white is an invisible racial position, a position against which other ethnicities are examined and othered. White is granted. White is a position of power. Looking at representations of white people by whites in Western visual culture, whites, according to Dyer, are symbolised as pure, good and knowledgeable, which comes to form the cultural construction of whiteness as a racial category. Along with that, all of the symbolism associated with blackness becomes associated with “blacks” as a race. Also explored is the binary oppositions of one race and another when understanding race, i.e. whiteness vs. blackness, and the constructed normality of whiteness makes whiteness the privileged side of the opposition. 

It is Dyer's pursuit to make us see whiteness as strange rather than a benchmark for what is normal; to bring "white culture" into our consciousness rather than in comparison with other ethnicities. To see white as a colour.

Heavy stuff, huh? I wanted to use this opportunity in university to explore my racial position, my mixed-raceness and in fact explore whether such a thing actually exists. 

In this book, Dyer reflects on his own whiteness by referring to his childhood memories and adolescent experiences. In school, Dyer - who knew at this point that he was homosexual - found himself wanting to befriending one of few black boys in his school and being envious of his Jewish friend and his ethnicity. These friends were, too, part of an oppressed minority. He felt "at home" with this Jewish friend. 

Now, I've never really looked deep into the reasons for why I made friends with my Asian peers easily, but Dyer really did get me thinking. I don't fit into the "white box" or the "black box" and neither do my Asian friends. I felt that I didn't have to live up to any racial stereotypes around these friends. I didn't have to randomly speak patios to assert my blackness on others, for instance. I didn't place myself on the racial scale of blackness to whiteness. I found my own racial position. I could be me. 

At an Asian-themed birthday party.

One thing that has always grated me is being asked whether I'm more black or more white. I am asked as if it is something you can quantify and calculate. It would seem that people are referring to my behaviour. Do I act more black or more white? Why do I have to be one or the other? Either I'm "too white" or "not black enough". To this day, I have no idea what either of those comments mean. 

It would seem that I am defined by others in such purist and exclusive terms that I must be one ethnicity or the other, and not both. This demonstrates Dyer's ideas of races being binary opposites. If I am not black (if I do not "act black"), then I must be white ("act white"), and vice versa. It is as if my identity is being measured by virtue of being half black. According to Dyer, whiteness is invisible, it's not something you pick up on. But in my experience, being half black almost illuminates my white side. Being mixed race allows that invisibility of whiteness to become visible.

When speaking to my black peers, they see my afro hair and my non-white complexion. They see black. They suggest that mixed race people, by virtue of having "black blood", should be black, should act black. Well, tell me: how do you be or act black?

Looking at whiteness and blackness (in their binary opposite states), it is as if race - being white or being black - is just as performative as gender. Despite the colour of our skin, it seems to me that our behaviour creates our race. Race is constituted by that very behaviour. In my case, in order to be black - to identify with black people - I had/have to act a certain way. To me, race is an "act". Blackness and whiteness are not natural, but are a learned performance of identity.

I think Suki Ali, a mixed race researcher in Mixed Race Studies, is correct when saying that children don't see colour. It was as I grew up that I realised that I did not fit into either the whiteness or blackness categories. And I think that's okay. I've had to find my place, find my own racial position away from the pressure or expectations of others. And for that, I am grateful to have attended the school I went to.

The world we live in a dominated by racial ideology, organised by racial categories. I feel as if I, a mixed race girl living in the early 21st century, have an important mission in this life. After attending the premiere of Pratibha Parmar’s feature-length documentary film Alice Walker: Beauty in Truth, I wrote a reflexive article about Alice Walker. Every now and then, I think about Alice Walker's experiences in the age of "liberation" in the American South. I think about her courage as a black woman to marry and have a child with a white man at a time when segregation was lawful. I think about her courage.

In honour of Alice Walker.

Being mixed race is not only a mixture of two heritages but a symbol of cultural mixing and a symbol of change. A symbol that the treatment of race has come a long way but still has a long way to go. Maybe that's just my liberal voice speaking, but I am not afraid to speak my truth. I am not afraid to be me.

"In my work and in myself I reflect black people, women and men, as I reflect others. One day even the most self-protective ones will look into the mirror I provide and not be afraid." - Alice Walker