Monthly Archives: April 2011

Western Privilege and Interracial Relationships

Sara over at A Little Bit of That Too has been sharing a number of humorous and informative posts about her intercultural relationship and personal identity journey, which she is satirising via the Partner of a South Asian (POSA) Identity Development Model.

Her posts and comments by fellow bloggers made me think about the role of racial privilege in interracial relationships. I’m sharing these thoughts here as many of the twists and turns between me and L are very much associated with our relative experiences of racial privilege/disadvantage:

I would love to hear more about other people’s experiences of white privilege in their relationships, because it’s been such a source of tension between me and my partner. While I’m not white, I’m certainly ‘whiter’ than him. I’ve grown up in the west with all its privileges, including material wealth and stability. I’ve never experienced racism in finding employment, in dealing with bureaucracies or police, in obtaining visas and moving freely around the world etc…. My partner on the other hand, is a black African guy in a country where (African) blackness is still rare, poorly understood and exoticised.  He has not only experienced prolonged institutional racism via the immigration system, but also everyday racism, often from people in positions of power associated with governance institutions (especially police), not to mention the racism he’s faced in finding employment.

All this has made L very suspicious of what he calls ‘white’ institutions – governments, police, schools, employment organisations,  welfare organisations…the list goes on and on. He sees all of these as instruments of control and gets extremely frustrated with me when I show any kind of trust in them (e.g. an African friend of his went missing for a bit once, and my immediate reaction was to go to the police). It reminds him that I’m in a position where I can work these institutions to my advantage, whereas he feels targeted by them.  And it exposes the gulf between us – while I may be critical of these institutions and institutional racism in theory, I can remain aloof to them in practice. He has no such luxury.

For a guy as well, I guess it can be quite emasculating to struggle for things that everyone else (i.e. those with ‘white’ privilege) takes for granted – like finding employment and securing a stable income. (This is some conjecture on my part – he is quite vocal on issues of racism but silent on issues of masculinity). When these frustrations really build up, he can express some pretty intense anger towards white people, and their taken-for-granted privilege; an anger which is directed at me in our heated debates. “You have such a white colonial mindset, thinking you know better than me what’s good for me”. I’ve asked him to please not bring global race relations and world politics into our personal arguments, but again this request is a function of privilege – the privilege of assuming that racial power relations play out in a political realm that is somehow independent of our personal lives and every day existence. Geez, my reasoning sounds pathetic even to me: “I don’t go around saying that you have a black mindset, so please stop commenting on my race” (read: “I can’t help that I’m privileged, just like you can’t help that you’re black”).

As he gets so personal and argumentative when discussing politics, I’ve deliberately stopped conversations on current events. Palestine/Israel; the west’s hypocrisy in focusing on China’s human rights record given their own doubtful human rights record; the west’s recent vilification of Libyan leader Colonel Gaddafi…these have become NO GO topics, even though we actually hold very similar political views.

Anyway…blaaahhhh…I guess all I’m trying to say is that I find this a very difficult issue to negotiate!

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Filed under Interracial Relationships, Race, Racism, Western Privilege

Beauty, Skin Colour and Race

I was shocked yesterday when L told me that during his school days, it was common for both primary and high schools to run beauty contests for female students, swimsuit parade and all.

The closest thing to a beauty contest I can remember from school is the Grade 1 Nativity Play. All of us knew that the teacher would pick the cutest girl and guy to be Mary and Joseph. (Yes, we were conscious of our looks even as 5 year olds.) Meanwhile the rest of us lined the stage in white dresses and shirts shining torches into our faces (as angels of course, not ghosts ;)).

Like any pre-teen and teenaged girl, beauty was always a very raw and painful concept for me. High school was full of informal beauty and popularity contests – a formal one would have been crushing. The fact that I went to a predominantly white primary school and high school (single sex to boot) probably didn’t help the self-esteem cause. Moving to Sydney, a larger, more culturally diverse city, in my late teens certainly did.

During my recent blog-stalking forays (which I assure you are still on…), I came across posts by Shreeman over at Bideshi Biya and Between Worlds about their children’s desires to have white skin. Their posts brought back memories of sticking my arm out to my parents as a 5 year old and saying, “See this, I don’t want it, how come it’s not white like everyone else?”

Years later, mum told me how hurtful this question had been, how it had made her and dad doubt their decision to move to a lonely country on the other side of the world where, at least during those early years, they struggled to find acceptance in the wider community (particularly in terms of employment).

Difference is confusing for children. Especially if they’re the only one who is ‘different’ and they are not exposed to cultural diversity beyond their immediate family. But I remember it also being exhilarating; a source of wonder. I would walk to kindergarten thinking how bizarre it was that my parents came from this entirely different country, which I really knew nothing about. Being so young, I took my own life for granted, so the wonder was in the fact that my parents came from somewhere else and were different from all my friends’ parents, not in the fact that I ended up in Australia with all the friends I have.

