On repeated erasure

I’ve written about “yellow” people being invisible. Being ignored, erased, invisible, unheard. I used the word yellow, offensive as many find it, because we are not black or brown, “oriental” objectifies us, and hardly anyone knows what “East Asian” really means when they use the term. The census and data collection forms only have a box for Chinese, and everyone else goes into “Other”. We hardly exist. “Is yellow too pale a colour to shout about?” I asked.

In the past 24 hours or so

I was reminded that, in a significant 2016 report about racial inequality, my race was changed from East Asian (I am racially Chinese) to South Asian, and my gender from male to female. When this massively important report was reported about in The Guardian, this male person had “become” black. Thankfully, The Guardian, after MUCH explaining from me, corrected this error. The original report remains uncorrected online. Was being south asian or black more newsworthy? I really don’t want to think so.

I had taken time out, not been paid for my information, helped the journo find others to interview and shared my not unpainful experience of racial bias to a reporter. I do not feel that enough care was taken to preserve my presence in this 2016 report. I spoke to the journalist about it and they said that they must have made the multiple mistakes because of publishing time pressure. They did not appear to realise the gravity of their response.

Yesterday, almost a year later, Aug 2017, I was watching a BBC news reporter chairing a significant news story, interviewing an Asian-American friend of mine for a discussion about white actor Ed Skrein resigning from a role to avoid erasing the existence Japanese-American character he had been asked to play. The BBC reporter referred to, I think, having read the important report on racial inequality I had contributed to. The reporter was shocked to hear about a brown/black man having to prove their ethnic credentials. What? I heard the BBC reporter quote my story as evidence, only, my identity as an East Asian had been erased last year. 
Yesterday’s news story yesterday was focussed on the erasure of a Japanese-American, “yellow”, character. In the important report, I had been talking about how I had to prove my credentials as a person of colour, to list my struggles, to prove that I am not “white”, to prove that I was interesting enough to be cast in a gritty acting job for slightly broken people. Shappi Khorsandi, on a self-admitted brain blippy Sunday, late into the Edinburgh Fringe, asked the audience, “Are Chinese people BAME?” The room kinda laughed. I kinda died. It’s not super funny and it’s not super important to most people who are not “yellow”.

I went in for an interview at a giant news corporation. The make up artist, bless her, should she have been notified in advance? I don’t know. She did not have makeup to match my skin colour. I ended up on national TV a few shades paler than I am. I heard somewhere that privilege is walking into a store and finding a shade of foundation that suits your skin. 

A Kurdish taxi driver picking me up for a press interview said, “I’m not racist but…” and then proceeded to diss “black people” for being cheap. I wonder if he thought that we were white, or privileged, or above other PoC. I mean, he was very sweet in general but people don’t need to be unsweet to believe the most horrific things.

A security guard from Nepal talked to me in Malay. He had served in the British Army, he told me, and had been stationed in Brunei during the war. How often do we think about the people of colour who have served in the British military? How often do we imagine them as black or brown? Do we remember that non-South Asians existed in this country a long time ago? What do our costume dramas and history books tell us? Not much about Great Britain’s violent colonial past. Make Britain great again? Bring back the Commonwealth? Do you know what this actually means? Do you know that places other than India were British colonies and that we railroads and churches didn’t come without the cost of many, many lives?

A white, working class person wrote to me about their relative being shot in the street in Ireland. We discussed Irishness and being stuck as working class. They felt that I was saying all white people are demons and I said, let’s break that down – what do we mean by “white”? Do we mean the Polish or Albanians, the Swiss or Italian? We categorise and rank people and groups of people. Who is feeding us stories and what can we do about it? Who are we prepared stand up for? Why did this white person come at me combatively with a #NotAllWhitePeople stance? 

I am trying very hard not to talk using phrases which might make some people glaze over e.g. “power differential”. I am trying not to feel a bit ground down by being wheeled out as a presentable, ethnic minority representative. I don’t love it when certain disinterested interviewers read out their questions about racial stereotyping. Focus on the good people, the ones who understand that we are nowhere close to being on a level playing field. Focus on the folks who inspire me, who do their best to live the best way they can, which includes self-awareness and self-care. I’ve met such a lot of incredible people in the last day.

If we were aware of our power no matter how little we think we have, of where our effect ends, of how we absolutely do change other people’s lives – a smile changes so much in an instant, the first person standing up against an injustice paves the way (thank you Ed Skrein) – we would be aware of how much we can cause harm.

Death, someone said, is when people stop saying your name. What does erasure do? What do we do to people we don’t regard as people like us?


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