“I don’t see race”

Guest post by Anna Sulan Masing

There has been a lot of talk about migration, in view of next year’s elections and in the run up to the recent EU elections. And, as a theatre maker, whose research is around race and gender within performance art, I have also noticed the many discussions of late around race in the media; in film, tv and theatre and how casting sees, or doesn’t see race. The excuse for lack of diversity is often that they ‘cast the best actor for the role’ otherwise known as ‘colour-blind casting’, which in practice white-washes a production. Such as the Royal Shakespeare Company’s 2012 casting choice for The Orphan of Zhao, the redface of The Wooster Groups’ Cry, Trojans! or this list of black characters played by white actors. Lenny Henry articulated the many reasons for having diversity within media at this year’s BAFTA lecture.

Race, media and migration work together to create meanings and identities. It is not as simple as east vs west, white vs people of colour, victim vs perpetrator. It is also about being complex individuals with multiple intersecting identities and being able to employ those different identities – it is about the work you do as a POC, in these spaces. It is about acknowledging that work, respecting that work. Privilege is looking in the mirror and seeing simply ‘you’.

“I don’t see race” he said.

“That’s nice, for you” I said “cos I see race every time I look in the mirror.”

Sometimes I see whiteness, I see my mother staring straight out at me in the line of my jaw. Sometimes all I see is black hair, heavy fringe with my father’s eyes peering out from underneath. Sometimes, I see the Asian so clearly in my skin tone, in the way my body stands, the way it doesn’t quite fit all the clothes I try on in the H&M changing room, cloth built on a Swedish model of proportions. Then, I catch myself reflected in a window and I see the whiteness in the way I lounge against a wall; nonchalant, hip propping up my torso.

And sometimes, I am totes Western in my leather jacket and liquid eyeliner, but flicked up to maximize my ‘almond’ eyes. Or I’m Eastern-White, when I don’t understand the nuances of time and distance when traveling on a river through the jungle.

But every time I see race. I see how I move through space, relate to space, and I am aware of my mixed-race status and how that plays with privilege and choice – for and against me. I see when ‘race’ relates to how I am able to move through space. The space I live in, the space I know the best, the space that I call home – this western space. Being mixed race, and/or coming from multiple spaces, in a western world is knowing where you fit and knowing how to fit in. When you look in the mirror you never simply see yourself, but you see the rest of society, who you are going to meet that day and what that means.

I am Iban, a tribe indigenous of Borneo. My father is from up river, past Kapit, a small town in rural Sarawak, a state of Malaysia on the Borneo island. My mother is a white New Zealander, from suburban Wellington. I grew up in both Sarawak and New Zealand, but London is about to become the place where I have spent most of my life. My life has been about crossing borders, migrating, emigrating, moving, and staying put. Re-grounding (Ahmed 2004:1) has been the theme of my migration story. Migrating is about meeting new audiences.

From the tanju* I walk, I run, I dance into the beyond. I am an ‘agent on the move’ (Ryoji 2007:202). Moving through spaces, places and picking up pieces of me as I go, creating pockets of home in every new location. I expand my space, simultaneously occupying Sarawak, New Zealand and London. In my privilege of being from nowhere and everywhere I crisscross borders, get questioned but ultimately accepted. In painful contrast to other’s journeys, whose identities are read clearly in the brush strokes of their skin colour, in the accents of their English.

I am read as different but similar, holding a passport**  with cultural capital, an accent of a recognised place, an education in understanding border nuances.

Like Anzaldua (‘as a mestiza I have no country, my homeland cast me out; yet all countries are mine because I am every woman’s sister or potential lover’), I too have points in my identity that are recognisable and places I can belong (Anzaldua 1987:80). I am open to construction (Lugones 1987:395) for whichever world I am standing in. The UK border agent looks at my New Zealand passport and tells me how beautiful he/she found New Zealand and how like their hometown in Wales it is. A group of Iban women in Kapit named all the features of my face that are Iban and proclaim my Iban-ness, regardless of my lack of the language. I can stand and wait to be constructed and I can construct my identity to what works best for me in that particular space – to be different or to be recognisable.

Arriving in a new place means joining up with, somehow linking into, the collections of interwoven stories of what that place is made of. (Massey 2005:119)

Like my Iban forebears, I am a migrant who adapts to the environment; building, planting, nurturing and then moving on to begin again. Like my Iban cousins I am a migrant who calls more than one place home. My story becomes interwoven with each location, and each location becomes a part of my identity. I also bring past spaces into new locations. Memories and identities that were created and developed in previous situations get utilised in different ways and/or get expressed in new ways. These are intersections of my identity that are articulated for each new audience, and I have a choice in how they get presented.

Every time I get upset when someone decides to construct me to fit their need, for how they see my identity, I am reminded that sometimes I can use language and knowledge of this western world, to subvert or override that construction. Every time I have a choice to construct my identity, I am reminded of my privilege of choice, because I understand this western space. My able-bodied, cis-gendered, mixed-race, over educated self is reminded, every time I am accepted into a space, of those able-bodied, white, cis-gendered, educated points of identity.

