'What are you?' 'I'm human' is always a good go-to response
When 31-year-old American actress, singer and model Arden Cho released a video last week talking about her experiences with cultural bigotry, it struck a chord with me about what racism in Britain feels like.
In it, she asks why people still insist on asking ‘what’ she is, instead of who she is. And, she shames people who have made comments, gestures or heckled her for how she looks. She asks the question, would you interrogate a white person about ‘what kind of white they are?’ compared to the daily ‘what kind of Asian are you?’ she faces.
And, the fact is, it doesn’t matter what race or ethnicity you are, you’ve probably had someone say something stereotypical about your appearance whether you’re a redhead, Chinese girl, a women of colour growing up in Britain, whatever.
I say this because bigotry in general needs to stop. Growing up with an immigrant mother from Belgium, you might think that as a white woman, she’s never experienced any racism towards her – but she has. In fact, when she first met my father’s family, my grandfather called her a ‘redheaded devil’ and ‘pale ghost’ in Cantonese. The fact is other-ing of any kind is unacceptable.
One of my best friends is half Jamaican and half Filipino and I remember when she called me baffled that she was made to pick ‘Asian’ or ‘Black’ in an admin form because they didn’t have a ‘mixed race’ column that applied to her – so she was told to ‘just pick one.’
I’m half Chinese, half Belgian and although I’ve grown up in South London (as diverse as it is), I’ve still had comments about my ethnicity, and yes, they’re mostly from a curious bystander but some have been very negative. I remember someone shouting that my parents were ‘disgusting’ for intermixing races and I’ve had mock Oriental-style music sung to me by men on the street. I was even called a ‘Chink’ by a woman at a party last week as her casual racist comment rolled off her tongue.
My boyfriend is half Iranian, half English and despite being probably the most British by nature person I know, considering he grew up in his family’s seaside pub and was raised mainly on tea and traditional roasts, he’s still faced some forms of cultural bigotry.
There are so many people out there who, despite how they look, have never even been to their countries of origin so when people make assumptions about their lives, it might not even apply to them at all.
But, in defence of curiosity, this isn’t an argument against talking about culture and race. I, for one, am always fascinated with everyone’s origins, to the extent that I’ve made the entire Marie Claire digital team take an AncestryDNA test. And, if you’re wondering where my parents are from, that’s totally fine too – just ask that question clearly and give it context. No more ‘what are you?’ Just, ‘who are you?’