Vintage shopping in Stockholm, February 2016
Recently, I have been adopting a slightly Americanised attitude to describing my background and where I’m from: nationality over ethnic background. I’m a Londoner through and through, not defined by my ancestry. The important thing is that being from metropolitan, cosmopolitan London includes an acknowledgement of multi-culturalism and diversity that is lacking from some other places. I believe that cultural diversity should be championed, and that a truly tolerant person should try to look to the individual before making judgements formed by assumptions relating to gender, age – and race. Agency, then, over structure.
Part of this is my tendency in conversation to omit details of racial background unless it actually pertains to the topic. So if, for instance, if someone needs a guitar teacher, mentions their fondness for Jamaican patties, or love of 1970s paisley shirts, I might mention my boy-friend. Unless it becomes relevant to the conversation, I probably won’t mention his colour. But if I do, I am often – though not always – met with a slight rebuff; a raised eyebrow, a smarmy nod of the head. “Oh, so you like black guys...”
Generally these comments are made to me by men, and it’s obvious that they are dwelling on sexual stereotypes. In fact, I used to have a colleague who decided to nickname my half-Jamaican ex-boyfriend ‘The Big Black Cock’, and referred to him by this instead of using his actual name. At the time I succumbed to the pressure of ‘fitting in’ amongst colleagues’ ‘banter’; but I’m no longer inclined to be so tolerant of casual racism. Unfortunately, when you call people up on it, they tend to accuse you of political correctness, being a spoilsport, being boring/no fun/taking things too seriously. Really, this is merely a defensive re-attack on you since they are perfectly aware that they are being deliberately offensive and provocative, and that they should know better.
However, this kind of casual racism is still prevalent amongst subtler comments which make a point of your apparent preference for people of a certain ethnicity. No one would say to a white girl, ‘Oh, so you like white guys, huh?!’ It becomes clear that miscegenation – the mixing of racial groups – is still a concept that is both feared and misunderstood in many dominantly-Caucasian countries. This basic lack of understanding is despite, and crucially, within, discourses of multiculturalism, tolerance, and open-mindedness. To be told, ‘Oh, you like black guys!’ or ‘He’s into Asian women!’ exoticises the ethnic minority partner, presenting them as an object and effectively de-humanising them. It also gives you the status of a fetishist, and assumes that you share the reductionist attitude of the speaker of not being able to look beyond race.
Rather than saying ‘Oh, so you like black guys?!’ can’t these people use a bit more imagination and think that perhaps I like not “black guys” but guys who are not dickheads? I’m in a two+ year relationship with a man who has mixed African and Caribbean heritage because I’m drawn to him as a person. Drawing attention to race in this way has the function of putting people in different boxes, when equality and civil rights is about recognising our similarities.
On the reverse side of the coin are well-meaning people who have in the past congratulated me for being in a mixed-race relationship. Actually, I myself am a bi-racial person – a fact that tends to be overlooked by non-Asian people, who can never see me as half-white. Unless I was going out with another half-Chinese, half-Northern European person, all relationships are mixed-race. My relationship with a black man isn’t a political statement; it isn’t something I’m actively forming in order to make progress; but yes, de-stigmatising mixed-race relationships is a marker of progress. My worldview is not to draw boundaries due to race; but to celebrate differences.
Having compared our experiences in life, my partner has definitely faced more racism as a black man in the UK than I have as a Eurasian woman; and so he was unsurprised. He has frequently encouraged me to be more tolerant of people’s ignorance. But for the first 23 years of my life, I have been fairly tolerant and accepting of the dominant discourse of white ethnocentrism, and the stereotypical [mis]representations of ethnic minorities in the public sphere. I can’t be bothered to put up with it any more, and micro-level experiences, such as the ones documented in this blog post, in my opinion form evidence of the macro-level ideologies plaguing so-called tolerant and multi-cultural societies such as the UK and Sweden.
What's your opinion on this?
Do you think I'm taking throwaway comments too seriously, or am I justified in calling them 'casual racism'?
Have you had any similar experiences?