Monday 8 June 2015

Fifty shades of whiteness...

Okay, disclaimer: this is going to be a bit lot of a ramble. I'm going to say things that some people will not agree with, and that's okay. Ideas of racial and cultural identity are complicated, and I don't pretend to have the answers. But I'm hoping that one day I'll be vaguely on the right track. Here goes...

I am biracial. You can call me Eurasian, if that label appeals to you more. My mother is Chinese, born in Malaysia, where her family has lived for a number of generations. My father was born in Australia, where his family has lived for a number of generations, a descendant of Irish immigrants. His ethnic identity is... um, let's come back to that later.

Anyway, I was born and raised in Australia. Race was something that I was aware of, growing up in school. I remember singing, "I am, you are, we are Australian" in primary school - after all, we were one, but we were many, and from all the lands on Earth we came. We shared a dream, and sang with one voice.

Except that we didn't. In the school yard, there was the usual multicultural mix of Chinese, Vietnamese, Indian, Greek, Italian, Turkish, Egyptian, Lebanese... and then you had the "Aussies". The "white" kids.

So, as a kid, I described myself as half-Chinese. The other half, being "Aussie" from my dad's side was assumed.

The 90s saw the rise of such visionaries as Pauline Hanson and the One Nation party. I don't know if it was out of shame of my Chinese heritage, or just that I didn't want people putting me in a box, but I realised that I needed to claim my Australian identity, otherwise other people would take it away from my. So, for a long time, I insisted that I was Australian - born and raised here - and whatever genetics my parents added to the mix had no bearing on who I was as a person. That's how I felt for a long time.

That is, until I lived in Japan and, later, Vietnamese. Despite my Asian genetics, I was a gaijin - a white person - and that other W-word - "Western". My frustration grew when Japanese and Vietnamese people asked questions about the culture of "white people" and "Westerners" - like we were just one race of people who all looked the same, in much the same way that Pauline Hanson might have viewed Asians in general. And then they would ask about "Australian culture". To this day, I still have difficulty in describing exactly what Australian culture is. We're still a very young country, and have hardly been around to really establish some kind of National identity - and no, it wasn't born on the shores of Gallipoli.

I wasn't sure how to feel about having this "whiteness" thrust upon me. Especially when I think about the recent rallies across Australia where those against multiculturalism want to "Reclaim Australia". The thing is, when I think of the cultural diversity that our immigrant population has to offer, what does "white Australia" have to offer, other than cooking snags on the BBQ, downing tinnies of VB, and drunkenly shouting at people whilst wearing the Australian flag as a cape? What could be more Aussie than that?

Which brings me to libraries. Yep, I'm great at segues.

I recently read a really interesting article entitled, "Soliciting Performance, Hiding Bias: Whiteness and Librarianship". I absolutely agree that the mainstream ideas of libraries have been based on American and European models of learning and knowledge-sharing, which often reflects values of the privileged educated middle-class. And that the bulk of librarians, having been raised under such conditions continue to reinforce many of these attitudes, particularly when hiring staff. In doing so, they "paralyse" themselves, as they do not represent the diversity and cannot truly empathise with the needs of the communities that they serve.

The author epitomises this as "whiteness", defined as "white, heterosexual, capitalist and middle class"... the "ideology based on beliefs, value behaviors, habits and attitudes, which result in the unequal distribution of power and privilege". These lead to "gestures, enactments, and unconsciously repetitive acts which reinforce hegemony."

And yes, I can agree that libraries have been traditionally a tool for the privileged, and you can judge how privileged and middle-class a community is just by walking into their public library. I've worked in libraries in Darwin where plenty of indigenous people see it as "whitefellas" business - probably because they're mostly staffed by non-indigenous people, and full of books in English. I've seen and heard of libraries set up in the Pacific, organised using Dewey Decimal Classification, and bounded by strict rules, because those were the rules set by those who established the libraries, unfortunately incompatible with local knowledge systems and ways of thinking.

Call it privilege, or colonialism, or plain old-fashioned-ness. But "whiteness"? Something doesn't sit right with me about that. It's more complicated than that.

That's not to say that white privilege doesn't exist - it totally does. And maybe that's enough to validate this case for "whiteness" in libraries. But to me, it doesn't hold that much meaning. Maybe I'm blinded by the "white" privilege that I at least partially possess, and I need to be a "real" person-of-colour to truly appreciate the extent to which "whiteness" has paralysed libraries.

But one final thing that I find interesting from this article is the idea of libraries being neutral, which thus situates white as default, and in doing so supports white cultural values. In the same way, I feel like the moment that Australian identity shifts to truly embrace multiculturalism, then it's that neutrality of whiteness that is eradicated. And that scares people. I get that. I've been constantly denied part of my cultural identity all my life. It's confusing.

So, when people ask me about my ethnic identity these days, I say that I was born in Australia, descendant from Chinese and Irish immigrants. You can do with that information what you will.