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Colour me this: a personal perspective on racism across cultures

Suvesshaa Iyanathan discusses her experiences with the cross-cultural nature of racism and how to challenge our own biases.

It’s true, no one is born a racist but the cruelty of a racist system is that the moment you inhale, you become a part of it altogether. Like the firm tree roots anchored into the ground, racism is embedded in our system. The trunk a timeline of historic events transporting racist ideology and culture to our society now, us, the branches. But it’s time we abandon this diseased tree, break branches and replant them. I know it’s hard work and effort spent, but the zeitgeist now lives on our outpour of activism, responsibility and curiosity. We must work towards Martin Luther King Jr’s “invigorating autumn of freedom and equality”.

Empathy and curiosity are vital gear in the battle against systemic racism. People of colour by name but also colour by life. Learn about our lives and our stories, recognize the similarities between me and you and our differences also. We all have certainties and queries but ours are tainted with racism.

Here are mine.

There hasn’t been a time in my life where I have looked at my skin and despised myself. In fact, from a young age I loved my skin colour and I loved that I was brown – I did not have to learn to love it, I just did. I am lucky. But why is it even a privilege to feel that? Why do we need to ‘learn’ to love our colour? Why do we need to ‘understand’ that being coloured is actually not a bad thing? Why does it make me lesser than anyone else? Why.

I grew up in a multicultural community in South East Asia. Sounds lovely and one may assume that we live in a harmonious marriage of races and colour. No. The darker the skin, the harsher your reality. Whether it means going to the playground and other children not wanting to play with you, or being denied jobs and tenancies. What it certainly means is that you are inferior. And so, from a young age I was taught to never feel sorry for myself and to never let ‘my colour’ get in the way of my worth.  Why did I have to be taught anything at all to defend my colour? Why does the colour of my skin dictate the quality of my life?

So, for a long time, I thought the problem was my country. A country where children are taught to think that specific races and religious denominations are far superior than others. This is a country where the deprecation of darker skin is encouraged alongside a toxic mindset where fairer skin is idealized and those with it deserve significant preferential treatment. It’s true – you never see a darker skinned person in an advertisement, only the endless aisles of skin whitening products in pharmacies. However, leaving home at 16 to go to boarding school halfway across the world, I realized it is no different anywhere else. Racism manifested in a different form and shape, but it was and still is there.

My awareness of my colour only grew deeper. I was mimicked for the ‘mispronunciation of words’, described too often as ‘exotic’ and my teachers would hint that I should steer clear from applying to elite universities. Naturally, to assimilate, I masked my true identity and diluted the very qualities that made me ME. So much so that at university I was told “Oh but come on, you’re not really Asian are you”. Am I not?

Constant degradation of where I come from, always being reminded that I’m lesser for coming from ‘that part of the world’, for being brown. I was made to feel wrong for standing up to it, so I just laughed along.

I came across a metaphor recently and it resonated so strongly with me, there is no better way to put it. All the jokes, all the mimicking, all of these incidents are like paper cuts -small and will eventually heal. No point crying over a paper cut or complaining to someone about it. But, imagine getting paper cuts repeatedly and in the same place. Racism for me has been small paper cuts. For many others, it has been deep slashes, broken bones or bullets to the head. 

People of colour face different kinds of racism, but all our experiences include this constant questioning. Why am I not good enough? Do they see me differently because of my colour? Am I being treated differently? Were they racist or is it just me? Was I exposing too much of my culture? Not one question but many. All the time.

We live in a globalised society. Your culture lends into mine and mine into another’s. Unfortunately, we all have bias, conscious or not. But as Ibram X. Kendi rightly says “denial is the heartbeat of racism, beating across ideologies, races and nations”. It’s not enough to say that you’re not racist or to say racism doesn’t ‘happen’ where you live; it does, and the change that needs to happen requires effort. We learn racism from society and culture, through the news we read or the Netflix we watch. Racist ideologies permeate everything we consume. Racial supremacy and hierarchy do exist. Racism is intersectional.

We need to actively challenge our prejudices, our society and its teachings, to question and call things out whenever we can. Educating ourselves is imperative to mending the beliefs woven into the fabric of our society – read Reni Eddo-Lodge or Angela Davies, listen to Code Switch or follow Afua Hirsch. Most of us don’t understand how our racism is intersectional, how a person’s colour, race, culture, ethnicity and religion can often be linked and integrated. Being anti-racist means being curious and engaged, so ask a friend of colour about their identity and culture. We don’t want your pity, we just want to be understood and celebrated. Start anywhere but just start.

Artwork by Rachel Jung

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