And so when you say you don’t see race, I get angry because it belittles my constant awareness, the work I do around understanding how my identity is interpreted by others. I get angry because I work hard in finding a way to articulate my identity, my difference, so that it fits your understanding. And I get angry because by not seeing race you have stripped me of my heritage. If you don’t see race, you don’t see me.

If you don’t see race, you don’t see privilege, yours or mine.


* Tanju is the outside verandah on an Iban longhouse

** I have both NZ and British passport


Anna Sulan Masing – poet, theatre-maker, lover of comedy and equality.
Doctorate in post-colonial feminism & performing arts.
Tweets @AnnaSulan


Photo by Katherine Leedale, as part of a photographic essay in collaboration with myself and performer Vera Chok. Click here to view all images. This photographic essay by Katherine Leedale is a journey myself and Vera took with a loom, around East London. It investigates the idea of carrying home and building identity in different spaces and locations, as part of the From The Jungle project. Originally exhibited at Dalston gallery Maybe a Vole.


Ahmed, S & Castaneda, C & Fortier, A & Sheller, M ed. (2004) Uprootings/Regrounds: Questions of Home and Migration Berg,  England

Anzaldua, Gloria (1987) Borderlands: La Frontera, Aunt Lute Books, San Francisco

Lugones, Maria (1987) ‘Playfulness, “World”-Travelling, and Loving Perception’, Hypatia, Volume 2, Issue 2, pages 3–19

Massey, Doreen (2005) For space, Sage publications, London

Ryoji, Soda (2007) People on the move: rural-urban interactions in Sarawak, Kyoto University Press & Trans Pacific Press, Japan

33 thoughts on ““I don’t see race”

  1. These examinations of the relative importance of the weighted word-symbol “race” (meaning culture, not really race) are absorbing and interesting, especially when written about with such intelligence and emotion. I can enjoy the meditation even when disagreeing.

    I see “race” of course, just as I see age, height and the color of your clothes. I see these things as veneers to glance at, to notice, and get past as quickly as I can in order to perceive deeper meaning, a reality beyond the illusion of separate being. I try to study the design of the cage in order to free myself from it. The possibility that only death may free me doesn’t deter me from continued attempts to pick the lock.

    I’m so much more interested in looking to perceive and understand you beyond, behind and outside the concepts of race, and the physical vehicle you and I happen to be temporarily inhabiting. We exist simultaneously outside of group contexts, as well as within all the construct boundaries of race, gender, age, and ability.

  2. @Invisible Mikey – you clearly did not understand Anna’s piece, evident by the fact that after reading it, you still feel entitled to come and debate the reality of race and how one should see it. Your comment exhibits exactly the kind of attitude which the piece was responding to in the first place. Also, it’s a personal essay about one person’s experience of being mixed-race – saying you “disagree” with it is basically to dismiss Anna’s lived experience.

  3. I can’t help but agree. The way you’ve articulated your feelings gave me the impression of a spoken word poem or something of the like. I felt your heart and mind at the same time that I agreed and felt my own heart and mind. Wonderfully written, bravo.

  4. @Terese – what is wrong with feedback or a different opinion? Invisible Mikey made some interesting points. He is building on a conversation and not dismissing Anna’s lived experience.

  5. amen! white people (myself included) think they are doing something special by saying they “don’t see race” when in reality race is real and interesting and distinguishing and amazing. it’s when we LIMIT others BECAUSE of race, even if well-intentioned that the problems arise … and the self-loathing creeps in. thank you for this post.

  6. I apologize if by reacting and offering my own experience I caused you any discomfort or offense, Therese. Anna’s article is well-written and articulate. I don’t doubt, dismiss or deny her experience, just because it differs from mine. I understand very well that the concept and the word race is a hot button.
    When I first became aware of my own “mixed race” background, it was a very big deal, mostly because my family had been careful to avoid talking about and admitting it. I was born in the 1950s, and “passing” was a more common experience due to pressures from the majority culture.
    Authenticity’s important to me, and so are all the things that influence our self-concepts. However, the older I got, the less important any of the differences between me and others became. Nowadays I concentrate on commonality and universality. That’s what I currently seek to explore and promote. But it’s quite all right for anyone else at a different point in their life to celebrate the ingredients that helped produce their souffle, and connect it to politics. Politics, unlike the (possibly illusionary) individual life experience, demands competition for power and resources. I think that causes an increased emphasis upon whatever separates people and groups from each other.

