Cultural Appropriation and Interracial Relationships

CN: (potential) cultural appropriation, discussion of race

A few days ago, my boyfriend bought me a dress for our anniversary. We don’t usually exchange presents, preferring instead to spend any money on a shared love of food, or a day out together. This purchase was an exception. We were wandering through the Amsterdam flower market, debating whether or not we would be allowed to bring tulip bulbs back into the UK, when my partner spotted a Chinese shop. Intrigued, we ventured inside. It was full of tiny, intricate rice bowls; gaudy stuffed pandas; painted fans; small glass ornaments. At the very back of the store, a row of beautiful embroidered dresses. At my partner’s suggestion, I tried several on; and, upon falling in love with a white and black embroidered dress, he insisted on buying it for me.

It is one of the most beautiful garments I have ever owned. Although not strictly traditional (it has a zip down the back, and I suspect is cut more generously for my European hips than would be the norm) it is modelled in the style of a qípáo. It has the same high collar, embroidery, leg slits and figure hugging cut that seems, even to the untrained eye, uniquely Chinese. And here lies the problem; unlike my boyfriend, I am white. I have never been to China. Outside of a few random words picked up in our two years of dating, I don’t speak any Chinese. My sole experience of his culture has been through him and his family. And, as I stood in the changing room, staring at myself in a beautiful dress modelled on Chinese fashion dating back to the 1920s, I wondered if wearing the dress was disrespectful.

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My beautiful white dress

Race politics are complicated, and I am not going to pretend for a second that I know very much at all. As mentioned, I’m white; I grew up in a white family, in a predominantly white town. I have never experienced discrimination or prejudice because of my race. I cannot fully understand or appreciate what it means to be an ethnic minority in 21st century Britain. I can only listen and observe. I can see my boyfriend surprised when a film or TV we watch has Asian characters in a substantial role. I can listen to one of my close friends telling me of the racial abuse she has suffered since the Brexit vote. I can ask questions, and listen to the answers, but I can never fully understand what it feels like to not be white.

I fundamentally believe that a key part of intersectional feminism has to be listening to oppressed groups, and not speaking over their experiences. Just as a man has no right to tell me what it is to be a woman, I have no right to make assumptions for what it is to be a POC. Ultimately, I allowed my partner to buy me the dress because he said he didn’t find it offensive. On the contrary, he said that it made him happy to see me embracing his culture.

That is something I have tried to do from the beginning of our relationship. Interracial relationships are becoming increasingly common in the UK, and the fact that my partner and I come from different races is no longer something unusual or frowned upon. My partner was born in the same city as me, only a few months later. He was raised in the UK, went to a school (strangely enough) just down the road from my own. We attended the same university. We share a love of food (Asian and Western, and anything at all really) and exercise, and a sense of humour. Our similarities are more than our differences. And yet, there remain some small cultural differences.

Only a month ago, I was shocked when his degree was awarded in his Chinese name; his official name. For me, it is strange that the English name that I have always known him by is not his legal name. I found it even stranger when, upon asking him which name he preferred, he told me that he liked them both equally. Arrogantly, I had assumed he would prefer his English name. A few weeks later, the onset of the Olympic games led me to learn that he cheers for both the Chinese and the British teams. Likewise, I hadn’t realised that my slating of the Chinese gymnastics team would draw such a frosty reaction from him; his national loyalty going deeper than I expected.

My mother has the unfortunate habit, whenever his Chinese identity comes up, of exclaiming “but he’s British! He was born here!” But it is not that simple, of course. As he has often explained to me, he is both Chinese and British; and as a result, feels something of an outsider in both cultures. It’s something I have always had to try hard to understand, being only British myself.

When he showed the dress to his mother proudly, I cringed a little. I was worried that she – born in China, but living here since she was my age – would find it offensive, or think that I was being disrespectful to her culture. After all, I couldn’t even read the washing instructions (they were in Chinese.) I didn’t realise that the lines at the bottom of the dress symbolise a river, or that the leafy greens are actually intricately embroidered bamboo canes. I was so worried that my partner asked her later, in private, what she thought. It turns out my worrying was for nothing; she said she didn’t see a problem with it.

