Notes on interracial and (post)colonial traveling

Some interracial couples may have some misgivings about traveling abroad together, particularly to places that are reputed to be intolerant – Saudi Arabia, Dubai and a host of other predominantly Muslim countries are quick to come up as examples. I can kind of understand why. The ghost of anti-miscegenation laws, racism, and the effects of migrant sex work and pornography (I know, Muslim countries don’t necessarily have these issues, all at once) have a role to play in society’s ugly perception of interracial relationships, but I don’t think couples have that much too worry about as long as they stay respectful of the places and peoples they visit.

But while traveling in my own country Malaysia as one half of an interracial couple who is female and of darker skin tone, I was struck by the patriarchal attitudes and imperialist nostalgia/longing that exist at the heart of tourism.

Some things I noticed:

1.Everybody ignores me. In shops, restaurants, and hotels, I become invisible. Unless I open my mouth no one is going to give me a second look much less acknowledge my presence. Perhaps as a woman I am viewed as the insignificant, meek and mute half. And perhaps as a local, a native, I am unimportant and someone not worth to impress. But it’s also likely that I am often viewed as the gold-digging Asian stereotype, but without the mini skirt and platform shoes. Crudely put, the White man is viewed as the one with the money, making him a worthwhile object of attention and reverence.

2.“Good afternoon, Sir!”, “Can I help you, Sir?”,”Yes, Sir!”. Going to places with my boyfriend and being greeted with “Hello, Sir” and “Good afternoon, Sir” makes my blood boil. Never would the complimenting “Ms”, “Madam” or even “Ma’am” be accorded to someone like me (See 1). Again, the White man is revered as a most valuable and esteemed customer, adding a kind of prestige to the establishment, “See, a white tourist has walked into my shop, he must have been reading Lonely Planet. How my heart swells with pride.”

3.We started seeing ourselves as “squirm-inducing” subjects. Being a product of conquest and racism, specific combinations of heterosexual couplings (Older, larger, White man/Younger, smaller-built, Asian woman) have mushroomed across the post-colonial, developing world. Southeast Asia sees no shortage of this classic combination. And so it doesn’t help that in Malaysia, local women are meant and made to be fetishised. Airline companies built their image upon the looks and curves of their female flight attendants (Malaysia Airlines and Air Asia, I’m talking to you), who are the first in line to welcome visitors from abroad (“Before you feast your eyes on the beauty of our country, feast your eyes on our women first!”). Which brings to me the trickier issue of coming to terms with being complicit in perpetuating the myths about women of “the Orient”. Ourselves fitting the stereotype, looking at other interracial couples like us can be a discomforting experience.

4.Many tourists depend on imperialist nostalgia to inform their interest in the places they visit (yes, sometimes former colonised subjects, too). English cottages, once homes of British officials of yore, which have been opened to the public as hotels and restaurants in hilltop destinations in Malaysia recreate the delights of colonial high-living, are obvious examples of such places. Coined by anthropologist Renato Rosaldo, imperialist nostalgia is defined as longing for the culture that their colonial ancestors have destroyed while at the same time making racial domination seem innocent and pure. In Yogyakarta, it came as hardly a coincidence that the Dutch represented a significant proportion of tourists from Europe. However, compared to Singapore and Malaysia, traces of Indonesia’s colonial past appear to be have been greatly diminished. Other than the odd word in public spaces that can be recognised as Dutch, colonial memories exist in more subtle ways. So I wondered what was drawing many visitors from Holland to Indonesia?

Traveling is a privileged act of observing and of vicariously experiencing the lives of others. Once a preserve of the elite few, travel has become democratised to allow the rest of the world to wield the power of the gaze, brush against the Other and come out unscathed, and be a conquerer of the unbeaten path. But what of travelers who are self-conscious of how their presence impact on the observed? Macon D’s blog Stuff White People Do catalogues some thought-provoking writings along these themes. But what about the power-relations that impact on non-White tourists? I have to admit, my thoughts on this are still pretty undeveloped, so comments would be most appreciated.

Book review: Race, Space, and the Law

First published at Feminist Review


Institutional racism: we all know it exists, yet many deny it does. In this book, Sherene Razack, author of Looking White People in the Eye, edits a set of deeply disturbing accounts of racially-motivated public policies and resultant public consciousness in North America. Beginning with the premise “Race is Space,” Race, Space, and the Law unearths half-forgotten history of racial injustice and challenges the romanticisation of European settlement which is so deeply embedded in Canadian and American folklore. In other words, it seeks to unpack and debunk the notion of the peaceful collaboration between settlers and the aboriginal community, and the idea that the Native peoples have “always accepted, and to some degree, were willing to agree that being the possessors of a land need not necessarily be the only source of legitimacy of its use.”

