“What are you?”

 

My father’s lips form words that spell stranger to my ears.

Foreign and uneasy on my tongue is to him, home.

But how is his not my own?

My mother’s fair skin a contrast when our arms align.

A friend of mine mistaken for her daughter.

“You don’t look alike at all?”

In this instance two halves don’t make a whole.

Mixed.

Advertisements

But like, where are you froooom?

*note: the majority of this post is based on interactions at different places I’ve worked at, usually with white people 35+

 

Smiling white faces: “So where are you from?”

 

I smile back, giving an answer I know is definitely not the one that they are looking for, “New Zealand.” or sometimes, “Wellington.” Occasionally that will satisfy them, as they go on to announce that “Oh you’re a Māori!” sometimes followed by a congratulatory look to one among them that presumed I was before approaching me.

“No, I’m not.” – and no, these days I often don’t pre-answer the questions I know will follow. I’m tired of it and honestly my first answer should be enough. New Zealand is where I am from, I’m a Kiwi.

*Puzzled expressions follow*

I wait for the inevitable: “Oh but where are you really from?” or “What’s your background?” or the classic “What are your parents?” And no, not their occupations. I’m not sure about you Captain Cook Jr., but I’m pretty sure my parents are people.

My personal favourite is “What are you?” – I could be many things, the first being absolutely tired to death of this conversation and envisioning you walking out the door.

“My mother’s family is originally from England-” I pause, and they look at me expectantly to continue, because that is not the part they care about and everyone knows that. “-and my father is from Samoa.” “Aha!” they exclaim. They tell me excitedly “I went to Samoa on vacation once,” (probably pronouncing it Sih-mow-ah). “Such a beautiful country!” Or a personal favourite is when they list off random Samoan colleagues they have had, or a half Samoan third removed niece that maybe I know. Or that they really like The Rock.

What am I meant to say? “Oh my goodness I really love Leonardo DiCaprio and Chris Pine?” List off random white people?

“I used to work with this Samoan guy, he was sooo funny. We used to -”

How am I meant to respond? By telling you white colleagues I’ve worked with? Will we then have something in common?

Usually this happens at a place of work or in a context that I have to nod and smile and say “Samoa’s beautiful isn’t it, (despite the sad fact that I’ve never yet been, only adding to my discomfort at my perceived failed identity), and yes the Rock’s cool!” They smile and wave, go about their day feeling proud that they made a ‘cultural connection,’ with me. Or stand and wait for their gold star for liking something of ‘my culture’ (or just simply knowing something of it). 

I’d like to pause for a second to state that this has nothing to do with not being proud of my Samoan heritage. I’m very proud to be Samoan, and despite being disconnected from my culture for so many years I am slowly trying to learn things that I have missed. The issue here is people of colour’s national identities in Western countries being questioned or erased due to their non-whiteness. When a Polynesian – or other poc asks me my ethnicity, I will say NZ Samoan! Because they are not asking the question from the perspective that I do not belong. That I am other. That I am not from here. They are not wondering if my dad was an overstayer (but I mean he was though lmao).

When a white person asks where I am from they often do not care that I am from New Zealand. They do not care that I was born in Wellington, and the answer they are not looking for is “Wellington Hospital,” or “Out of my mother.” They are wanting to find out the part of me that makes me not white.

Because it’s “exotic,” I’ve heard countless times. And naively people do believe this is a compliment. I used to think it was! Do you know what that word is actually defined as? According to my friend http://www.dictionary.com it means:

Of foreign origin or character; not native; introduced from abroad, but not fully naturalized or acclimatized.”

No fully naturalized or acclimatized.

Not fully belonging.

I’ve had friends tell me that I’m lucky I have ‘something in me,’ because they wish they weren’t ‘plain white.’ People over the years – and today, tell me that if I have children with another mixed race person, or a white man, my kids will be beautiful. Because to them, Pasifika identity on its own is not beautiful. But add a splash of white and it’s exotic, desirable, fetishized. I’ve had people tell me that I ‘don’t look that Samoan.’ And they have meant it as a compliment, even going so far as to state that it’s cool I have some ‘European features but with a lovely tan!!’ You know that you’re just saying that it’s the white blood in me that makes me attractive to you? Oh but the tan? You can get one at your local salon without the years of racial oppression that come with it!!! Go ahead girl!

Do you know how many people ask my European NZ friends, family members or colleagues where they are from? Pretty much none. Or if they’re asked the first answer they respond with is accepted without question. Or they person asking means ‘what City.’ This curiosity behind where are you really from is almost exclusively reserved for people of colour. (And it’s important to note that this entire post is based on the fact that I am a Kiwi, and I have a New Zealand accent. If you are a European person living in New Zealand with a distinctly German accent – for example – that’s a completely different story if someone asks where you’re from. Because there is always someone that will try to discredit people of colour’s experiences – I’m just preempting it).

