Race. Ethnicity. These are two words that seem similar. But they are two words that mean different things.
When I studied cultural studies at university, the terms ‘race’ and ‘ethnicity’ often appeared within academic texts that I read. The more I read about these two words, the more I realised they are more complicated than they sound.
Commonly, ‘race’ and ‘ethnicity’ encompass grouping and categorisation. But each word is its own concept. As people and culture change, history and stories rewrite themselves; each word builds upon lessons of the past and revelations of the present.
1) How do you define yourself racially or ethnically and why is it important to you? Please tell us about the racial makeup of your family if you were adopted or come from a colorful family.
I was born in Australia to very traditional Chinese-Malaysian parents. The word “Malaysian” refers to a nationality. There are predominantly three races living in Malaysia – Chinese, Malay and Indian. A very long time ago, the Chinese came and settled in Malaysia. My grandparents – and many generations before them – were born in Malaysia. My relatives and extended family don’t know where our ancestors originated. We don’t talk about Chinese history but the history of Malaysia. We’ve always considered ourselves Chinese people living in Malaysia. We don’t identify with China the country but with Chinese culture. Chinese Malaysian is similar to the term, say, Korean American.
Do I see myself as “ethnic”? Someone of “ethnic background”?
I’m a Chinese person living in Australia, so I should, shouldn’t I?
Depending on where you are in the world, the definition of “ethnic” seems to vary slightly.
The word “ethnic” is about exclusion and segregation. Photo: Mabel Kwong
The dictionary definition of “ethnic” actually forms a firm basis to think about this word. This concept. According to these standards, “ethnic” refers to the “characteristic(s) of a sizable group of people sharing a common and distinctive racial, national, religious, linguistic, or cultural heritage”. Certain markers ascribe belonging to particular ethnic groups.
As a person of Chinese descent who has lived in different places and acquaints myself with various cultures, I am always discriminated by people of the same race as I am.
To put it more simply, I am a Chinese-Australian who often see other Chinese people, especially those from East Asia, constantly distancing themselves from me.
Distancing themselves from me because at times I do not fulfil the conventional Chinese/Asian persona as a result of having resided in many countries and having several cultures rub off my personality.
A lot of times, it seems that all of us of the same race, e.g. Asians, seem to get along well. But sometimes underneath a peaceful facade, racism towards one another can be rife. Photo by Mabel Kwong.
There is no one universal definition of racism and it is known to exist in varied forms. The phrase “racial discrimination” has come to mean any exclusion or preference based on race, ethnicity and colour, nullifying the exercise of equal footing as one group asserts superiority over another.
My answer to this question is an emphatic YES. And I am not being sarcastic.
A couple of years ago, I was on a tram in Melbourne and overheard a very intriguing conversation about being white and non-white.
Sitting in front of and facing me on this particular tram ride were two Caucasian blue-eyed, blonde haired girls who I wagered were friends, Australian and undergraduate students not much older than twenty. Eavesdropping on their banter, I was highly amused to hear how full of themselves both ladies sounded as they chatted about being fair-skinned bodies.
I don’t exactly remember the conversation word-for-word, but I do remember parts of it vividly ‘til this day:
Girl 1: I’m heading to China during the holidays after this semester. When I finish uni, someday I want to work in China as a game-show host. You know, like on their wacky variety shows where they play games for outrageous prizes. And you know what? The people in China absolutely love white people! They think we’re so pretty. They look up to us because you are white! It’s so great!