A Conversation with Indra McKie

By Sumarlinah Raden Winoto

Indra McKie has published research on the Australian Asian experience, and shares her wealth of knowledge in what is Australia' fastest growing demographic.

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Your paper ‘Navigating Mixedness’ is a study of Asian-Australian youth coming to terms with the multiple cultures in their lives. How did you come to research this topic?

In Australia, Honours is an additional year on top of a bachelor’s degree. Due to the poor promotion (I only received one email and was proactive enough to chase it up with a tutor of mine), often becomes a missed opportunity for many young people that go through their undergraduate degree in Australia. Many may consider it another year of acquired HECS debt, or another year of study that takes them away from professional graduate roles. Yes, a year of honours is all those things, but it is also an opportunity to experience ‘research’ and fast track you into a Doctor of Philosophy afterwards.

To me, research is the optimisation of my inherent curiosity, it allowed me to explore a segment of knowledge. Then present those ideas to audiences in a way that is so satisfying when you see that lightbulb moment in their face. I chose to write about Asian Australia because I had so many authentic experiences that I needed to decipher. Why do these things happen to me, and not to other people around me?

I was able to find an academic methodology that suited the kind of first-hand experiences I wanted to draw upon. Putting it bluntly, this paper started because of me. Ultimately, for this to work I couldn’t hide behind a safety net of a mask, I needed to be authentic by recognising my own faults, but also critical when embracing my strengths. As you read through my paper, I do write many things that others may consider private, but to write ethnographically you can’t hide anything. And I truly believe this is what people want to read—and I want them to read it—to relate to it, otherwise I would have written it for myself and not bothered publishing at all.

As someone with Indonesian heritage, what is it like being ‘othered’ in the country that is Indonesia’ closest neighbour?

It is very discerning that people are unable to recognise Indonesians, and still require framing them as ‘Asian’ in attempts to know them, when rather it may be healthier to relate as neighbours. I use this quote from John Law in my paper, and to emphasise it here, people use racial labels and stereotypes in attempts to know one another, rather than thinking how they might relate to each other. Knowing is actualised through organising and categorising, I acknowledge this in my paper when I describe racial categorisation as a natural urge. Asian, Black and White have the power to contain people to a ‘fixedness’, but also an opportunity for ‘mixedness’ when these categories unavoidably combine.

If anything, just because Indonesia is geographically Australia’s closest neighbour doesn’t necessarily mean that Indonesian culture saturates the Asian landscape in Sydney. In 2016, the most recent census, data revealed that China, India and the Philippines brought in highest number of new first-generation Australians. So, we can see why Australian’s aren’t as familiar with Indonesians as much as we may think.

Through your work, and personal experience, what do you think makes up culture? What is important, and what things do we falsely measure ourselves against?

A large part of what I wanted to explore in my research was this idea of being mixed, and in an academic study you need to be clear about the language and terms that you choose and how they are defined in your academic field. I had to find precise definitions for words that I have used interchangeably in past conversations. This can be problematic, when people argue with the same vocabulary but have different context or definitions in mind (you all probably know the feeling). Acknowledging when we have been wrong and making a conscientious effort to improve is my personal remedy to such phenomena.

I fall into this interchangeable habit in my paper, often I will say racial identity, then cultural identity, in retrospect I could have been clearer about this. From my research, culture is events and experiences that are learnt and lived through experience, whereas race is something you are labelled to and ascribed to by yourself and others. Mixed people feel conflicted with our identity, when we are told we are a certain race (or combination of races), but usually do not possess any experiences of that culture to support this label. I feel more Indonesian when I live there and experience culture, but not so much when I live my day to day life in Australia. I know I am Indonesian but it’s different to feeling Indonesian.

This is a similar feeling for any people who are beyond second generation migrants, they lack lived experience in their family’s homeland —often left to experience the culture through artefacts such as photographs and stories.  I investigated the theory of information satisficing, which is the process where an individual chooses alternative options to the societal standards that satisfies their personal goals and values—a perfect bundle of their own mixedness.

How do you navigate feelings of inadequacy as a mixed-race person?

