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#SLAR – Active Together Blog #1 – “You’re not really Chinese though, are you” – Identity and experience on a white University campus

This blog is a provocation written by Rhianna Garrett on her experiences as a student at the University. She is the lead fellow on a student-led anti-racism (SLAR) project, ‘Active Together‘, funded by the University Provost’s Office and supported by the Education Incubator. Their project seeks to create long-lasting positive effects on the way Exeter students approach discussions and engage with training about racial diversity and inclusion within sports and societies.

When I was 16, I got my first job in a Chinese restaurant. As a 16-year-old I did not understand racism, I did not understand my own identity, and I certainly was not in a position to complain. One of my jobs was to stand in the centre of the restaurant and wait for someone to need my assistance. I looked over to my left and there was a table of six young men, all cautiously looking in my direction and placing £50 notes in the centre of their table. Just before the men left one came up to me and asked me what race I was, I told them. They laughed and walked away. I later found out that that table of men were making bets about what race I was. At the time, this was a joke, and as a single 16-year-old not used to male attention, I looked past it. I look back on it now and just feel anger. I feel angry that those white men felt they had the right to assume my race rather than give me the agency to speak for myself.

With my mum and dad on holiday!

For a bit of context: my mother is Chinese, and my father is white, and I myself identity as both. Even the term mixed-race is slightly problematic, as pointed out by Chole Manuel, mentioned in her blog Mixed-Up: The Mixed-Race Experience. Terms are emerging such as ‘biracial’ or ‘dual-heritage’ that have more positive connotations. But it is an improvement from some of the other words people choose to use. “What are you”, “where are you REALLY from”, “half-caste”, “you’re not really Chinese though, are you”. These are just some of the things I hear on a regular basis as a mixed-race individual.

My older half-brother and I are the only two mixed-race people in our family that I am aware of. At family events we stick out quite a bit, and always feel ‘too Chinese’ in our white family’s company and ‘too white’ around our family in Singapore. This has led me to question if people perhaps pick to identify me with a certain racial group more when it suits them. For example, does it make some people more comfortable to consider me just white, or vice versa?

I got a lot of jokes growing up that I now see as extremely problematic. I had the privilege of playing polo in my first and second year of University. It was a huge part of my life, most of my friends played the sport and I even lived with them for a year. I was always described as the ‘token minority’… but the joke continued to comment on how “I am not even a full minority” and it was “as far as they were willing to go”. In other words, they used my ‘ethnic diversity’ when it suited them but preferred to see me as ‘white’ overall. These people made me feel ashamed of a huge part of my heritage. At our national’s competition, one of the girls proclaimed to me “you’re not really Chinese though, are you”. She said this like she had the authority to describe my race to me better than I could do it myself. As I started to become more aware of the racist attitudes that permeated my University’s walls, I became more and more uncomfortable about what other students thought about me, what I should be describing myself as in order to avoid the aggressions and microaggressions I was experiencing.

The main issue I had with some students was their denial of racism at the University, and even in the country. If you are one of those people, here is an example of the systemic racism still apparent in todays society. One of my good friends from home is also mixed-race from a Chinese and white background. His last name is ‘Cheung’ but when he got his first paid job, his parents advised him to double-barrel his last name to make it clear he was not fully Chinese. He told me that when he was younger, he felt it was something he could/should hide because of the systemic racism surrounding employment, and literally every other aspect in life. We share the same experiences of having other people feel they have the authority to talk about our experiences, having a huge part of our identities being belittled or discredited by someone who has zero right to do so.

Common phrases you should NOT use:

Political correctness is often insulted, the idea that people are so fragile they need to be protected and ‘can’t take a joke. It is called being respectful but using other words to describe it. I am getting sick of having to defend my right to not being insulted by racial slurs.

Mixed raced is now one of the fastest growing groups of the decade and represents larger societal issues of how race is viewed and discussed. A study by Guillaume and Christman (2020) pointed out how mixed-race students felt that they could not apply for scholarships specifically designed for one racial group, leading to internal struggles. There is little academic literature on the mixed-race experience, little support for mixed-race students on University campuses, and needs to be something we talk about to add to the discussion about race in the broader structure.

2020 was a depressing year for many, but it is also a unique learning experience. We learn from the lives of others in different social circumstances, we embrace difference, we feel the discomfort brought by reality, and we seek to change it.

Decolonising Incubator SLAR Projects Student Students

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