Exposé: ME: Because first and foremost I don’t want anyone to think that I believe I’m so enlightened and perfect. I’m learning and growing every single day. It’s important to note, that I’m not professional, this is simply my personal experiences and journey with internalized racism.
Little background on me. Female. Born in New Zealand, British mother, Samoan father. Growing up mainly surrounded by white family and culture, and very distanced from my Samoan heritage and identity.
I grew up with SO much internalized racism. I wanted SO BAD to be white. I thought I ‘didn’t see skin colour,’ and all that crap, until it became apparent to me that people apparently saw mine, and guess what – it wasn’t white.
Age Ten: My first memorable experience was when my lovely grandparents (whom I love and appreciate so much, and are yes, white), paid for me to go to an expensive private girl’s school. Up until this point I honestly don’t think I realized I was different, or that when people looked at me they saw ‘other,’ and not ‘us.’
On my very first day at this (overwhelmingly white) school my new teacher pulled me to one side and mentioned that some of the girls had been interested in beginning ‘cultural activities.’ Naive and ‘colour-blind,’ my first thoughts were, now why is she asking me? I never explicitly stated an interest in ‘cultural activities.’ Well-intentioned or not, she then proceeded to ask whether I would be interested in leading a Kapa Haka club. For those unfamiliar, Kapa Haka is Māori performing arts. Māori are the indigenous native people of New Zealand. I don’t have a single drop of Māori blood, but my brown Samoan skin caused the teacher to make the assumption. I was further confused and explained to her that I didn’t know anything about Kapa Haka, until it dawned on ten-year-old me that she had assumed I was Māori. I still clearly remember the feeling, and this is not an experience of overt racism, other people are woken up to this by much more violent means. But it’s this quieter, less obvious racism from well-meaning ‘good white people,’ that is so often swept under the rug. Particularly in Western culture.
My sisters and I often discuss the differential treatment we receive when we are out and about with our mum as opposed to our dad. When I was younger I didn’t see it as negative, I thought it was amusing, ‘look at the shop assistant looking at dad she doesn’t think he can afford anything.’ And perhaps only a few shop-keepers were obvious in their suspicion or rudeness, but it doesn’t mean the others weren’t thinking the same thing. A friend of mine at around age 16 got a job at a popular fashion chain store in which she told me her manager – white, specifically told the staff to ‘watch out for the brown girls, they steal stuff.’ I thought it would be funny to go in and pretend I didn’t know her, and her manager pulled her aside and asked her to ‘watch me.’ It was then that it hit a little harder, another defining moment in my slow realization to who I am. Her manager was perfectly lovely to me, and again I thought of going into shops with my father when we hadn’t had anyone been rude, but what were their secret thoughts?
Throughout High School, friends (well-meaning!?), have told me I was a ‘white girl’, and thus, one of them. I loved it. ‘We see you as white’ they said, ‘you’re one of us.’ I was in. I relished titles like ‘Oreo’. (Oreo = black/brown on the outside, ‘white’ on the inside). It was not until later in HS that I realized my ‘whiteness,’ was my ‘caucasian sounding voice and wide vocabulary’, as if reading is something exclusively white. Or speaking coherently. Or intelligence. The fact that I didn’t sound ‘uncultured or stupid’, meant – to them, that I sounded white.
How did I miss how wrong that was?
University rolls around and I am ashamed and embarrassed to be Samoan. I regard the Pasifika orientation, the scholarships with distaste. I made a Facebook status expressing my disgust about the additional scholarships crying that I just wanted to be the same. I didn’t want the extra help. I just wanted to be like all the other white people who weren’t singled out because of their ethnicity. ‘It’s about what you do with your opportunities, we all have the same opportunities,’ is likely something stupid I believed and clung to. A friend of mine, also Samoan, commented on my status about how people of colour are born immediately at a disadvantage and scholarships (etc.) are attempts to rectify this in a small way. My petty fake white ass rolled my eyes and deleted the entire status.
I still didn’t get it. I still didn’t understand.
A few weeks into University a white classmate asked me ‘did you even have to get University entrance?,’ referring to the fact that because I was Pasifika I likely just got ‘let in,’ on diversity grounds, or some other bullshit. I was furious. I was angry at being Samoan. I was mad to be a person of colour. ‘We’re all the same.’ I wanted to say. I was tired of being different when in my mind – I WAS WHITE! I’M ONE OF YOU! I’m not like them.
God, I weep for poor old uneducated me.
Through the years I’ve had guys, friends, strangers tell me that ‘I don’t look P.I.’ (P.I = Pacific Islander), and that I look Latino – as some sort of compliment. And guess what? I took it as a compliment. I’m so ashamed. I would smile when people told me I looked exotic, ‘are you half Brazilian?’ My mother’s family have some Spanish heritage, and I remember completely downplaying my Samoan heritage and blasting that. ‘I’m English, Spanish and Samoan,’ I would say, hoping they’d think the Pacific heritage was a meager 1/6th, or something unimportant.
In New Zealand, Samoan women are stereotyped as being loud, large, unattractive & unfeminine. I didn’t want to be that. I recently saw a post on Facebook that I snorted with laughter at, but also was like – oh god, that’s awful, that was 100% me:
For those unfamiliar, afakasi = a Samoan person with some European ancestry. (AKA someone like me). More on why positive representation is so important!!!!! – (I cried my eyes out in Moana) but that is a whole other post which you will see later!
Continuing on: My dad, Samoan – also suffered internalized racism and passed a lot on to me (sorry to expose you too lol, I do love you). When I was a kid he told me that ‘I better marry a white man, or ‘at least’ an Asian. Because Pacific men ‘beat their wives and are poor, fat, and stupid.’
I was born into and saw a white world. I thought I was right in there in that white world. It took me so long to realise how wrong I’ve been and how much I’ve missed of my rich, Samoan heritage. It took me so long to realize how goddamn racist I was!
I was one of those ‘safe ethnic friends,’ the one’s white people can wave around and claim they aren’t racist. The ones voting for Trump when it’s clearly against their own interests. The ones saying ‘But don’t be racist to white people as well you’re just as bad.’ The ones laughing at their white friends casually racist jokes, because ‘it’s a joke.’ Because they don’t want to be the angry, loud brown girl. Because they don’t want to be different. The ones validating racism.
Maybe you also have a lot of white friends that you purposely don’t bring up ‘difficult’ topics with. Even though these are the EXACT conversations you should be having with them. Perhaps you are one of the people, like me, who believed racism was only there in cases of extreme violence. Perhaps you let the ‘small things,’ slide, because you just want to fit in, you don’t want to be that loud brown girl pulling the ‘race card.’
There are many people that are just like me. Just like I was. People born into a system, a society, or families that have passed onto them internalized racism. Perhaps the society they grew up in held negative stereotypes and views toward their ethnicities, so they attempted to distance themselves. Maybe they didn’t want to be difficult, didn’t want to talk about or face uncomfortable truths.
Maybe they, just like I did, wanna be white so bad.