I look even less like Beyonce than I look like Lady Gaga. So it isn’t about seeking “bodies like mine”. And I’m not descended from Tamil activists or Japanese emperors. Growing up in Australia in the 1990s, my life probably bears more resemblance to that of Mia Wasikowska than MIA.
But I have this automatic, irrepressible radar for women of colour. Most of my idols are women of colour: Karen O, Lee Lin Chin, Yoko Ono, Kelis, MIA, Ntozake Shange, Maxine Hong Kingston, Maxine Beneba Clarke, Nikki Patin, Candy Bowers, Aileen Moreton-Robinson, Larissa Behrendt, Tsitsi Dangarembga, Jamaica Kincaid … I notice women of colour on television, in the paper, across the dance floor. It’s a fractured identity and a tenuous solidarity, I know. But it’s there.
It wasn’t always there. I became a woman of colour only a few years ago, through my involvement in anti-racist networks. When I say someone shares my background, often I mean my background in student activism, and then what might be called radical social justice: a left-wing politics that is, at its best, both intently conscious of subject positions and intelligently critical of identity.
My involvement in these political networks, scenes or movements has introduced me to many people of colour. Some of us are instantly and consistently recognised as non-white; others are usually seen as white until we say or do something to show (or perhaps prove) otherwise. Some were brought up more or less in the dominant Australian culture; others have a sense of another distinct ethnic or national culture; others still find these lines too blurred to tell. We may be Indigenous, or immigrants, or Australian-born children of either, both, neither; we may be international adoptees, third culture kids, 1.5 generation, Stolen Generation. We differ enough that sometimes the words fall down my throat when I am called to explain the term “people of colour”. I know that it doesn’t necessarily mean people who share either my biographic experiences or my political desires. It certainly doesn’t mean people who look like me or share my ethno-cultural background.
Conversely, my younger sister probably has no friends who self-identify as people of colour, but many more friends who come from a similar ethno-cultural background — at a minimum, East Asian or South-East Asian migrant families — but she could narrow it much further, and I used to be able to as well. The two major weekend Chinese language schools in Melbourne are called New Generation and New Gold Mountain. I spent a little time at each, and there I met heaps of kids with my same background: born in mainland China in the 1980s, we moved to Australia as young children, making us 1.5 generation migrants of the first one-child policy generation. Our parents experienced social and economic upheaval first during the Cultural Revolution, and again with migration. We grew up with little exposure to Communism other than the Soviet Union character on Captain Planet and scant knowledge of our cultural heritage other than Journey to the West (Monkey Magic), but we spoke Chinese languages at home and ate with chopsticks, even if we had coleslaw or tabouleh. Other than the obvious multicultural tropes of food and language, we can’t easily say what’s Chinese, what’s Australian, and what’s our particular family circumstances. As a kid I was proud of my “unaccented” English and tried to be Australian in a way my parents could never be, first in mainstream culture and then in countercultures. Later, even my attempts at anti-racist activism are always Australian, talking about people of colour and never Asians, focusing on convergent desires rather than shared histories.
Activist and blogger Mia Mingus talks about Frida Kahlo being “descriptively disabled” – having the lived experience of being disabled – though she may not have identified as such, may not have been “politically disabled” as Mingus terms it. And Frida Kahlo and Mia Mingus are both also queer women of colour I admire. But while I agree that finding, knowing and recognising each other helps us survive (oppression, loneliness, alienation), I wonder what it means to recognise someone as something by which they don’t identify themselves.
I don’t want my feelings of solidarity and companionship to come at the cost of someone else’s misrecognition. Especially, I don’t want to assume someone else shares my experiences by my reading of their body, face, name or voice. The dangers of this misrecognition differ depending on its particularities. I have written before on how I think femme politics, among other things, is fairly narrow if limited to those who are politically femmes — but at the same time I want to reject the predictable identity politics manoeuvre of trying to build solidarity by telling people who they are and what they experience.
What affinity do I have with someone I might identify as a woman of colour? What does it mean for me, a non-Aboriginal Melburnian, to identify the struggle of Indigenous women in the Northern Territory against sexual violence and state intervention as a women of colour issue? Does that show solidarity, or does it just allude to a shared subjectivity where there is none?
