By Helen De Cruz
I thank Jon Cogburn and BP Morton for their discussions on race and identity, specifically on the question of whether race can ever be a positive sense of identity for white people, or if any attempts at such identity construction are inherently racist. As a European (Belgian) citizen, I am not familiar with the racial dynamics in the US. But as someone who is biracial, I think I can say something about the question of race and positive identity construction.
I was born and grew up in Belgium, a country that is predominantly white and Catholic, where the main identity rift is one of language, not of race (the division between French-speaking Belgians and Dutch-speaking Belgians, which elicits lots of political discussion and soaks up a lot of energy). My mother is Belgian and Dutch-speaking. My father was born and grew up in Malaysia. He was an economic immigrant, arriving in Belgium in the 1970s and he would have been deported - indeed, was on his way to being deported - were it not for my mother. It was thanks to her (and her parents pulling some strings) that he could stay in Belgium and eventually became a naturalized Belgian citizen.
I grew up in a mostly white village, under the shadow of a Catholic church tower [see picture]. My father was known there - especially by older people - as "the black guy" (which is striking because he is not black, although he is darker than many Asians and he has frizzy hair, probably because our ancestry includes local indigenous populations, or maybe we do have African ancestry too - I don't know).
As a biracial child, one get all sorts of uncomfortable comments [I am not here discussing what I saw my father endure on a semi-daily basis, such as insults hurled during traffic situations, along with unfriendly suggestions to return to where "he belonged"]. Of course there are comments of other children, who kept on asking if I was adopted (I told them repeatedly no), or if I had visited Malaysia (I had not), or who just hit or shoved me because I was brown (the reason stated).
But there were also the teachers and parents. For example, the head teacher of my primary school, once organized a language test for all the brown children. These were exactly 4 pupils: a black boy, me, and two siblings, a boy and girl of Moroccan origin. They told us if we failed the test, we could be expelled or have to take extra classes. My mother refused for me to take the test - I remember her coming to the school, all up in arms, with my passport showing I am indeed a Belgian citizen and so there were no grounds to conduct the test. Once during summer camp I was suspended and locked up for most of the time on suspicion of theft, overhearing one of the camp leaders say "Of course, it's her, she's the only [allochtoon - difficult to translate word, but it means Belgian with non-white Belgian ancestors, originally neutral, now derogatory]. When I had friends over, I asked my father not to cook (he usually cooked), because they complained about the smell and taste of the elaborate dishes he cooked for them [picture: my father's vegetarian satays - cross-culturally yummy].
So what I tried to do was pass for white, even trying to stay out of the sun in summer. Things turned around when I was about 11 and attended a Malaysia day (I think in Antwerp), a big event organized by people of Malaysian ancestry in Belgium. All of a sudden, it felt like a lot fell into place. I heard the same kind of English my father spoke, tasted morsels of Malaysian food, saw gay, colorful kites darting through the air, witnessed elegantly-dressed women perform sophisticated dances, and heard the typical Malaysian pop music I'd sometimes hear at home.
All of a sudden, I felt that my Malaysian roots were not a source of shame and continued embarrassment or something one had to hide. Malaysians were not uncouth people whose food was smelly and who spoke in broken Dutch, but a proud, sophisticated culture with depth and riches.
My sense of Malaysia pride (if I can call it that) got another boost when my family finally saved enough money to all go and visit my father's relatives over the summer when I turned 12. We slept at my great-grandmother's house in Malacca, a house on stilts that lacked what seemed to me basic things such as a fridge but at the same time a handsome, beautiful house that looked a lot larger on the inside than on the outside. We strolled in elegant gardens with tame hornbills and inquisitive monkeys. We climbed the long staircase of the awe-inspiring Batu Caves shrine [picture]. Completely overturning my western gender expectations, an uncle taught me how to sew, and my grandmother asked me if I was good at math, as "all girls in the De Cruz family excel at math" - I had to disappoint her.
There are of course many things of my white heritage, my mother's, which I find valuable. My grandmother was especially the person who taught me things from her cultural (Catholic Belgian) background, such as religious traditions - the veneration of the Virgin Mary, who is a totally kick-ass woman about whom lots of extra-biblical stories and legends circulate. The oral storytelling tradition of brave boys defying water devils, and resourceful girls outsmarting witches, stories I told my daughter as she was growing up.
But the key difference between my both heritages is that during no time when I was growing up did I ever think that my white Belgian heritage was something to be ashamed of, or something I'd ever try to hide. The smell of my grandmother's pea soup was generally acknowledged to be delicious, whereas the smell of my father's laksa soup, a typical Malaysian coconut curry soup, well, not so much (eliciting not-so-friendly comments from neighbors and visitors). So at least in my experience, white culture and heritage is not ever in question or being challenged. It is with this background in mind, that I am genuinely puzzled by the rise of white student unions that seems to be happening in the US. Why would one want a student union for a group that is not marginalized, for an identity that is never questioned, where one never challenges one's intelligence, beloningness and other desirable characteristics.
It was my non-white background that was in question and was being challenged. In Belgium, non-white economic migrants and their children are racialized as "allochtones" (literally, people not from here - this also applies to second-generation people of mixed origin). And what one reads about "allochtones" in the media is almost always negative (e.g., about the gap in performance at school, higher crime rates). People bemoan the lack of integration of "allochtones", by which they mean taking over all the values, religious beliefs, ways of dressing, etc of the Belgians. This highly toxic discourse of othering is, according to anthropologists and psychologists Scott Atran and Sarah Lyons-Padilla and Michele Gelfand, one of the motivating factors of young Muslims who radicalize in Europe. They found, for instance, that European Muslims who feel unwelcome are more likely to feel sympathy for radicalism. It took a long time before I stopped feeling like an "allochtone"*, a label I loathe and reject, and shaped my identity in a more constructive, positive light. It is still an effort that people who are not racialized as non-white do not experience within predominantly white cultures.
*Maybe more European countries have ditched this label now - I know Amsterdam has, for instance.