As I grew older I began to see myself as different as well, especially in terms of appearance – a concept of difference which was no longer tempered by the surreal wonderment of earlier years.

The mainstream notion of beauty in the Australia of my childhood, and in Australia today, is the (straight) blonde-haired, blue-eyed bombshell. Whether we’re talking about the fun blonde or the sultry brunette, Australian notions of beauty are very much based on Western European/Anglo ethnic features. Indeed, cosmetic surgeries and enhancements predominantly focus on changing features which don’t fit into normative standards of beauty – large noses, frizzy hair, unwanted fat, unwanted body hair. Features usually associated with a non-white ‘ethnic’ look (except for maybe unwanted fat). On top of this, popular psychology tells us that we should make these cosmetic changes for the sake of our psychological wellbeing!

As technology advances, it seems that we’re increasingly ‘smoothing out’ our offensive features rather than embracing difference and diversifying our concept of beauty. It is scary to consider, if the genetic technology ever becomes available, whether people will choose white ethnic features for their unborn babies, particularly as that dominant image becomes more attainable, and any ‘deviating’ image becomes a sign of difference/low class/undesirable ethnicity etc . Many of these deviating features are already considered undesirable and unattractive – my Vietnamese-Australian beautician in Sydney even sells nipple whitening cream. Which makes me think: would non-white parents also chose, if they could, white ethnic features for their unborn children?

I may sound a bit extreme but this stuff really played on my mind as a teenager, and (obviously) these anxieties have not completely disappeared. Of course most people have self-image issues at that age. But for anybody who is not white, there is always the added bitterness of knowing that no matter how many products you buy, how much you spend on surgery, how many trips you make to straighten your hair…that underlying ideal equating femininity with fairness and white ethnic features is essentially unattainable because you cannot, at the end of the day, change your genes or change your skin colour (Michael Jackson tricks aside…though his is a classic case of adolescent race-based anxieties informing a lifelong obsession with his face/looks). There was a time when even the term ‘fairer sex’ would bring on tears of frustration, for the simple reason that it excludes me and anybody like me (i.e. not white) from feminine beauty’s first criteria.

Hopefully, before technology advances too far, our society will embrace all types of weird and wonderful human forms as beautiful. Otherwise we’re in for scary times.

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Filed under Adolescence, Beauty, Race

COOL Vs DAGGY

I’m a dag: a nerdy, wordy, bookish kinda gal who spends more time than she should dancing to 80s and 90s pop. (Ahem…thank-goodness-this-blog-is-annonymous!)

One thing I love about being with L, albeit on a rather superficial level, is the fact that he can’t tell the difference between indy-folk-‘local’ music (uber cool) and American-style-big-named pop (not cool). I’m not sure whether this is a cultural or personal thing, but to L, all Western music sounds pretty similar.

This is great news for me because it means that while L is on the computer studying, I can thump out the back of his chair to the likes of ‘Girls Just Wanna Have Fun’ blasting from YouTube. And all this without (I think…?!) losing his respect.

Dancing to me is fantastic stress relief. I’m not sure though, how this covert 80s and 90s fetish would go down if I was with a too-cool-for-school-Radiohead-loving guy (with all due love and respect to my friends :)).

L has always been genuine with me, without ever feeling the need to prove himself. Maybe this is all a part of being intimate – attracting and loving each other at our daggiest, rather than impressing each other at our wittiest.

Not that L is daggy. His taste in music is much more meaningful than mine – e.g. Zimbabwean folk songs recounting exchanges between sorcerers and healers (how can Cindy Lauper compete with that?!). And while he puts up with my not-so-groovy moves, he sure as hell draws the line at my not-so-in-tune-tunes:

Me (getting into bed): Caaan you feeeel the looove toniiiight.

L: Stop making noise darling.

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Filed under Cultural Difference, Music and Dance

Family Gossip, Acceptance and Racism

As I’ve said before on this blog, I’ve never really considered L and me to be in an ‘intercultural’ relationship. Cultural differences don’t figure that much in our day-to-day lives (unless you count our heated differences of opinion!), or even in our plans and hopes for the future. Yet I started this blog because I closely identify with issues being discussed on existing intercultural relationship blogs. Reflecting on my responses to other bloggers, I’m increasingly realising that it’s more my relationship with my parents that is ‘intercultural’ than my relationship with L.

This observation must be obvious to anybody who knows me. But as L and I are going through a tumultuous, uncertain time at the moment, I’ve managed to forget for a while the equally pressing issue of whether my family will ever actually accept him. When I was still living with my parents, I often aggressively confronted them about their (non)acceptance of L. Unsurprisingly, given my juvenile mode of communication, this never turned around their attitude towards L. But until reading some stories in the intercultural blogging world (thanks to all bloggers who share their experience :)), I haven’t directly confronted the question of broader family acceptance, beyond a tacit recognition that it will never occur without a bunch of relatives I don’t really like gossiping and judging me behind my back.

