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"I don't see race"

*This piece originally appeared on the blog Between The Lines, 09/06/2014*

“I don’t see race” he said.

“That’s nice, for you” I said “cos I see race every time I look in the mirror.”

Sometimes I see whiteness, I see my mother staring straight out at me in the line of my jaw. Sometimes all I see is black hair, heavy fringe with my father’s eyes peering out from underneath. Sometimes, I see the Asian so clearly in my skin tone, in the way my body stands, the way it doesn’t quite fit all the clothes I try on in the H&M changing room, cloth built on a Swedish model of proportions. Then, I catch myself reflected in a window and I see the whiteness in the way I lounge against a wall; nonchalant, hip propping up my torso.

And sometimes, I am totes Western in my leather jacket and liquid eyeliner, but flicked up to maximize my ‘almond’ eyes. Or I’m Eastern-White, when I don’t understand the nuances of time and distance when traveling on a river through the jungle.

But every time I see race. I see how I move through space, relate to space, and I am aware of my mixed-race status and how that plays with privilege and choice – for and against me. I see when ‘race’ relates to how I am able to move through space. The space I live in, the space I know the best, the space that I call home – this western space. Being mixed race, and/or coming from multiple spaces, in a western world is knowing where you fit and knowing how to fit in. When you look in the mirror you never simply see yourself, but you see the rest of society, who you are going to meet that day and what that means.

I am Iban, a tribe indigenous of Borneo. My father is from up river, past Kapit, a small town in rural Sarawak, a state of Malaysia on the Borneo island. My mother is a white New Zealander, from suburban Wellington. I grew up in both Sarawak and New Zealand, but London is about to become the place where I have spent most of my life. My life has been about crossing borders, migrating, emigrating, moving, and staying put. Re-grounding (Ahmed 2004:1) has been the theme of my migration story. Migrating is about meeting new audiences.

From the tanju* I walk, I run, I dance into the beyond. I am an ‘agent on the move’ (Ryoji 2007:202). Moving through spaces, places and picking up pieces of me as I go, creating pockets of home in every new location. I expand my space, simultaneously occupying Sarawak, New Zealand and London. In my privilege of being from nowhere and everywhere I crisscross borders, get questioned but ultimately accepted. In painful contrast to other’s journeys, whose identities are read clearly in the brush strokes of their skin colour, in the accents of their English.

I am read as different but similar, holding a passport** with cultural capital, an accent of a recognised place, an education in understanding border nuances.

Like Anzaldua (‘as a mestiza I have no country, my homeland cast me out; yet all countries are mine because I am every woman’s sister or potential lover’), I too have points in my identity that are recognisable and places I can belong (Anzaldua 1987:80). I am open to construction (Lugones 1987:395) for whichever world I am standing in. The UK border agent looks at my New Zealand passport and tells me how beautiful he/she found New Zealand and how like their hometown in Wales it is. A group of Iban women in Kapit named all the features of my face that are Iban and proclaim my Iban-ness, regardless of my lack of the language. I can stand and wait to be constructed and I can construct my identity to what works best for me in that particular space – to be different or to be recognisable.

Arriving in a new place means joining up with, somehow linking into, the collections of interwoven stories of what that place is made of. (Massey 2005:119)

Like my Iban forebears, I am a migrant who adapts to the environment; building, planting, nurturing and then moving on to begin again. Like my Iban cousins I am a migrant who calls more than one place home. My story becomes interwoven with each location, and each location becomes a part of my identity. I also bring past spaces into new locations. Memories and identities that were created and developed in previous situations get utilised in different ways and/or get expressed in new ways. These are intersections of my identity that are articulated for each new audience, and I have a choice in how they get presented.

Every time I get upset when someone decides to construct me to fit their need, for how they see my identity, I am reminded that sometimes I can use language and knowledge of this western world, to subvert or override that construction. Every time I have a choice to construct my identity, I am reminded of my privilege of choice, because I understand this western space. My able-bodied, cis-gendered, mixed-race, over educated self is reminded, every time I am accepted into a space, of those able-bodied, white, cis-gendered, educated points of identity.

And so when you say you don’t see race, I get angry because it belittles my constant awareness, the work I do around understanding how my identity is interpreted by others. I get angry because I work hard in finding a way to articulate my identity, my difference, so that it fits your understanding. And I get angry because by not seeing race you have stripped me of my heritage. If you don’t see race, you don’t see me.

If you don’t see race, you don’t see privilege, yours or mine.

* Tanju is the outside verandah on an Iban longhouse

** I have both NZ and British passport


There has been a lot of talk about migration, in view of next year’s elections and in the run up to the recent EU elections. And, as a theatre maker, whose research is around race and gender within performance art, I have also noticed the many discussions of late around race in the media; in film, tv and theatre and how casting sees, or doesn’t see race. The excuse for lack of diversity is often that they ‘cast the best actor for the role’ otherwise known as ‘colour-blind casting’, which in practice white-washes a production. Such as the Royal Shakespeare Company’s 2012 casting choice for The Orphan of Zhao, the redface of The Wooster Groups’ Cry, Trojans! or this list of black characters played by white actors. Lenny Henry articulated the many reasons for having diversity within media at this year’s BAFTA lecture.

Race, media and migration work together to create meanings and identities. It is not as simple as east vs west, white vs people of colour, victim vs perpetrator. It is also about being complex individuals with multiple intersecting identities and being able to employ those different identities – it is about the work you do as a POC, in these spaces. It is about acknowledging that work, respecting that work. Privilege is looking in the mirror and seeing simply ‘you’.


Photo by Katherine Leedale, as part of a photographic essay in collaboration with myself and performer Vera Chok. Click here to view all images. This photographic essay by Katherine Leedale is a journey myself and Vera took with a loom, around East London. It investigates the idea of carrying home and building identity in different spaces and locations, as part of the From The Jungle project. Originally exhibited at Dalston gallery Maybe a Vole.


References Ahmed, S & Castaneda, C & Fortier, A & Sheller, M ed. (2004) Uprootings/Regrounds: Questions of Home and Migration Berg, England

Anzaldua, Gloria (1987) Borderlands: La Frontera, Aunt Lute Books, San Francisco

Lugones, Maria (1987) ‘Playfulness, “World”-Travelling, and Loving Perception’, Hypatia, Volume 2, Issue 2, pages 3–19

Massey, Doreen (2005) For space, Sage publications, London

Ryoji, Soda (2007) People on the move: rural-urban interactions in Sarawak, Kyoto University Press & Trans Pacific Press, Japan

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