My ethnic background is half-Asian, and it’s something I’ve grown to really like about myself. My mom was born in Taiwan, and my dad, with his Scottish and Austrian ancestry, was born in Montreal. There was a time when I resented any Asian blood in my body. Growing up in London, Ontario (a city with an 84 per cent non-visible minority population, according to the 2011 Census), combined with the fact that I lived in a particularly white neighbourhood, I certainly stuck out.
Constantly feeling like an ‘other’ among my blue-eyed friends was kind of exhausting, especially in an environment that felt so much like the set of Sixteen Candles (if you’re familiar with 1980s American teen-flicks, I was given the token role of Long Duk Dong by even some of my closest friends). Let me recall my affectionate ninth-grade nickname, given to me by the cool, older boys in high school: “Chinatown.” Cheers, jerks.
When I was 17, my family moved to Toronto, and shortly after, I began my first semester at McGill. I was astounded by the multiple ethnicities surrounding me in both cities. Suddenly, with a measly half-Asian background, I actually embodied more of the ‘Western-standard’ physical body than many of my peers. And nobody seemed to give a fuck.
Why was I so frightened by being placed into just one ethnic category – specifically my Asian side? Was this a sign of my internalized racism?
It was then that I truly began to embrace my Taiwanese heritage without fear of being mocked for it (be it in ‘good fun’ or not). I could identify just as much with my burns-in-the-sun, folk-music-loving dad’s side, as with my raven-haired, Mandarin-speaking mom’s side. It felt like a perfect balance – and for a while, I lived out this delusion of accepting myself, of being completely enlightened on matters of diversity.
But an interesting thing happened to me the other night. I was out at a bar for a friend’s birthday, talking to some men I didn’t know, and didn’t intend to get to know – admittedly for my own validation. One of the men asked about my background, something I’ve experienced before; however, he acted quite surprised with my half-and-half reply. “You could be full,” he remarked, before proceeding to compliment me in that pseudo-charming way that unfamiliar people in bars do. But I had tuned him out – I was shocked that he only saw one side of my treasured dual-ethnicity. I could feel an odd sinking sensation of dissatisfaction, though I had consumed a few too many pints to rationalize why. The guy was still blabbering away about something when I turned around and walked away, sheepishly floundering by the bar for the rest of the night.
The dissatisfied feeling stuck with me for a couple of days until I was forced to confront it. Why would such a small, passing comment bother me so much? Why was I so frightened by being placed into just one ethnic category – specifically my Asian side? Was this a sign of my internalized racism? Was my self worth as a mixed-race person threatened by the idea that I couldn’t cling to the white half of my genes?
Romanticization might also moonlight as racial fetishism, in a moderate, ‘safe’ form. At least in terms of half-white mixed people, it seems that they are perceived as not ‘too ethnic,’ but just different enough to fetishize as exotic.
The Western world seems to have recently romanticized mixed-raced people, who are appearing in fashion, film, and television ever more often. But this romanticization might also moonlight as racial fetishism, in a moderate, ‘safe’ form. At least in terms of half-white mixed people, it seems that they are perceived as not ‘too ethnic,’ but just different enough to fetishize as exotic. This is problematic in its exclusion of other people of colour – not only in its fetishization of arbitrary ethnic origins, but also its ultimate coveting of whiteness as a necessary element for acceptable and attractive figures in society.
My older brother of three years looks a lot more like my blonde-haired, green-eyed dad. People compliment him for looking ‘so handsome, so white’, as if the two adjectives are synonymous. Yet I’m sure he would not receive such compliments if he were purely white (because of the lack of fetish), or purely Asian (because of non-inclusive Western beauty standards).
It is this strange phenomenon that underscores just how volatile one’s self-worth can be, based on arbitrary messages determined by the dominant narratives in society. It also exemplifies how deeply ingrained these ideologies can be, even when one thinks they’ve faced, and shed them. As a mixed-race person, I’m still struggling to accept myself, not only battling against the racism I’ve experienced, but also the self-directed racism that I perpetuate through these fetishistic, racist, internalized ideals.
Sarah MacArthur is a U2 Cultural Studies student. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.