2014 – London Chinatown, European tourists stop to take a picture as a memento of their time in London. Without embarrassment, without thought, without so much as a battering of the eyelids; oh sorry no they can’t, because they’re pulling their eyelids back in order to pretend to be East Asian.
There are some people out there who would try and tell me that this is some kind of affectionate mimicry. That this action is not racist. It’s just gentle, mickey taking and no harm is meant.
As a British East Asian, I do not find this funny. It does not elicit even a wry smile. I find this type of behaviour insulting, demeaning and totally unacceptable. Why in this modern age of diversity and growing global multiculturalism do people think that this type of behaviour is in any way acceptable? What is it, particularly about the West and its relationship to East Asia, which facilitates the persistence of racial stereotypes and caricatures of East Asians?
It’s been said before and no doubt it will be said again, until real change occurs. It would not occur to most “normal people” to wear an afro-style wig and apply black make up to their faces and pose in the middle of London for photographs. This is the same mindset that makes most people stop themselves (usually) from publicly uttering racist or derogatory remarks referring to Black, African, Caribbean or South Asians, their skin colour or physical features. Yet when it comes to East Asians there seems to be no such limiter – even if it’s only a public one. What people think in private, what they truly feel, but don’t express openly we will never know. However, when it comes to East Asians it is deemed perfectly ok to utter abuse in pubic. To broadcast racist and prejudicial content. For small children to go around shouting Chink. If they were to do that with the N-word all hell would probably break loose.
The seemingly casual way in which racism is on display in this snapshot feeds into to my profession. Everyone says yes to diversity, but no one was really doing anything. That’s why I became one of the founding members of The British East Asian Artists Group, why I support The Act For Change Project, the TV Collective and The Henry Paper. We need change, not hand outs and not lip service. An acceptance that British East Asians are people and are valuable members of this society.
If as a society we can agree that Blacking up is an unacceptable practise then, surely we can agree that Yellowface in all of its forms is equally unacceptable? If we cannot agree on this, then what does this say about us, about Britain and the society that we ALL live in?