The issue behind the question of where are you from is the constant placing of anyone of colour as being other. Of being made to feel foreign in their own countries. Being consistently asked this places doubt on my identity as a New Zealander, as if it is somewhat invalidated due to my Samoan heritage. Not to mention the fact that it causes me guilt over my disconnection with my Samoan identity and culture. In short, being asked this question so frequently makes me feel like I have neither identity. I cannot be fully New Zealand Kiwi, and I cannot also be Samoan. I am neither.

The question of ‘where are you from,’ is one that anyone of colour has heard multiple times, daily, weekly, monthly, yearly. And it’s not a big deal some may say, but when people’s first impression of you is that you are other, a stranger in your own country, this has real-life implications. Whether it is in a social setting and you are avoided, or people begin conversation with you differently than white people in a room. Whether you are applying for a job, and know that your appearance causes you to be at a disadvantage, or maybe your name. When people constantly question your legitimacy as a person of a particular identity.

Some people say that they don’t see race. But when you are the only non-white person in the middle of the room please do not for a second tell me that no one sees that. If I was in a picture with all white friends and someone said ‘spot the difference,’ – what’s the first thing you’d spot? Honestly.

I’ve had white friends in situations where they are the only white person, or only one of a few and they immediately express their discomfort and concern. At my University some of my white friends won’t even go on the second floor because that’s where ‘all the brown people hang.’ For other people this isn’t a one off situation they can avoid, but their daily life. It doesn’t feel good when people constantly imply that you don’t belong in the country of your birth, (particularly when you don’t fully feel you belong to the country they believe you belong to).

When people say ‘what are you,’ to me – they are not asking whether or not I am human. They are not asking my nationality. They aren’t looking for whether I was born in Auckland or Wellington (if they even believe I was at all). They are seeking out my ‘other.’

For white people in particular, I challenge you to reconsider your intentions when you are asking a person of colour where they are from – (and I mean pushing it further once they’ve answered). Consider that the need for your curiosity to be fulfilled may have an actual impact on the person you are asking. Do you really need to know?

Now I can’t and don’t speak for everyone. Some people are probably more than fine for people to ask their ethnicity, the blood type of their third grandfather, and their home address. I speak for me. I’m simply here to share my own thoughts, feelings and experiences. Maybe generate thoughts you may not have had.

All humans have an innate longing to belong, to feel a sense of community, to find home. For myself, finding a sense of balance between my Pasifika identity – Samoa, and New Zealand is a constant journey. I still feel largely uncomfortable and aware of my failure to ‘participate’ in both groups. To many Samoans I am ‘not Samoan enough,’ but for white people – I’ll never be one of them. #afakasiproblems.

Perhaps the tone of this post was a little more angry than the previous, because that’s what I am – frustrated. On a positive note I’m finally going to be travelling to Samoa (first time!!!!!!!!!!!!) at the end of this year, and I cannot WAIT.

 

I don’t see skin colour

ZmI2ZWJkMDY2YiMvWGZ5dElISXc5ekUwdF9zX0REdEJ2WTUzUTJFPS8xNDV4MTM4Mjo3MDYyeDYzNDAvNjIxeDQ0Ni9maWx0ZXJzOnF1YWxpdHkoNzApL2h0dHA6Ly9zMy5hbWF6b25hd3MuY29tL3BvbGljeW1pYy1pbWFnZXMvd3prcmFvc2RycT

Featured Image Credit: Chris Buck

When someone says the word “Nude,” what are the first images that spring to mind? Nudity, naked bodies, art. What if I were to add another word to that – colour.

Nude Colour – now what?

If you don’t stop to think too hard a lot of you may have thought of peachy pastel lipsticks, pinky nail polish, light colours and muted carpet tones.

If you are someone that does not think skin colour representation is important than perhaps you have realized something even within those few words. I, as a brown woman, still unconsciously think of the colour nude as synonymous with white skin. (Something I am trying to re-learn!) You don’t see a lipstick called ‘Natural Nude’ that’s a dark brown colour.

When I was a child I remember asking my mother at Ballet class why the pinky coloured tights were called ‘skin colour.’ They weren’t my skin colour, and my legs looked strangely pale in contrast with my arms when I wore them under my leotard.
At primary school we’d say, ‘pass the skin colour pencil,’ and do you know what colour we meant? The peachy pink one. Because white was skin colour. The norm. Other colours were tan, beige, brown, black. Other.

Not so long ago my co-worker was looking at my tinted moisturizer, named ‘medium,’ and asking about how good the product was. I told her I loved it, aside from the fact that this was the darkest shade they made. So in Summer/when I am more tanned I have to buy another brand. It’s true that make-up has become a lot more ‘diverse’ these days, but there are still a large number of brands that think that all non-white people come in two or three shades. (Anyone that has some good make-up recommendations that have a broad colour range – shout out!)

As a child I had boxes of Barbie dolls all with pale skin that didn’t look like mine. The closest I’d get would be one with at least dark hair (but always silky smooth straight, or those perfect curls that nobody wakes up with, or at least not me). Where are my frizzy haired Barbies at? Just this year I was making my sister a ‘Barbie Cake’ for her birthday. The princess style one with the dress as the cake base. I surveyed a local Warehouse and I again chose out one with darker hair (they all had pale skin), because that’s what I was used to. Picking at little bits and pieces to form identification. Something vaguely similar to me was an achievement.