I cannot undo my privilege as a white person. What I can do is try as hard as I can to understand and learn more about his family and his history, and the culture that is clearly important to him. When his aunt skyped from China, I swallowed my shyness and said hello, mindful that she didn’t speak a word of English and I not a word of Chinese. When his parents talk about their childhoods in the Chinese countryside, I listen and ask questions. I am fascinated when they explain the history behind my partner’s name (my parents’ reasons for choosing my own name being rather less complicated and interesting.) I try my hardest to pronounce his Chinese name correctly, and am not abashed when his parents laugh at my attempts. I learn the odd words he teaches me, and the other day I even laughed at a joke his Dad told in Chinese (picking up from his body language and my partner’s English reply what he had said.)

It is a minor part of our relationship, but still a part; and to deny it exists would be to deny part of my partner’s identity. My grandparents’ wedding anniversary is coming up, and I’m planning to wear the dress. In the meantime, I will keep trying to question and relearn my own internal biases. More than anything, I’m honoured that my partner and his parents see no problem with me wearing the dress.

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A Patriot on Brexit

A few days ago, I flew home from a family holiday in Croatia. I love travelling; I love the adventure, the new food to be tasted, clear seas to swim in, unexplored dusty roads to walk. And yet, at the end of every holiday, I find myself sitting in the window seat of the aeroplane, watching with eagle eyes for the lush green fields and scattered houses that will tell me I’m home.

To be a patriot is, perhaps, unfashionable among my generation. We are, more than ever, children of the global age. We are connected through the Internet to thousands of other people, with the same shared interests and ideas. Travel has never been cheaper or easier, and we can hop on planes to far away destinations at the drop of a hat. We grew up in a more multicultural society than our parents and grandparents did, taking new languages and skin colours and ethnicities as a given. I remember a girl at school saying to me once that she didn’t feel British; she had lived all over the world, moving around with her parents, and she felt more than anything to be a bit of everything, a citizen of the world.

I’ve never felt that way. I feel British to my bones. I couldn’t tell you what it is, exactly, without resorting to trite stereotypes. A love (addiction, my boyfriend says) of freshly brewed tea, so hot it burns the tongue. A desire for order, queues, structure. A straight-laced sense of humour, a sarcastic quirk. A knowledge of Britain’s history (both good and bad), and a sense of belonging when I hear that distinctive Oxford accent. Of course, this feeling has changed and developed. In many ways, I feel less British now than I did when I was younger. Meeting and falling in love with my boyfriend showed me – intimately, in a way my small town girlhood never had – what it means to be between two cultures, to be both British and Other. Travelling, reading, exploring; these are the things, I think, that expand our horizons and make it harder to call oneself simply “British.”

All of which leads to the EU referendum, just a few short weeks ago. I voted of course; I voted to remain in, as did nearly everyone I know (certainly nearly everyone of my own age.) That night, my boyfriend and his friends were set to graduate; I sat up until late in the night, drunk on life and cheap wine, watching the results roll in. It looked positive, it looked in our favour, and I fell asleep confident that we would survive this.

When you have a nightmare, waking is the only relief. But the next morning, the nightmare was my new reality, and I couldn’t wake from it. My boyfriend and I sat in bed for hours, reading as many news articles as we could, both in shock.

As the news sunk in, the shock got worse. I didn’t expect Brexit to pass; I certainly didn’t expect to feel as I do. I feel heartbroken. I feel scared for my future, and the future of people I care about. I feel angry. I cling (desperately, foolishly, bleakly) to the hope that I might wake tomorrow and the result will have been reversed.

I am angry at the politicians who manipulated the public perception for their own personal gain. Boris Johnson, Nigel Farage; I believe, with everything that I have, that these men lied and wormed their way into the leave campaign for political gain and then, when they won, quit rather than face up to the disastrous consequences of what they’ve done. I am angry with the people I know who voted for leave in the referendum. I’m not the only one; such is the depth of feeling among my contemporaries, many have removed pro-Brexit friends from their Facebook feeds. My own grandparents voted to leave. Of course, I still love them; I have always, and will always love them and do everything I can to make them proud. But knowing that they were complicit in what I see as the ruin of my country and the narrowing of my future chances in life is hard.

Sitting in the sun in Croatia, in amongst the wine and food and swimming, there were moments of heartache. Every time I saw an EU flag, I flinched. My passport – EU and British – was a stark reminder all the way through Gatwick of what my country had done. One night, I sat in the harbour of the town we stayed in. There was live music, English songs crooned with a slight foreign accent. Stopping to listen, you could hear Croatian, German, Italian being spoken. I wanted – I want – to be a part of that. I believe, more than anything, that we are stronger united than we are divided. I believe in the greatness of Britain; but a Britain working within Europe, with the people who – after all – are not that different from us.

