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May 27, 2019 | by  | in Features |
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The Privilege of Ignoring Race

One day in class, my Year Six teacher asked me what I was, and I said: “I’m just a New Zealander.” Her response? “You can’t be ^just a New Zealander, or else you’d look like me.” I don’t think I need to specify her skin colour. And I want you to imagine how it would feel to get comments like that constantly, what that would do to your concept of self.

Before all else, I am compelled to point out that I’m a Kiwi. I’m a proud New Zealander, and some deep-rooted part of me feels the need to constantly defend that. Before someone inevitably asks, I can feel the spiel unfolding: I was born in New Zealand, and on my Dad’s side I’m a fourth gen. (Yes, Asians first arrived here in the 1800s.) I’m not saying that a first gen or recent immigrant cannot also be a Kiwi. My explanation is evidence of my defence mechanisms, sensitive from a lifetime punctuated by ignorant comments.

In 2019, I’m tired of the assumption that a classic Kiwi is someone white—not even someone Māori. Tired of people saying that someone is ‘half Kiwi, half other’ as if the ‘other’ half can’t be Kiwi too. (I’m begging you, learn the difference between nationality and ethnicity—New Zealander isn’t an ethnicity.) I’m tired of the medical forms that allow you to be a “New Zealand” European, but otherwise label you as solely Asian, Māori, or Pasifika. The forms continue to entrench the popular yet false concept that only people of European heritage are New Zealanders. A white person who arrives fresh from Britain is instantly accepted because they are the literal Kiwi archetype. Their New Zealand identities are a given, whereas I’ve had to guard mine all my life.

There was a point when I was constantly angry about racism. I kept starting strongly worded essays only to lose energy halfway through. I talked openly about discrimination, sometimes pathetically invoking the “it just isn’t fair.” I got mixed responses. I got told that my problems weren’t debilitating enough to worry about, as if experiencing the most discrimination was a competition. As if it wasn’t enough that New Zealand has never fully compensated for its White New Zealand immigration policy, or that the majority can still find a politician’s racist jokes funny. One of my peers helpfully inputted that “racism against Asians isn’t as bad as racism against African Americans so you shouldn’t let it get to you.” I was stunned into silence—a rarity for me.  

Another reaction to the ignorance was my attempt to Reject Race Entirely. Not in the sense of denouncing anyone of my own race. Not in the sense of ‘All Lives Matter’ or saying ‘I don’t see race’ as a scapegoat for not actively dealing with the issues. I just didn’t want people to keep asking me where I was from, or ‘really from’, or where my parents were from. In response to the scrutiny, I began declaring that my ethnicity was irrelevant to my personal identity.

Ethnicity doesn’t carry any weight without a cultural backing. As someone who speaks no Asian language, learned how to use chopsticks at restaurants, and has always had mostly white friends, I can safely say that my culture is of generic white New Zealand. Of $1 dairy lolly bags and barefoot BBQs. To me, my ethnicity is purely my DNA; it has little to do with who I really am. I’m not “white-washed” or “in denial”. I just want to identify however I choose to. I just want to be viewed, not as part of an ethnic mass, but, as myself.

The frustrating truth, however, is that society refuses to let me do that. I’m “rejecting my heritage”, whereas the ancestrally English–Irish guy next to me doesn’t need one. People with European heritage often don’t call themselves European, because Europe has nothing to do with them today. Fair enough. But by that same standard, I shouldn’t have to call myself Asian.

The fact is, white people can choose to escape their ethnicity and heritage. They have the privilege of Just Ignoring Race. They can form their own identities around their interests, passions, and family background. But I will always be Asian in New Zealand, even if I decide that being Asian is irrelevant to me. And, to be honest, I’m over the double standards.

You may have noticed that I’m calling myself ‘Asian’ without specifying. I’m not doing this to lump all Asians together; I have a complicated relationship with my racial identity. And the moment I explicitly state that my blood is Korean, Japanese, or Chinese, I become Korean, Japanese, or Chinese—as per everyone. I prefer to simply identify as an Asian New Zealander. Or, even better, as just a New Zealander. I only willingly identify as Asian for the purpose of promoting a more inclusive society. Being ethnically Asian may not have impacted my personality or identity, but my experiences of racism certainly have.

It’s worth mentioning that the problem cycle is refreshed by new immigrants who share the pre-conception that Kiwi means white. In my personal experience, it’s more often new immigrants who ask me where I’m from. If they feel they don’t belong, they see me as a kindred spirit. As Emma Ng points out in her book ^Old Asian, New Asian^ there’s tension between established non-white New Zealanders and recent immigrants. For example, I almost resent new Asian immigrants, for fear of being lumped in with them. And then I feel guilty. That shouldn’t be my guilt, it should be society’s.

I’m writing this because I’m over having to defend my New Zealand identity. I want to focus on my dreams, friends, and mental health, like anyone else. I don’t want to look introspectively at my racial background. But I feel like society’s shoved a load labelled ‘minority’ into my arms and I’m being forced to carry it. After 19 years, the weight’s becoming a little much. I’m realising that I’ve been hurt, and I want to allow the wounds to heal.

Certainly, I want to make change and create a more inclusive society, but it’s difficult. Actively thinking about racial ignorance makes me feel angry and helpless, and the easiest thing to do is think about something else.

I don’t want to keep talking about race, but I know I have to. It’s worth it if one more person will admit that New Zealand is racist. In Wellington, people think that if they’re not racist, nobody is, and that’s just not the truth. Just ask a non-white person to share their experiences.

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