My favourite Disney Princess was undoubtedly Belle. Mostly for her love of books and a tinier portion for her brown hair. The golden locks of Cinderella or Aurora were not really someone that I could completely identify with. I couldn’t dress up as either of them at kids birthday parties. I mean I couldn’t really dress as Belle either – but I worked with what I had!

Now imagine little girl me being able to watch Moana.

I watched it on the opening day (of course), and pinched my thighs to quell the embarrassing welling of emotional tears that happened within the first few minutes. The entire time I was thinking imagine if I’d seen this when I was a kid! I was consciously searching out for the little Pacific Island girls in the movie theatre and getting all torn up and emotional watching them. I spent half my time studying their reactions. I spent the other half looking down the row at my dad and three sisters.

Did they feel what I was feeling?

My father got excited telling us when they sung in Samoan, whispering translations and trying to tell us about the songs. (He never gets excited in films – he always falls asleep). To this day the only two films I’ve seen him stay awake for are Big Hero 6 and Moana. In the movie theatre a white father and son behind us were discussing if The Rock was Tongan. I stifled laughter as my dad’s face strained and I knew he was was 0.001 seconds away from turning around and telling them he was Samoan.

You know why? Because he was proud.

Because being a poc you are often subject to negative images of your race and therefore are less proud of it. Because being a poc you may not even see any representation of your race at all. It’s a rarity.

REPRESENTATION IS IMPORTANT.

POSITIVE REPRESENTATION IS IMPORTANT.

I saw a post awhile ago asking ‘when you read books how do you picture the main character.’ And I always pictured them as white when the race wasn’t mentioned because that was the ‘default’. White was the norm and anything other had to be specified. That was how it was in my mind because that is how I saw it portrayed in the world.

For the majority of television programs and movies, people of colour are only depicted as minor side characters. As a plot device to move a storyline forward for the white protagonist(s). Their roles often racist and reinforcing existing negative stereotypes. They are frequently used for comedic purposes, used as a caricature. (And let’s not get started on whitewashing that’s a whole other post!).

Growing up representation on screen for me was more like ‘how many Pacific Island crime stories can I count at 7 O’Clock’. For me, it was seeing a crime reported on the news and inwardly going please don’t be a Pacific Islander/Māori. The other day at work someone broke into a bunch of cars and as I was looking through the footage, I felt this awful sinking feeling when I saw the boy and his brown skin. When my co-worker reported him to the police as ‘Pacific Island/Māori,’ I thought of the accompanying description flashing on the television as I’d seen so many times. I thought of people in their living rooms watching and saying ‘oh look another P.I./Māori crim what a surprise’.

Because when people of colour are criminals it reinforces negative stereotypes about their entire race. If it is a white man on the news that committed robbery, people don’t nod at their screens and go ‘oh white men.’ They don’t subconsciously side-eye their white male co-worker the next day. They don’t hold their bag tighter when they bypass a white male on the street. When white people are criminals, or make negative decisions, this is blamed on them personally. Their own individual circumstances – not their entire race. For people of colour every act is one that represents us entirely. And if the majority of our representation is negative, then what will our overall perception be?

I found this a lot at University, being singled out for the ‘minority opinion.’ In lectures and tutorials that spoke specifically about race, I felt the pressure of my answer having to somehow encompass the thoughts of every single woman of colour. Because it was not my words, not my own personal opinion, but for all of us. God forbid I say something wrong and incriminate everyone.

White people commonly make statements such as ‘I don’t see colour,’ or ‘race is a societal construction.’ That is because their skin colour is something that has rarely ever mattered. They don’t ever worry that they may lose out on a job opportunity for their race. If they don’t get it – they weren’t good enough. They don’t worry that their race will make them a less viable candidate for a rental home. They aren’t concerned that they will be racially profiled by police. They don’t worry that they won’t find a doll in a store that looks like them or their kid – they’ll find hundreds. If they need a new foundation, if they cut their finger, if they need new tights. They’ll find plenty of options to suit, plenty of brands to decide between. (Oh yes that’s another thing, ‘skin coloured’ band-aids/plasters).

The truth is, that when you say you don’t see race, you’re not combating racism – you are ignoring it. You are privileged enough (or ignorant, or both) to make this statement. Pretending colour doesn’t matter is not going to make racism disappear. Saying you’re ‘colour blind’ shuts down important conversations about race. Talking about it, educating ourselves, and being aware of even the little ‘insignificant,’ things are all vital in moving toward a more inclusive world.

I can’t wait for more positive representation of people of colour, for more diversity in all areas of life – even those that seem as insignificant as a child’s doll.

I see colour – all of it, and it’s beautiful.

Featured

Internalized Racism, Exposé: ME

Internalized Racism

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.

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:

17690814_10210773280799711_879512108_n

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.