The first step is to realise that this feeling of inadequacy is based on a society that privileges characteristics that you may not possess (whether you live in an Eastern or Western country), and would be extremely painful, expensive and timely to acquire. To strangers, our racial label is often determined by appearance, to the point where you could work so hard to become this perfect individual— smart, talented, charismatic. But your hard work can be quickly dismissed by a limiting stereotype, ‘oh, it’s because your Asian’. Because we all live through intersectional role, this experience is the same for our other identity markers. For example, when someone hits on me or sexually looks at me when I am trying to do my job, I feel instantly reduced to a label of ‘sexualised woman’—they don’t properly respect my work ethic or professionalism. In the absence of respect, we can easily dismiss people’s positive perspective of themselves, damaging their sense of self.

In your paper, you note that being mixed Asian and white Australian is the fastest growing demographic of mixed people in Australia. Transglobal identities are seemingly on the rise everywhere else as well, what challenge does this bring for individuals carrying these identities, and for societies at large.

I find it really intriguing how you’ve framed this question to automatically be negative. Yes, there are challenges, but I think this inevitable growth in ambiguous racial identities is an opportunity. The internet and globalisation are bringing more people together from across the globe, to the point where mixed race could one day be the majority. When we imagine a world of only a global identity, who knows what we can achieve once the difference of ‘race’ is no longer relevant.

You speak on experiencing suppression of half your identity by being raises in Australia. How did you come to this realisation, and how do you undo this?

I think this really hit me when I was a bit older, after high school for sure. I had more say in deciding what I liked to be identified as, and I was financially freer to experience this (think fashion, plane tickets or performances). I also had more experiences to draw on and a greater level of self-awareness.

Going back to what I said earlier, I lacked culture, because I had never really lived in Bali, rather I describe my eariler trips as, ‘touristing’ or ‘going on vacation’. On these trips, I would do Western things in a different landscape—sun tan on the beach, get my nails done by Asian ladies (can’t escape this race and class tied occupation anywhere in the world unfortunately). In last half of my paper I talk about information grounds, gathering to a place for a reason then whilst spending time together the individuals end up absorbing information and knowledge from each other. Funerals, celebrations, family meals, we gather for different reasons. But like a flower soaking in the sun, we absorb information from each other—behaviours, traditions and rituals that can be considered culture.

So, I started participating more in ‘family things’ that I may have found boring when I was a child. And I’m lucky enough to be welcomed into places where cultural events take place and be able to communicate with people who can explain what the hell is happening. It’s also important to ask questions, even if you are unable to express a question due to language barriers. Because people are always willing to indulge the curiosity of others, it shows them that we care about their life and experiences. This is how we can undo suppression, I know—very cliche— but it is the coming together of people with open minds and access to information that is vital to self-empowerment.

Being mixed race, and especially ethnically ambiguous, can mean it is second nature for us to acclimatise quickly to different environments. How does this influence how you see yourself? Do you sometimes worry you lose yourself in so much fluidity?

Fluidity is scary. But change and chaos is natural in adolescence as our body, social landscape and mentality changes. As I noted in my paper, my participants seemed notably more passive towards defining their fluidity as adults they can structure their lives around people who support and empower their identity.

Currently, it does help that the Asian region I do identify as is very positively embraced in Australian culture. My experience may be very different to others whom are deemed unfavourable in the eyes of Australian media. For others, rhetoric from media may seep into their adult life by people outside of their chosen circles. This is usually why I choose to say that I’m half Balinese, over half Indonesian, as Australians have a hugely positive sentiment with Bali. I know, terrible that I purposely do this, but it really does change the way other people interact with me.

So, in all, I do worry, I will always worry, because we are always growing and changing. When I do stop worrying about myself, because I think I’ve got it all figured out, that’s the point where we should seriously worry—because we’ll never have everything figured out!

The “Eurasian persona” illustrates the “non-threatening” person of colour that many multiracial people are perceived to be (“oh, you’re not THAT Asian though’), how did you see this impacting multiracial youth you interviewed, (how) does it impact you?

In terms of my research, “non-threatening” people of colour as you have chosen to say, weren’t very useful in conducting my study. Because of their frictionless experience as a mixed person, their commentary on racial ambiguity was narrow. They had a limited array of eye-opening experiences to draw from. This is a topic I would like to investigate in future research, and how these experiences are just as important when giving voice to the mixed-race narrative. 

Read Indra’s ‘Navigating “Mixedness”: The Information Behaviours and Experiences of Biracial Youth in Australia’ here. Open Access promotes free public access to research publications and data on the Internet without financial, legal, or technical barriers.


Leah McIntosh