Razack’s book brings together disparate laws and fragments of history—laws on drinking establishments, the ban on “unparliamentarian” language, midwifery, mosque-building, a murder of a sex worker, and inner city slum dwellings—to subvert the “universal” values of justice upheld by the law. There are far too many examples in Race, Space, and the Law that illustrate these modes of subversion and resistance in brilliant, infuriating colour to fit into this review, so I will only be able to share a few.

In “Keeping the Ivory Tower White,” Carol Schick sets the predominantly White University of Saskatchewan as a stage for the maintenance of White privilege by exploring the responses of White students to multicultural education. The course, which focused heavily on Aboriginal culture and history, brought out feelings of discomfort. As members of a respectable and intellectual domain of the university, students founded their discomfort and racial insecurity on rationality to side step racist or non-PC misgivings about the content of the course. Schick argues that by making disclaimers and claiming credentials as a feminist sympathizer, students can project themselves as utterly reasonable people—especially as ones who understand the necessity of civility and self-control as they secure White privilege and entitlement.

Renisa Mawani’s “In Between and Out of Place” describes the situation of biracial individuals who symbolised the destabilisation of colonial power through the blurring the racial boundaries in mid nineteenth-century British Columbia. Racial categories, often a product of British colonialism, were crucial to maintaining the “racial order of things,” that determined who had certain rights to land and citizenship. Biracial men and women were perceived to be troublemakers and untrustworthy, and hence there were strict laws on alcohol purchase and distribution for this group. The logic behind this was motivated by the fear of interracial mixing because it might result in, quite simplistically, more biracial people.

Perhaps the most recent challenge to Whiteness is the growing presence of Islam in the West, particularly after the September 11th attacks. In Engin Isin and Myer Siemiatycki’s essay “Making Space for Mosques,” xenophobia and Islamophobia emerged from behind the cloak of neighbourly respectability when the building of new mosques in Toronto was met with resistance. The level of restrictions placed on the Muslim places of worship, particularly on those built on sites of formerly Christian worship, was unprecedented. Suddenly, the “change” a mosque would bring to the look of the neighbourhood became a prime concern for the surrounding residents that resulted in the physical curtailment of the mosque’s development, including the reduction of the minaret’s height and in some ways, its potent symbolism.
These essays reiterate the fundamental premise that space, particularly a public one, produces identities of privilege and degeneracy. I highly recommend this book to people interested in marginalised history and its place in institutionalised racism today. Perhaps a dose of history will give naysayers of institutional racism some food for thought, too.

Latter day Victoriana: Drawing similarities between Compulsion and Bride and Prejudice

Crossposted on Feminist Review.

The repressive, corseted Victorian culture of the novel found a perfect foil in the rigid caste strictures of Indian society. (The Times, 27 April 2009)

Parminder Nagra in Compulsion (2009)
Parminder Nagra in Compulsion (2009)

Nesrine Malik’s scathing review of the ITV drama Compulsion got me thinking a lot more about modern day adaptations of pre-20th century literary works featuring ethnic Indian actors. She has fair enough reasons to be perturbed: it seems that when diversity is presented on British TV, what’s served up for a wider, mostly white audience are actually tired stereotypes of overbearing family members, arranged marriages, and the ever recurring theme of honour and shame. Oppressive family values have become the only representative force for British Asians in the media.

The impetus for disaster in Compulsion begins with Parminder Nagra’s character Anjika, who flatly refuses a marriage arranged by her dad, sending out all sorts of warning signals to women out there who disobey The Great Patriarch. The one person who knows of her troubles happens to be her sleazy chauffeur, Flowers (played by Ray Winstone). He offers to ‘fix’ her potential suitor in exchange for one night of sex with her, which she later, tearfully, accepts. So far very Indecent Proposal.

This leads to her discovering how great sex with Flowers is, sealing her doomed fate. But with every tryst she demands of him, we are made to feel diminishing sympathy for her, and somehow more for Flowers, as he is by now treated as a sex object(!). Murder and a spontaneous yet elaborate cover-up ends with Flowers dead, leaving Anjika happily off the hook to marry her secret White boyfriend. The end.

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The ideal Muslim man is… blond and blue-eyed.

Isn’t it depressing that according to Nesrine Malik the so-called ideal Muslim man is blond and looks suspiciously white? Apparently, this beautiful mythical creature can be found in the popular Turkish soap opera, Noor, where he can be seen observing Islamic customs like a good Muslim son-in-law (*half-hearted sarcasm*). She writes:

[…] the male protagonists (Muhanned in Noor’s case, above right) are fair-skinned Muslim men with blue eyes who epitomise the model man as far as Arab women reared on western media images are concerned – a man in the mould of sensitive western heartthrobs, who still observes Ramadan.