Don’t get me wrong – my parents’ acceptance is the thing that means the most to me. Neither of my parents are gossipers, and they’ve brought me up with the belief that uninformed gossip and judgement of others is distasteful at best, and harmful at worse (i.e. it’s bad bad karma). Since moving to the same city as certain members of the extended family in my teens, I have actively avoided having to spend time with them. I certainly have not confided in them regarding my relationship. Unfortunately though, as my mum likes to say, you might avoid the gossip but the gossip never avoids you.  These loud-mouth relatives are an integral part of my parents’ social world, and without ever reflecting on it explicitly, I have even convinced L to follow me to the other side of the country in the hope that we can be together without having to deal with the hurtful comments of ignorant aunts and uncles. (So much for my self-professed claims that I don’t care what other people think!)

One aunt in particular comes to mind. She is well-known for her hospitality, particularly towards nieces and nephews who have just arrived in Australia, but at the same time she is just as well-known for judging and criticising these same guests behind their back – down to their looks, the shade of their skin, the fact that they are overstaying their welcome. This might seem like an irrelevant aside, but I’m struggling to understand why people act like this (I’m probably indulging in ‘uninformed gossip and judgement’ right now…my parents would be disappointed).

In particular, I find it unsettling that a lot of ‘ignorant aunt’ comments I hear are blatantly racist, especially towards black people, and I’m hesitant to expose L to this. My mum has expressed some racist views too, but at least I’m close enough to her to challenge them (topic for another post). I’m quite happy to confront other family members on their views…if I share any trait with my family, it has to be my sharp tongue. But alas – I can only express my witty, sophisticated responses in English, a language not fluently understood by middle-aged relatives (at least not to the point where they pick up on ironies and nuances in meaning). And alas – it’s not just particular relatives in Australia, I’ve noticed that a lot of relatives in South Asia can hardly talk about black people without throwing in some kind of derogatory, racist remark. Here are just a few examples to illustrate my point (I’ve thought long and hard about expressing racist views on this blog, but I can’t really talk about them without tackling them directly):

Example 1 – A visiting uncle from America describing African Americans as lazy and crime-prone (that’s the toned-down version). I was in my late teens when this occurred and decided to argue the point with him…he was quite shocked at the ferocity of my attack (‘what’s so racist about stating the truth?’) and I was reduced to tears about the fact that somebody I am related to could be so ignorant (I had just been exposed to the rest of the family at this time ;))

Example 2 – Aunt commenting about Zimbabwean opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai’s appearance  on the evening news. “Look at him, his skin’s like that, his face is like that.” Fortunately her husband jumped in and pointed out that the guy has been tortured numerous times…

Example 3 – Uncle in South Asia…without giving away the details because I don’t want this post to appear on google searchers by crazy white *supremacists, let’s just say he drew parallels between certain types of people and certain types of primates. This time his daughter, who had just returned from studying in America, confronted him and countered his argument (not that it changed his views). And this guy is an urban, educated college professor…

Example 4 – Aunt in South Asia going through her daughter’s wedding album with me. She spoke proudly of all the white and brown-skinned guests at the wedding, but then gave an embarrassed laugh and skipped quickly over photos of the black guests…they’re ‘just the guys’ her daughter worked with last year at UN.

To give an idea of how unthinkable it is amongst the extended family to marry somebody black, at family dinners some of my cousins will mercilessly tease their parents with the “I’ll marry a black Muslim” jaunt. Apparently this is the ultimate threat, but always said in jest because everyone implicitly agrees it will never happen. Again in this view black people are not acknowledged beyond the colour of their skin; there blackness is instead a currency, a barometer-measure of a person’s intended (never actual) rebellion against parental expectations.

I wonder why there’s such a tendency towards racism amongst South Asians, and I have found myself increasingly resentful of the extended family as, over the years, they have heard through the grapevine that I’m with L and have taken the opportunity to throw in snide remarks here and there. People will always talk, but obviously the nature of the talk would be very different (and much less hurtful) if I was with a fair-but-brown-skinned Brahmin doctor. I would love to heal the rift with my parents, but if I’m going to be honest, as long as my parents live in the same city as extended family I wouldn’t want L and I living there, or if we do I can’t imagine ever socialising with these relatives in a positive way.

The irony here is that the extended family is not rejecting me for who I’m with – at the end of the day, as long as I’m not their own daughter, they don’t care beyond the juicy gossiping opportunities L and I create. Instead, I find myself rejecting THEM for who I’m with, partly out of growing frustration at their ingrained racism, and correspondingly out of a desire to shield L from such unacceptable views.

Perhaps, in this matter, I am the one who has to accept them?

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Filed under Cultural Difference, Family Acceptance, Interracial Relationships, Parents, Race, Racism, South Asian Marriage