Do you see me as a person of colour?
Why I have a complicated relationship with the term.
Identity is one of the most politically charged words of our current era. Racialised individuals who have become increasingly under attack in the Trump / Brexit era have increasingly sought to defend their identities as people of colour (POC). They have sought to carve out their own spaces where they are allowed to be themselves and feel comfortable. And rightly so. Everybody is entitled to the feeling of freedom and safety, especially in a world that is so hostile to people who differ from the norm.
However, my personal relationship to this term is one littered with confusion and ambiguity. These feelings stem from my inability to fully identify myself ethnically on any kind of binary terms.
I grew up in the UK as someone of mixed English, Welsh and Japanese descent. As a child, my Japanese side was more pronounced. I can recall many times when classmates had mocked my so-called Asian eyes. Placing their fingers to the top of their forehead, they would slant their eyes when I told them I was Japanese. At the time, I knew it was wrong. I felt dehumanised and taunted for my appearance. However, as I moved school often and most often found myself as an outsider, I would often pretend as if it didn’t affect me. I was always the new kid and I became used to laughing this off. I needed to be liked and loved to survive in the concrete jungles of the north London scholastic system.
Unfortunately, this is a story that is familiar to many people of East Asian descent. It can happen in places that are supposed to serve as bastions for progressive thought such as my university campus. It can happen in the places that are regarded as our most intimate of sanctuaries such as one’s family home.
For me, I found that school was the venue in which such racialised experiences would most occur. For example, the Jap slur, which is historically steeped in racist rhetoric against Japanese people, was either directed at me or said in class by those who were ignorant of its history. Again, this was a time where I felt I had to keep my British stiff upper lack intact, for fear of inviting unwanted negative attention towards my Japanese side.
However, as I have matured and grown my appearance has changed. Your identity is not just how the perception of your self but also how others see you. Puberty has appeared to have bleached my skin pale. I am now increasingly seen as someone who would not have experienced racism.
A Night Out Turned Sour
This interpretation of how others perceive me was crystallised in a nightclub in Dalston at a queer PoC event called Pxssy Palace. Set up as a space prioritising womxn and queer, intersex and trans people of colour, I was there as a guest of someone who partly identifies themselves under these brackets. As soon as I entered the space, I felt comfortable. I am fully aware that this was in some ways a space that was not designed for me. However, the fact that not only was it a queer space but also one for people who weren’t white, meant that as the night progressed I felt as if I’d finally found a nighttime space that I could truly be free in.
This was a space where nobody would comment or mimic the shape of my eyes. This was a space where my fellow nighttime freedom seekers would not chat me up by randomly shouting Japanese words at me, as has happened in other predominantly white LGBT nightclubs. This was a space where being queer and not part of the white majority is normalised.
However, what happened next ripped out the comfortable carpet from under my feet.
I was dancing when a person came up to me and started to shout in my ear. The music was so loud and I was having such a good time that I couldn’t properly hear what they were saying. I leant in closer to them, expecting a playful comment about my dancing skills (or lack of) or a mention about the outfit I was wearing that night. Both of these I had received from others at the event. People here were unusually friendly, especially for a place like London I thought.
I was under this impression until they angrily said “Let people of colour dance in the front”.
It’s comments like these that flip the conception of my identity on its head. At that moment, I felt so embarrassed. I felt that I had unashamedly had fun in a space that was not meant for me. However, at the same time, part of me thought that this was a space where I should be welcome. I am someone of mixed descent and I am queer. Yet, I was made to feel like I was intruding upon a space that was not mine.
With my unwanted identity issues bubbling up to surface once again, I decided to leave early. Although I had no idea who this person was, and if she was in any way affiliated with Pxssy Palace, I was upset. I didn’t want to stay in this place I had sanctified just moments before. I got my coat from the cloakroom and headed out the door into the dour duskiness of the London night.
Night Bus Reflections
Sitting on the night bus home, I had time to reflect on what had just happened. I came to understand why I had been asked to step aside at this event. POC experience all kinds of forms of racism in the UK from its structural forms to unconscious bias. Due to the fact that I am white-passing, I am fully aware that I circumvent some of this.
I have and will most likely bypass the pains of being stop and searched, being treated like a shoplifter in a shop or being refused entry to a venue for no good reason. Mostly, I feel comfortable if I find myself in all-white circles. This may be due to the kind of people I choose to surround myself with. However, I am aware that this “at home feeling” is a mark of the privilege of being white-passing.
Despite this, being racialised as white frustrates me.
Whilst I admit I have not experienced any structural forms of racism in the UK, these remarks blot out the other instances where other forms of discrimination has occurred. For example, it erases the experiences that I have detailed above where my ethnicity has been fetishised, mocked or taunted. I have experienced racism and I will most likely experience it again. Unfortunately, it no longer shocks me when someone comments on the shape of my eyes.
This leads us to the much debated question as to who gets the identify as PoC. Specifically, do Asians and their mixed counterparts have ownership over the moniker? If we identify PoC as those who have experienced systemic racism, then arguably, yes. In this Observer report, for example, it is illustrated how British Chinese people, who make up the brunt of the British East Asian demography, experience the highest levels of harassment amongst all other ethnic minorities.
Moreover, whilst we must acknowledge the privilege of passing as white that some biracial Asians have, it is important to note that biracial East Asians like yours truly have our own unique experiences of discrimination. My experience of discrimination at school and the numerous times when I am asked “where are you really from?” are times when my Asianness outstrips my whiteness. Conversely, when I am told to move aside at a PoC event due to my whiteness and when the bank clerk doesn’t believe that I am Japanese, my whiteness negates my Japanese side. Being attacked on both sides can make it feel like there is nowhere to go, no safe haven for people like me.
As a result of this, I cannot fully identify myself with any ethnicity. I feel as as if I am both British and Japanese, yet I am treated as if I am neither. It is due to my blend of experiences that I feel unable to accurately pinpoint my place on the privilege conversation. It is identification issues such as these along with racial discrimination that has resulted in Biracial Asian Americans having a higher proportion of mental health problems than their mono-racial peers according to a 2008 study by UC Davis.
It is time that we stop considering mixed race people as not black/Asian/ white etc enough. It is this kind of attitudes that have warped our perception of race and thus the term people of colour. It has created a binary where people like me are placed on the outside of a term that is meant to breed solidarity between racially discriminated people. Depending on my environment, my identity is in constant flux. The POC label needs to start acknowledging how this can happen before I can feel truly comfortable with the term.
When I finally got home, I laid in bed, unable to sleep. The steady hum of cars and buses as they passed by my window kept me awake with my thoughts. As a queer, white-passing mixed British East Asian, I am a minority within a minority. But due to the complexity of my identity, I feel unable to identify with the term POC. This leads me to back to the place where I have always been. I’ll always be on the outside, on the periphery of all the communities that make up my identity.
As I slowly drifted off to the sleep, I wondered if there will ever be a space where I can truly feel free.
To this day, I am still waiting.