A conversation with Rachel Tai
Rachel Tai is an artist from Melbourne. She speaks here on being multiracial, insecurities and understanding the tanglement of being a person of colour with white privilege. We previously talked to Rachel in 2018.
Rachel and Sumarlinah spoke about juggling cultural responsibility, the importance of language, and reflect on what it might be like for white people to raise multiracial children.
Do you think a lot about being biracial? In which ways does it influence your life? Where do you notice it?
Honestly I don’t think about being biracial a lot on a day to day level. Until I became an adult I would say that I hardly ever paid much attention to it, being biracial was just the way it was, similar to being brunette or tall, it wasn’t something that I had to decide to be, or work at being, it was just a part of who I am. It wasn’t really a discussion or conflict in my life, it wasn’t something I invested much time thinking about until over the last few years when people have started engaging me directly on it.
It’s hard to say in what ways being biracial influences your life, because I’ve only ever experienced a biracial existence so it’s a kind of everything and nothing situation. It would intrigue me to see how other people either White Australian or Asian Australian people who know me would answer that on my behalf, for example my extended family on either side, the vast majority of whom who aren’t biracial, would probably see distinct differences in their experiences of growing up to mine that I just don't see beyond being idiosyncrasies of my family.
In terms of my life now I feel that it’s often in the back of my mind because now it is a discussion and it is a conflict for me personally, and it is something that I have to decide how to be and it is something I have to work at being.
There are many more people who could give you every day examples of how being biracial effects their lives, but truth be told I don’t feel much of an impact on that level. I white pass so instances of direct racism or prejudice are not something I often experience, and I’ve never felt prohibited or confined by my ethnicity. The big question for me at the moment, which is influencing me as a person, is am I and how can I be a person of colour when I have experienced and benefitted from so much white privilege?
Has being ethnically ambiguous played a role in your life?
Certainly it has because it’s a part of who I am, but I don’t think that I have gained or lost opportunities in my life because of it. Again for me I find that my ethnicity has played has had less of a demonstrable role than perhaps a background motif in my life. I wasn’t treated this way or that way because of my ethnicity, but again I think that’s because I white pass, I don’t think most people see me as ethnically ambiguous, they see me as white. And up until recently I was happy enough with that.
What changed? On a similar note, how do you balance the invisibilisation of a white supremacist society, with the privileges being white passing brings with it?
I think I used to be happy enough with people considering me and treating me as white because it seemed like the easiest option for everyone. My cultural identity didn’t mean much to how I defined myself and it also meant that I didn’t have to have a conversation with people that I didn’t feel comfortable or confident having. In fact I still find the conversation uncomfortable and believed they would too. And also it’s because I always assumed it wasn’t malicious that they were treating me as white, that it was either because they genuinely didn’t know and I wasn’t correcting them, or because they did know that I was mixed race but they weren’t going to treat me any differently to their white friends because that would be racist. (which is definitely something that needs unpicking by people more well versed than I am)
The thing that has changed I suppose is the way I look at the whole thing, which is a change that has come about because there are now more conversations regarding race and cultural and political identity happening in both my day to day life and also in broader society. I assumed it was a good thing that I was treated as if I was white, that I was benefitting from it. And I certainly was, there is no denying that I’ve had my fill of white privilege. But what I’m now coming to realise is that I’ve also missed out on a lot of who I am, my heritage, my value in society, by not embracing or even knowing how to embrace being bi-racial.
Being raised in a predominately white society means that you learn essentially learn to whitewash yourself. For instance, in my 13 years of Australian primary and secondary schooling 95-100% of my class room teachers were white, people in the news and on television and movies were white, characters in books were white, most of my family was white, and I looked white, so it was very easy to just be white. And the consequence of that is that now I’m not confident identifying as a person of colour, I don’t feel like I warrant a seat at that table, I don’t know how to have conversations about my cultural identity. And if I’m not confident or comfortable having that conversation, how can I expect anyone else to engage with me first, or engage on my behalf?
Now what’s easier is to just stay at the back of the room and being supportive, but be quiet, and let others take up the mantle for me to be the visible and vocal person of colour. Which, when I’m being honest with myself, feels like just slightly less of a cop out than being happy enough being white.
Being raised in a predominately white society means that you learn essentially learn to whitewash yourself.
Can you reflect on your relationship to your parents and siblings? How do you think their attention to race accompanied you in your own growth?
I haven’t had particularly in-depth discussions with any of my family members about being mixed race, which I think is reflective of the way that particularly my mother raised us. I can’t speak for my siblings, but growing up I never felt that because I was mixed race that I was different or abnormal to my family or my peers. It didn’t feel like at the time much attention was paid to race by either of my parents.