  7. @InvisibleMikey I understand the need to, the desire to link into others, to find places of commonality – which I believe I have written about, and found that positive and necessary (my points about being identified as Iban). I am differing from you in that I believe accepting difference is a better place to start from, and from difference we are able to work constructively together. Universality is problematic as it (more than often) leads to homogeneity – the political language in Malaysia of ‘One Malaysia’ is really dangerous and actually more separating as the current political situation is demonstrating, and I feel Ed Milliband’s ‘One Nation’ is similar rhetoric – what happens to people who feel outside of that ‘norm’, outside that universality?
    I am also am critical/ concerned that you are implying that individual life experience is not political?
    “The personal is political” – a common phrase within the feminist cannon, the academic and activist.
    I am drawing on the work of post-colonial feminists, who argue that life experience is indeed political, reflective of the power (and political) structures around them. It is through the lived experience, the phenomenological, that we are able to understand the wider political consequences. In fact Avtar Brah writes on the first page of her book Cartographies of diaspora: contesting identities “my own biography is also a reminder of the collective history of South Asians in what use to be known as “British East Africa”” . I am also drawing on the work around intersectionality, a term coined by law professor Kimberle Crenshaw in 1989. Intersectionality is around the idea of difference, it is based on the idea of understanding difference, and is still used and explored over two decades later. I saw Crenshaw speak earlier this year and she was phenomenal.
    I am also drawing on practice-based research, which is inherently ‘lived’ research. It is research that is political. It is research that is vigorous. It is research that is lived experience and understanding the links between. It is research that explores, questions and interrogates the consequences of the political on the personal. It is also a way to question and interrogates the political structures with live in.
    Therefore I don’t think my writing is based on ‘youth’, which I feel you’re implying, or on unexplored ideas… they are theories and concepts that have been interrogated by many academics (and writers, and activists, and artists) worldwide, over many decades; albeit this is my take, from my research, my experiences and my political and personal intersections.

  8. Thank you everyone for your lovely comments!! To quote my sister ‘it feels like I am getting a big cuddle, and by strangers!’ Amazing to have so many people connect with my words.

  9. I see race. I used not to. I was raised in an all white environment.
    I got to really see race since a got married to a black man. We don’t face a lot of racism, but sometimes he does. And when he does, I do too, I lose my “white privilege” when he can’t find work for long periods of time, etc.
    I see race when I look at myself and my son or my husband in a mirror or on photos. I suddenly realise how white I am, how darker they are. All the rest of the time, I don’t see race, I see my family. Mine. My people.
    Maybe that’s why I can’t listen to the South African anthem without tears filling my eyes, though I am not South African and never even went there.
    When Mandela died, I told my son about the apartheid system, how horrible and unfair it was (yet sparing him the details, he is still under 10). And me, he asked, with whom would I have lived ? I don’t know sweetheart, I said. I don’t know. We would have migrated elsewhere (yet another half-lie).

    I won’t be able to spare him forever. He will see race as we do. So I prepare him as well as I can, mostly by helping my husband to transmit his African heritage and making sure he does well as school. Very well. Much better than the other kids, as I know there won’t be any white privilege for him.

  10. “Politics, unlike the (possibly illusionary) individual life experience, demands competition for power and resources. I think that causes an increased emphasis upon whatever separates people and groups from each other. ”
    Don’t you think that aknowledging “the different allocation of power and resources that separate groups” is a necessary step if a society is to become more race-blind ?

  11. Not really. I think political thinking is a regrettable historical habit that can be de-emphasized. I don’t personally support zero sum games. To put it simply, if the point of an exercise is “why we are different” I try to substitute an exercise in “why we are alike”.

  12. I probably should add that the choice to be more or less political is just that, a choice, not an inevitable trend based on age and experience. Some people get more political as they age, and some less. In my case, I used to believe that “personal is political”, but now I’m working toward “there isn’t as much personal as it once seemed”. You and I perceive each other through windows that (with the proper effort) can be opened.

  13. Invisible Mikey – if you want to keep arguing the same tired point advocating universalism, then please do it on your own blog from now on. You have taken up enough space in this thread. Whether someone can see beyond race or not is not about choice, it is about white supremacy and where you are located as well as where you are perceived to be located within this system. To suggest that people of colour should make a “proper effort” to see beyond race when they are constantly discriminated against because of racism is to perpetuate the same system. And it is beyond rude and patronising in response to this post.

  14. Hi I’ve nominated you for a very inspiring blogger award – your work deserves it!
    If you will accept it, these are the rules…
    1) The nominee shall display the Very Inspiring Blogger Award logo on her/his blog, and link to the blog they got nominated from.
    2) The nominee shall nominate fifteen (15) bloggers she/he admires, by linking to their blogs and informing them about it.
    If you’re too busy to do all that I don’t blame you, and I hope you will just take it as a compliment to your efforts . See here: Life’s Journeys Unfolding http://meaningunfolding.wordpress.com/?p=976&preview=true

  15. Pingback: In Response to: Does Feminism Have a Class Issue? (Belated Post) | femminique

  16. Most of the things on this post I agree with and others I don’t. But thanks for posting.

  17. The assumption is that if people were to see privilege they would obviously be opposed to it (even when it is their own). But most people ultimately want to be privileged and fight over getting to retain those privileges they have for themselves and their children. Even if they saw it, they wouldn’t be ashamed, because if every white person woke up tomorrow and saw it in the mirror, they would realise that privilege isn’t some kind of social toxin that makes them “bad people” but a useful and highly valuable tool in an extremely competitive world.

    Do you really want them en masse to wake up to that reality? That they have a competitive advantage based in their ethnic identity? I don’t think it would have the effect you hope. Guilt only goes so far, when the chips are down people cling to whatever they can get.

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