We cannot know what the future holds, and I pray that it will not be as bad as I fear. But the day Britain voted to leave the EU, I became less proud of my county. I became, for the first time in my life, ashamed to be British.

Mansplaining, Derailing and #NotAllMen

TW: discussion of rape, rape culture, victim blaming, domestic abuse

In my bid to get away from revision by engaging in kind-of-revision-but-not-as-useful-as-real-revision, I spent a good hour today looking through my old A-level notes. There was a point to this exercise: my A-level politics course covered various strands of feminism in relative depth, and I wanted a quick overview for my gender exam in a fortnight. While looking through my old notes, I found a power point presentation, entitled “The Patriarchy in Modern Britain.” Intrigued, I opened it up and flicked through the slides. It contained many of the depressing statistics that are burned into my brain for my upcoming exam: the fact that there are currently only around 18 female world leaders, the fact that 70% of the people living in poverty globally are women, the number of female MPs (which has risen by 7 percentage points since I wrote the presentation in 2012-3, so that’s something.)

In amongst the presentation, I found this slide (notice the middle bullet point):

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Now, perhaps the word “acceptable” in the middle bullet point was the wrong word to use. I meant to illustrate the idea that we accept rape as a fact of life in contemporary culture: we characterise rape are “just something that happens”, an act committed by monsters which women need to protect themselves from by “dressing appropriately”, not drinking too much and not walking home alone at night. I remember the class discussion after that presentation: every male person in the room was fixated on my use of the word “acceptable.” No one wanted to discuss the far more important issues of low conviction rates for rape, or the still high levels of domestic violence in the UK. Instead, the entire conversation became about one – perhaps slightly misplaced – word.

As I have grown older and become bolder in my feminism, this is something that happens over and over again. Men, taking offence at feminist statements. Men, changing the conversation to suit their own agenda. In this blog post, I would like to go through several of the ways in which men do this, and explain why it really needs to stop.

Firstly, the above example, which is an example of derailing. Derailing is when a feminist (or a member of a marginalised group) tries to begin a discussion about a topic, and someone else (usually a man, but not always) changes the focus of the conversation for their own ends. In the case above, a serious point about rape was derailed by the boys in the room to become a conversation about my use of terminology. It is perhaps most obvious when men’s rights activists attempt to challenge conversations about women’s inequality with how men are disadvantaged in contemporary culture. This is not to deny that men suffer from the effects of patriarchy: they do, and this is something that feminism seeks to address. However, derailers are only ever interested in talking about men’s rights when the conversation is on women’s equality. It is a tactic to distract attention from feminist issues, and turn them instead to what the derailer feels more comfortable discussing.

Secondly, many men engage in mansplaining. Mansplaining is when a man attempts – often in an incredibly patronising way – to explain to a woman something that she already knows, or does not need explaining. It is rife in feminist spaces online, which often include multiple men telling us what we “really mean to say” or why our opinions are, in fact, wrong. Although I did not have the language at the time, the incident in my A-level class was also an instance of mansplaining. The boys in the class felt that the word “acceptable” was the wrong one and, with little interest as to why I had used it, proceeded to spend the rest of the discussion laying out exactly why I was wrong. One of my favourite instances of mansplaining happened around a month ago. I was having lunch with my dad, and conversation turned – as it often does between us – to politics. My dad and I differ hugely on politics, and our debates are usually heated and frustrating on both sides. The abridged version of the conversation went something like this:

Me: “I’m just saying dad, it’s harder to make your voice heard as a woman. Not only are men’s views and opinions prioritised in our society, but women are often talked over and have their opinions dismiss-“

Dad, interrupting: “Now, don’t be ridiculous. No one talks over women or ignores their opinions.”

Me, eyebrows raised: “… you do see what you did there?”

Dad: “…”

Me: “…”

Dad: “I will concede that you have a point.”

And finally, the idea of #NotAllMen. Again, this was utilised in the classroom: how could rape be acceptable when all of the boys in that room were so adamant that it was an abhorrent crime? They would never dream of raping someone, so why was it their problem? This, of course, totally misses the point. No one is saying that every man is a rapist: but part of the fear of being a woman is that any man could be. We have a perception in our culture that rape is something that happens in the dark, by a stranger – a random act of violence. It is not. Most rapes are committed by someone that the victim personally knows, and most are committed within the home. Rape is a systemic phenomenon; one that finds a breeding ground in a culture that objectifies and degrades women.