I would like one day to have a conversation with my mother about this. She is a white woman raising non-white children. She’s the only member of her side of the family to be doing so. She grew up in a small country Victorian town where I doubt any non white people lived. I don’t know how much she thought about our cultural upbringing as children. I wonder if she realised before her first child was born that none of her children would look like her. She cooked Chinese food everyday of our childhood for my dad, she sent us to Chinese school, she hosted Chinese New Year, she certainly made an effort to incorporate my fathers culture into our upbringing. But I wonder if there was a day when she realised that her kids wouldn’t share the same heritage and culture as her and what choices she made because of that. I think that would have probably been more obvious to my dad from the outset because his kids would be being raised in a predominately white community, extraordinarily different to his own upbringing. Reflecting on my childhood now though I do think that my parents were probably much more conscious of us growing up biracial than I ever knew at the time, but I’m grateful for the fact they managed to create an extremely inclusive environment for us to grow up in.
What do you find important for how you see yourself reflected in the world? what do you wish you would see more of?
I would like to see multiculturalism and diversity portrayed as a normal part of everyday Australian life. I want an episode of Neighbours where they’re celebrating Lunar New Year and an episode of Home and Away where they’re celebrating Greek Easter. And I think that’s something that will happen when we get more and more people of diverse backgrounds involved behind the scenes on creative projects, throwing ideas into the pot and making decisions. Diversity at the ideas stage seems key to me.
How does your self-understanding influence the people you enjoy engaging with?
The people I most enjoy engaging with are the ones that don’t have a concrete self-understanding. The most interesting conversations you can have are with intelligent, open minded people who are willing frankly discuss short-comings in their own understanding or knowledge. I think often we can be too quick to allow people to categorise themselves, and just take that at face value. I think it’s most fun to speak to people who aren’t quite sure because you’re less likely to get a homogenised answer.
How you feel towards the different cultures you’ve inherited? how do you sit with feelings of responsibility towards them? how was this influenced by your childhood?
I think often we can be too quick to allow people to categorise themselves, and just take that at face value. I think it’s most fun to speak to people who aren’t quite sure because you’re less likely to get a homogenised answer.
My conflict is the fact that I feel so comfortable being classed as a white Australian, it’s the culture that I feel most affinity to. Perhaps that’s because while there are lots of biracial people I don’t know that I’ve ever experienced much in the way of a biracial community or culture. It makes me feel guilty that I feel so comfortable as a white Australian and not comfortable as an Asian Australian, and for me it would feel completely false to characterise myself as Chinese-Malay. I’ve only been to Malaysia twice, both times when I was a child, and I’ve never been to China. I can’t speak the language and could tell you very little about the politics or culture. I know that I’m not a white Australian technically, but at times that’s what it feels like, a technicality, that it all the truest sense of it, I’m much closer to being a white Australian than mixed race. The guilt of not belonging to what is 50% of my heritage is the distinguishing feature that defines me culturally as a biracial as opposed to just white.
How have you come to understand the concept of “being enough” in regards to cultural and racial representation?
Genealogically I’m mixed race but I don’t know how to be that in a culture sense. Sometimes I think I don’t need to put any effort into it, I am biracial so whatever I do and however I am in society is contributing to my community and culture. Other times I think that if I allow myself to embrace a predominantly white culture then I’m effectively white-washing myself. Then I think it would disingenuous for me to behave in any other way, that I have felt so much of the benefits of being white that I can’t possibly ‘qualify’ as a person of colour. Then I feel that it would be wrong to discount myself and people like me from that culture. I tend to go in circles with it, and I don’t have a clear answer. I feel as if I both am and am not a person of colour. And in terms of ‘being enough’ at the moment the balance feels as if I’m just white enough to be considered white, but not not-white enough to be a person of colour. I don’t think I like it that way, but it feels like the most honest way to describe it.
You’ve touched on the trickiness of self-identifying as a person of colour; and the sense of guilt around (not) belonging, figuring out how much of that sense of belonging you yourself can influence or control. How does that play out in your life? Do you believe you can do work to be closer to your father's culture, without feeling like an imposter as well?
I don’t know is the honest answer. Sometimes I think it’s a bit too far gone for me, that because I’m so comfortable being white that any attempt to get to know my father’s culture, or my grandparents culture, would feel orientalist in a way, like the old movie trope of white person turns to eastern cultural to discover more about themselves, and that’s just icky. It’s difficult at the moment because I feel like my only way in is through my dad. But I do think that that is where projects like Liminal are great because they help to start new conversations and new communities. My grandparents were Chinese immigrants who moved to Malaysia, my father is a Chinese-Malay man who as an adolescent moved to Australia. I’m a bi-racial Australian girl. My experience is probably going to be in a way closer to other Liminal contributors than to my parents or grandparents, so this is where I’m starting.
BOUNDLESS IS A NEW PROJECT WHICH CONSIDERS THE EXPERIENCE OF
MIXED-RACE ASIAN-AUSTRALIANS. CURATED BY SUMARLINAH RADEN WINOTO,
‘BOUNDLESS’ WILL SPAN FORMS, A SERIES OF ART, PHOTOGRAPHS & CONVERSATIONS.