[…] This vision of the ideal man can be found among women in the Muslim world who grew up on a diet of western media and chick flicks, but also to those reared in a conservative environment in the west. Of course, in real life this “Tom Cruise in a gallabiya (or insert other ethnic dress here)” – as my sister jokingly refers to him – rarely makes an appearance on your doorstep or anywhere else. So, instead, many women caught between cultural expectations and conditioning await the perfect halfway house: a liberal Muslim who is comfortable with all the trappings of a westernised lifestyle but is also abstemious and observant, striking a perfect Arabesque ballet pose between what your friends might think, and what your parents might prefer.

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Migration: Belonging and displacement

In an early sequence of a 1991 Channel Four television feature, Northern Crescent (a film about the white-Asian conflicts in Britain following the Rushdie affair), shows a new primary school headmaster, Mr. West, who introduces himself at assembly to his students, most of whom are of Pakistani ancestry.

Mr. West asks the students to name the greatest storybook in the world. After replies such as The Guinness Book of Records and Ghostbusters, he tells them that it is The Bible – his own ethnicity is thus quite apparent. He proceeds to read them the story of Ruth as an example of people making their home in a new place and being welcomed there – he applies this to his own arrival at the school that morning, seemingly oblivious to its application to the Pakistani immigration in this Yorkshire town (the film will go to question whether any sense of ‘welcomness’ is given to these people). The headmaster says he’s not surprised to have received such a welcome, as it is part of the great tradition of this country and particularly of Yorkshire. He notes that of the 180 pupils in the school, 176 were born in Yorkshire. He then asks them whether they would say that are Yorkshire boys and girls. Only four students (one of Pakistani ethnicity) put up their hands, leaving the headmaster looking surprised and perplexed.[1]

Mr. West’s ethnocentrism (i.e. references to The Bible as the best book ever when talking with presumably a mostly Muslim audience) and naïve notions of belonging is commonplace here in Britain. Despite the fact that the students above feel ambivalent about their ‘Britishness’ or even perhaps ‘Englishness’ (which by the way is claimed almost exclusively by white folks), most people in Britain would still identify themselves in terms of nationality and would assert that this is an essential part of their being.

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Confronting Malay privilege

It is true that whenever I write about the state of feminism in Malaysia, I write from a point of view of a privileged Malay whose ethnicity is a dividing force in Malaysia. While I write about the challenges of Muslim women with a global view in mind, my own Malayness oppresses every one else in my backyard who does not fit the exacting and discriminating elements that make the Malay composite.

priv-i-lege, noun
A special right, advantage, immunity granted or available only to a particular person or group of people.

Everyone has some form of privilege one way or the other; either it’s physical ability, economic background, heterosexuality and/or possessing the Y chromosome. However, the more vicious forms are those that are enshrined in the federal constitution to benefit only a select group of people. For decades, the Malay community has been socialised into thinking that they are made of something quite special, that the state of their specialness, or supremacy, is the norm. Supreme entitlement to such things as greater access to university education, public funding, jobs, and homes allows for the upward social mobility of those lucky enough to be born Malay and Muslim in Malaysia. This is how the Malay middle-class was born. But when their privileges are challenged, it is seen as an attack on their humanity and on their way of life.

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Notes on the Anti-capitalist Feminist Event, London, Valentine's Day 2009

Spending the day talking about Bangladeshi garment worker’s working conditions and sex-trafficking may not be everybody’s idea of celebrating Valentine’s Day. But there I was, rather than getting loved-up by candlelight with Whitney Houston bursting her lungs in the background, I was brushing shoulders with left-wing trade unionists, sex workers’ rights activists, and a rainbow coalition of fellow feminists at the School of Oriental and African Studies in London.

The Anti-Capitalist Feminist Event: Gender, Race, and Class, appeared to be a successful meeting of hearts and minds. The deluge of attendees were broken up into different workshops of their choice. And what great workshops they were. Suffice to say, I was often torn between a couple of them that coincided with each other. The first workshop that I decided (with some difficulty) to go to was about reproductive freedoms, and it was very good. Rather than debating whether or not abortion was a moral choice, the facilitators – a few of them hailing from Feminist Fightback, one member of Maternity Action, and one who is a founding member of New York City’s Haven Coalition discussed rights to abortion and other maternal care rights from dimensions that I don’t hear about very often – this is largely because the very issue of abortion is too often clouded by the impractical (and very dangerous) moral debates surrounding it.