#NotAllMen are rapists: but that is not the point. The point is that #YesAllWomen are potentially at threat because of rape culture. Focusing on men once again takes the attention away from women and women’s problems.

Perhaps you are a man reading this, and you feel defensive. Don’t: none of this is an attack on you. It is instead a plea to recognise your own privilege. You, as a man, are more respected and listened to than we are. You are more likely to have your opinions taken seriously, and you are more likely to be a position of power to have that opinion heard. Next time a woman tries to tell you about her experiences of sexism, listen to her. The same goes for other marginalised groups: if a person of colour is telling you, as a white person, about racism, don’t try and talk over them. Recognise that they are not attacking you personally, but expressing their frustration at the systematic inequality in our society. Who knows? You might even learn something.

Why we need trigger warnings

Posted below is the link to an article that recently popped up in my newsfeed (TW: sexual violence, rape, Islamaphobia, sexism):

http://www.standard.co.uk/comment/comment/claire-fox-the-fear-of-giving-offence-is-killing-democracy-and-stifles-truth-a3245226.html

You’ll notice that for the above post (and for the content that follows), I included trigger warnings. This may seem ironic, considering that the article in question is arguing against the use of trigger warnings. In it, author Claire Fox contends that trigger warnings are creating a generation of overly sensitive, politically correct “special snowflakes” that need to toughen up.

One of the first examples she references is the recent terror response practise in Manchester, in which the actor playing a terror suspect shouted “Allahu Akbar” as he detonated a fake bomb. Claire Fox is derisive of the backlash to this, saying that instead, Manchester Police should be praised for preparing so vigilantly for a potential terror threat.

In this she is right: the police should be praised for being prepared. After all, sources indicate that the security services believe that the UK is at high risk of potential terror threats. What was not acceptable, however, was the use of religious language during the bombing. Such language spreads fear and prejudice: it lends credence to the idea that “all Muslims are terrorists” or at the very least “all terrorists are Muslims”, both of which are patently untrue. Islamaphobia has been on the rise in the UK in last few years, with The Sun recently claiming (misleadingly) that 1 in 5 British Muslims are “sympathetic” to jihadis and reports that hate crimes against Muslims (and in particular, Muslim women) have risen by nearly 70% in London alone since 2014.

The use of Islamic language was also incredibly offensive. Either Fox doesn’t realise – or doesn’t care – that the phrase “Allahu Akbar” has actually been co-opted by Islamist jihadis as part of their crusade against the West. However, the phrase has roots much deeper than that. Literally translated, the phrase roughly means “God is great.” It is said during Islamic prayers, as well as after the birth of a child. To use it as a “prop” during a fake police siege is in poor taste.

Next, on to Claire Fox’s main claims: that trigger warnings make us weak and overly sensitive. As her first example, she references Oxford law lectures, which have been given trigger warnings for content such as rape and murder. Fox laughs this off, ignoring the very real need for trigger warnings. Fox completely fails to acknowledge the effect that rape can have on the women (and men) subjected to it. Around half of women who are raped experience PTSD. This can include – but is not limited to – depression, anxiety, nightmares, trouble sleeping, and numbness. Now, imagine you are a survivor studying at Oxford University. You walk into your lecture, maybe chatting with your friends about what has happened over the weekend. And then, the lecture starts, and you are exposed – without any prior warning – to images and words that could be deeply distressing. To suggest that trigger warnings are “weak” and that students need to be “thicker skinned” is the height of callousness and thoughtlessness.

Fox also has a lot to say about the idea of political debate needing to be offensive. Of course political debate will often become heated: of course, people will have clashing opinions and different views. But why does that imply that those views need to be offensive? One could have a rational debate, for instance, about whether or not equality legislation is the best way of achieving feminist goals without either side being offensive. Conversely, Donald Trump referring to numerous women as “fat pigs” and “slobs” is extremely offensive, but hardly politically radical. The problem is that the kind of people who shout the loudest for “free speech” and “open debate” are always the ones who benefit from those structures. They are the people who don’t mind being offensive: because they have no concept of how it feels to be on the receiving end. As a woman, I don’t have that luxury. Neither do other marginalised groups. Rape survivors at Oxford do not need trigger warnings because they have a right not to be “offended”, but because they have the right to protect their mental health. For those who have never needed to do that, the distinction may be lost.

It is not “weak” or “sensitive” or “politically correct” to be a decent human being. Don’t utilise religious language for staged terror plots. Don’t mock sexual assault survivors. Don’t needlessly offend other people just to make your point. To sum up: don’t be a dick.