At other times, being a woman of colour does override or at least complicate more specific ethno-cultural identities. If I were to wear a kimono, that act would raise the same questions around cultural heritage, exchange, appropriation and homage for me as it would for a non-Japanese person of any appearance, though I get called “gook”, “jap” and “chink” with roughly equal frequency. And though I haven’t been raised in Confucian, Taoist or Buddhist traditions, I view the yuppie-capitalist appropriation of these religions as a personal offence, while Roman Catholic kitsch doesn’t bother me at all.
The way in which people of certain East Asian or South-East Asian backgrounds are racialised as one and generically labelled “Asian” or “Oriental” means that I occupy a strange position in relation to these cultures. Seen as mine, but probably not mine, I am particularly cautious about the possibility of being seen to represent cultures I can pass off as my own. Moreover, being Han Chinese — the majority ethnic group of the largest country and empire in the region — the generic Oriental culture associated with many Asians is more likely to resemble, appropriate or parody my heritage. What would it mean to call myself a woman of colour when I’m in China, in Malaysia? When, despite western imperialism, regardless of words like “hegemony”, it’s faces like mine on the covers? This is majoritisation within serialisation, otherwise known as a bit of a headfuck.
I tend to think that you always run the risk of cultural appropriation — of misrepresentation, of suggesting your subjective narrative is authoritative — even when you’re talking about your own background or heritage. I think Margaret Cho impersonating her mother is appropriative. I also think it’s a risk you can take and explicate, and in doing so deconstruct the idea of authenticity and integrity. I don’t mean that because culture can’t belong to anyone, everyone can wear Native American feather headdresses. I mean that being Chinese doesn’t automatically give me access to Chinese culture, and it certainly doesn’t give me the knowledge or wisdom to be a gatekeeper for it.
In some ways, the generic Asian identity represents a kind of truth, because often I am no more connected to my “own” culture than any of the others with which it’s commonly confused. The events of the twentieth century and my life mean that I know more about Ancient Rome than I know about the same period in Chinese history. I experience my ignorance in the latter as a kind of loss, though it’s knowledge I’ve never had. If I ever regard something as a cultural offence, I’m unlikely to consider it appropriation of my culture. It’s more that I am seeking recognition of this sense of loss or lack, that I regret and resent knowing little more about my culture than the tawdry cliches (red and gold, sweet and sour, black and straight and sleek).
Back to bodies like mine:
Earlier this year Fat Kuzbu and a few other commentators called out Frankie magazine for the lack of people of colour models within their pages. Then Frankie Issue 37 had a woman of colour on the cover model, as did another indie magazine, Peppermint. I noticed both covers, felt a bland satisfaction, and bought neither magazine. It is some kind of victory, but not progress, or perhaps the other way around.
I’ll admit that the first time I saw an American Apparel advertisement with a weedy, flat-chested, Asian girl with big glasses, I was surprised and somewhat enchanted. The charm wore off quickly though, not only because of style of the photography which is both boring and a bit creepy. I realised what should have been obvious: visibility is not the same as representation, which is still something less than agency. While I don’t think having your body used to sell things is a bad gig, appearance is less still than visibility. In the words of MC Lars (“iGeneration”), “I want to be more than a walking demographic” — I can’t accept the substitution of consumer choice for political rights.
Seeing women of colour, literally seeing them, doesn’t do much. Ten years ago I think I would’ve felt differently — when losing your accent was a kind of accomplishment, when the only way to be Australian was to be mainstream and mediocre. The possibility of being an indie covergirl was unimaginable — carving out a space in subculture seemed impossible when the dominant culture was barely accessible. Perhaps it would’ve meant something then, just to see a body like mine (it wouldn’t even have had to be very like mine) in a place like that.
None of my women of colour idols are Chinese-Australian, much less Shanghainese-Melburnian. I notice people of colour everywhere I go, or at least I think I do. I am less colour-blind than ever and maybe more race-blind, now that I understand race as something else, something that isn’t always inscribed on someone’s body, face, name, voice. Finding other women of colour makes me feel stronger. Often neither their bodies nor their lives are like mine. It’s important to recognise each other. I am trying to explain the difference between sight and recognition. It’s not enough to see someone. I want them to look back. I want a conversation of gazes.
Image courtesy of Natalie Z Drieu