I was glad that abortion gets mentioned as a race issue because it often gets swept under the carpet. The disproportionately high number of abortion among ethnic minority women in the UK and US can be construed as a kind of unwanted population control and that some babies (read: white and middle-class) are “more valuable than others”, argued Gwyneth Lonergan of Feminist Fightback. Now, being headlined as a feminist event with a special perspective on race and class, hers was an important statement and is a reminder that we still live in a hierarchy that places ethnic minority women (particularly if they happen to be immigrants) firmly at the bottom of the social pile. Equally distressing is the inaccessibility to free (NHS-funded) maternal care faced by foreign women who:

  • have just arrived in the UK, with no proof of settling in the country long-term
  • possess spousal/dependent UK visas
  • are on a work visa that hasn’t been renewed via a points-based system
  • are trafficked into the country

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Foreign bodies as sexual playgrounds

This post was featured in the first Asian Women Blog Carnival at ciderpress’s blog.

So there was this American guy, Jake, who sat with Gareth and me at lunch last Saturday and was telling us how much he wanted to go to Malaysia because it’s apparently a great place to meet women, and claimed that the country is chockfull of hot-bodied beauties. He also didn’t waste time to explain that the reasons behind his quest was down to his general lack of luck with women and self-confessed socially-inept ways. And so like the many sad, lonely white men with money to squander, he’d like to try his luck with Asian women because they, y’know, love white men, are ultra-feminine and so willing to please, and all that BS.

Now, this was unflattering and offensive on extreme levels to both my boyfriend and myself. First, while being the target audience for this kind of orientalist fantasy talk, Jake had sensed that he was in the company of a fellow Asian fetishist. Secondly, there was a sense that I can help him accomplish his quest, or rather conquest, by offering tips on picking up women from my remote corner of the world.

He chose the wrong woman to discuss his fantasies with.

Men like Jake perpetuate racism, sexism, and colonialism under a more subtle guise in that it’s not about denigrating Otherness, but rather desiring and yearning for it. Today, foreign bodies (places, women, food) are not the scary and mysterious things of the past anymore. Instead they are to be embraced. They make you hip, worldly, in touch with distant cultures of peoples you may never meet in your lifetime (Yirgacheffe coffee, anyone?). So on the face of it, fascination with the exotic Other doesn’t look like racism and the colonial conquest of yore.

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Weekend round-up of favourite reads 7/2

It’s been a whirlwind of a week: got stranded in Amsterdam on account of deadly snow, got an article rejected by a magazine (oh, the pain!), baked cupcakes on an industrial scale for charity, and received more support for my film and sexuality discussion project.

But it has also been a really good week for online reading. Some articles hit so close to home – particularly about what it feels like having Britain’s great new idea of identity cards forced down the throats of foreign residents like me. Now, it’s hard enough for me being a non-EU passport holder – from the humiliating amount of scrutiny over my national origins and whereabouts when traveling by air within Europe, the often disheartening job prospects, and of course to the intensely laborious visa applications – with all that and more, it’s hard not feel like I’m not wanted here. The Guardian’s Noorjehan Barmania in her column, This Muslim Life shares my deeply-felt agony:

There are other subtle changes that suggest the long fingers of the government are sneaking into my life. For instance, a few weeks ago came an unusual request. To comply with a Home Office wish to establish the legitimacy of foreign workers, my employer said, everyone had to provide a copy of their passport. If our passport were foreign – South African, in my case – copies of any supporting documentation were necessary to confirm that we were legitimate UK residents.

I dragged my heels, complying under protest, feeling as if I was being watched, and dismayed that it seemed necessary to watch people like me.

This comes at a time when it is possible for me to make an application for British citizenship, but the prevailing climate of suspicion makes me worry. Does Britain really want its foreign immigrants? That slogan “British jobs for British workers” is suddenly everywhere, creating a distinctly xenophobic mood.

Read the rest here.

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Malaysian mail-order brides: what fairy tale?

Excerpted from The New Straits Times:

Once upon a time, Snow White, Sleeping Beauty and Cinderella had to battle witches and overcome spells to find Prince Charming. Now, young women are discovering that the road leading to “happily-ever-after” is wider, shorter and much less of an obstacle course.

In recent years, a large number of the fairer sex have chosen to sign up with matrimonial websites to increase their chances of meeting a knight in shining armour. The mail-order bride industry has been around for ages. However, limited to print ads in monthly magazine, singles had a slim chance of finding their perfect mate.

There is something decidedly twisted about comparing mail-order brides to fairy tale princesses. But perhaps due to sheer naivety, the news report ignores the fact that mail order brides have long been an established object of racism, poverty, sexism, and comedy. Despite Malaysia’s notoriety for pompous display of first-rate infrastructure and tall buildings, it shares with a number of foreign bride exporting-nations the kind of urban and rural impoverishment that invariably affects women the worst.

So, for the many women involved, the reasons are largely economic. But there is nothing romantic about meeting and marrying someone you barely know for the sake of an improved standard of living. Except for Snow White, Sleeping Beauty and Cinderella were, after all, born from affluence, not economic refugees. For the men who search through mail-order bride websites, however, it’s all about accomplishing an impossible romantic dream:

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