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#IAM More Than My Labels.

I carefully write the words ‘YELLOW FEVER’, ‘NI HAU-NAAAH’ and ‘OTHER’ on sellotape in black marker. Then I take my place in front of the camera and stick them onto me with the help of Frantz. The bananas in the corner are ripe, I can smell them from here. As Frantz tests lighting I am a mix of nerves and determination. This isn’t my usual shoot where the aim is to look good. This time I’m trying to say something. I am trying to say ‘I Am More than the labels you assign me. I am more than what you may call me’.

This was the day in 2018 I did a shoot with photographer Frantz Birkholtz for my independent online platform, Three Magazine (currently offline). The issue theme was #IAM, where I gathered 3 creatives (one of them being me) to own and defy the labels they are assigned. It feels objective and demeaning to be doing this but also incredibly powerful as I take a bite of a banana (a nod to the diss of being yellow on the outside and white on the inside) and pull my eyes back, while the camera clicks off.

As the saying goes: Sticks and stones may break my bones but words will never break me definitely hurt too and can change your life forever. Words, we acknowledge now, have power. The pain of physical trauma heals but the emotional trauma of words are carried through bloodlines, generation to generation. Language is important. But this is not new news, for centuries humans have known this. Words such as ‘chink’ or ‘chinaman’ keep us chained in historic systemic oppression as literary hangovers previously used to demean, discriminate, demoralize. Their power today may be irrelevant- Chinese people no longer build railways as ‘cheap slaves’ in the US, or are classified as subpar humans by the Apartheid government- but they still shape our views of others and ourselves today.

Nice Racism

Growing up, the psuedo racist language used towards Asians seemed innocuous but in hindsight it’s this very perception which has allowed it to grow into full blown ‘anti-Asian sentiment’. A term that is just a nice way of undermining the racism of even being validated as what it is. The Coronavirus pandemic is an example of how quickly words can spiral into ways of thought and turn into feelings of superiority, taking many people who harbour it by surprise. As a result of the virus first being called the ‘Wuhan flu’ or ‘China virus’ many Chinese-Americans faced hate crimes and discrimination. But it would be simplistic to rule this as only racism, because it’s roots also come from anti-immigrant sentiments.

“This non-identity stems back to Apartheid where confusing laws [meant] Chinese people were simply largely ignored, and left out.”

Asian people have always been seen as outsiders, outside of their ‘homeland’ despite having played historic roles in other countries such as building the US Transcontinental Railroad in the 19th century and first coming to South Africa to work on the Transvaal gold mines in 1904. At least in America they are validated as citizens with a double barrel identity, but in SA Asians are still seen as immigrants. Naturalized, first gen, second gen or not. The ‘other’ label touches on this non-identity which stems back to Apartheid where confusing laws first deemed Chinese people specifically as non-white (Coloured), then ‘honorary white’ . This meant that they were treated differently according to the area they were in, the person and the situation. The end of the story being that they were simply largely ignored, and left out.

This non-validation results in a ‘nice racism’ which is widespread, allowed and which allows us to say things that are deeply hurtful and problematic without even thinking twice about it. It’s a unique kind of racism that has been left to flourish unchecked, and unacknowledged, so that it’s so deeply ingrained it’s not even classified as racist. It’s why I’m still allowed to say ‘chink’ and ‘chinaman’, and why you are allowed to repeat it.

Real Asian’ or Not

Nice racism had kept me in check for a long time on speaking out about the language South Africans use when it comes to Asian people. Something I have been only partially spared as a result of being half White (it is definitely much worse for ‘real Asians’). It served its purpose to make me doubt that I was allowed to be upset, let alone call someone out for pulling their eyes back at me, making jokes about my peripheral vision, shouting ‘Ching chong Chinaman’ on the streets, and other kids when I was younger outright laughing at me for simply being Asian. Not to mention the incredibly perverted, exoticized and fetishized sexual behaviour and language I’ve been subjected to for being an Asian woman (that’s another thing entirely).

“If I was going to lazily be referred to as that Asian girl, I was going to casually call it out.”

I doubted speaking about it because as a half Asian, my struggle was not the same as that of a ‘real Asian’, and I worried that Asian people would resent me calling myself that even though I don’t speak an Asian language and have never been to Asia. The label ‘other’ in terms of myself has an added element in this regard. But one day, maybe 3 years ago, I decided that if I was going to be told I was Asian by non-Asian people who deny my identity as being biracial I would own it entirely.

If I was going to lazily and humorously be referred to as that Asian girl, I was going to humorously and casually call it out by using the title to own it. If I wasn’t going to see an Asian person in the position to speak publicly about it, I was going to do it. And once I did that, and began calling people out on it, I began to uncover the subtle but impactful mechanism of language that allows it to thrive. I Am More was just the beginning of me starting a conversation, and owning my own story.


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