“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


Becoming a better interviewer

digitalrecorderI’ve been thinking about my interviewing skills (or lack thereof) lately. I’ve done 11 interviews for my PhD now, and I’ve got another 8-9 to go – most of them coming up in the next two months (after which I am done with my data generating phase, yay!).

I’ve been transcribing the interviews as I’ve been going along, more or less, which has been useful both in terms of avoiding an overwhelming mountain of transcriptions to do later, but also for reflecting on how each interview went before doing the next one.

Listening to the recordings, I find myself cringing at my interviewing skills quite regularly. Awkward phrasings, leading questions, missed opportunities to ask follow-up questions… I was talking to my friend about this last night – about feeling a need to read more about interviewing techniques and skills. But even as I was saying it, I remembered that I have read a lot already, and maybe my reflex to head back to the library, is just that: a reflex, a safety-blanket, a desire to hide behind other people’s theories rather than trust in my own developing knowledge as a researcher.

My interview methodology emerged through an engagement with feminist and anti-racist theory on the research process, addressing issues of power and privilege, the myth of the objective interviewer, and the dynamic relationship between interviewer and interviewee. Yasmin Gunaratnam’s Researching ‘Race’ and Ethnicity: Methods, Knowledge and Power, in particular, has left an impression on me, calling for historical accountability within the research encounter. Gunaratnam highlights the importance of recognising that both the researcher and the researched are socially situated, in relation to each other and to history. The research must always be accountable to these relationships (without over-determining them). In the research interview, my position as a white feminist researcher (researching feminism and ‘race’) is of course never neutral, but located within a history of complex and unequal relationships between white feminists and feminists of colour, as well as in a wider social and historical context of structural racism. This always forms the backdrop to my interview encounters, whether the interviewee is white or a person of colour.

Part of my awkwardness at times in the interview encounters, I have no doubt, is related to my worry of not being sufficiently accountable to the historical and social context of (white feminists’) racism – of getting it wrong, and ending up being complicit within racist relations. Add to that being a novice interviewer, and as I listen to the transcripts, it’s clear that there are times where I have got things wrong (one example: a desire to alleviate tension and a white interviewee’s anxiety talking about racism, I have moved on to the next question, where, listening back, I wish I had allowed space for the anxiety to be acknowledged and interrogated, to challenge the way whiteness prioritises comfort).

In my reflexive dash to the library yesterday, I borrowed Qualitative Interviewing: The Art of Hearing Data by Herbert J. Rubin and Irene S. Rubin. I’ve been skim-reading it this morning, and generally finding it quite irritating and patronising, but it has brought up two things which I don’t think I’m doing well enough at the moment:

One, which Rubin and Rubin call ‘negotiating a research role’ (pp. 114-117 in 1st ed), is about situating yourself and your research clearly to the interviewee. Rubin and Rubin write (in a slightly patronising tone) about the importance of clarifying the research your doing in a way which is understandable / meaningful to the interviewee. For me, I think I need to give more space before the interview to discuss with the participant what my research is about, and – particularly – why I’m doing it, and how I understand myself as a white feminist researcher doing this work. I think this might help set up the context for the discussion a bit better than I have done so far, where I’ve often just asked if the participant has any questions about the research, based on what they’ve read from the information sheet, before starting (so the discussion we’ve had have depended on the participant’s questions).

Another thing which I’ve been slack with is taking notes directly after the interview. Having recently read Gail Lewis’ chapter, ‘Animating hatreds: research encounters, organisational secrets, emotional truths’, in Secrecy and Silence in the Research Process: Feminist Reflections, in which she shares her research diary entry following an encounter with a racist interviewee, I’ve realised the importance of this part of the interview process in terms of capturing (partly) unprocessed feelings and thoughts. These may be fleeting and therefore not possible to recall at a later stage, but (as Lewis shows) they may have effects in terms of how we subsequently choose to interpret and present the data. Writing down these first thoughts following each interview leads to a more honest acknowledgement of the affective and embodied dimensions of the interview encounter. This is useful for reflecting more and better on your interview practice. In particular, it may help capture how underlying feelings and anxieties may be operative in the research encounter.

Well, this ended up a rather long and winding post, but actually it’s helped me clarify some things already. So I guess that is the key, as I enter this last stretch of interviews: keep thinking and reflecting and writing, and review what I’ve learnt ahead of each interview. Maybe that is the key to becoming a better interviewer.

Why critique?

Last week I presented a paper at the Forthcoming Feminisms conference, in which I talked about two books about contemporary feminism which I have been analysing in my research. This included some critical comments about how these particular texts construct feminist politics in relation to ‘race’.

In the discussion which followed, I was asked whether I think it’s fair to critique feminist writers in this way. My answer was ‘yes’: I think it is definitely fair to present critiques of published material. This is common practice within academic scholarship, surely – we engage with what others have written, building on their work, which may also involve disagreeing with their analysis and presenting a critique.

But I want to write this out a bit more, because I think there are several things going on here, and which I have been coming back to every so often as I’ve been working on this project.

First off – yes, it is true that one of the major aspects of my research involves analysing a range of feminist texts and asking specific questions related to ‘race’, racism and whiteness. This means I end up critiquing quite a number of texts on the basis of what I consider to be a marginalisation of discussions of racism, and also often the marginalisation of scholarship by feminists of colour.

I am well aware that as I start to (hopefully) publish my work and speak more publically about it, I am potentially going to get some people’s backs up and be seen as being critical and ‘mean’. And yes, I am quite nervous about that. But there are a few points I think it is useful to unravel here, about why I see critique as important and relevant:

  • Critique is not about individuals; it’s about questioning particular formulations of ideas and theories. These ideas and theories are not created in a vacuum, but are formulated within the context of a wider discourse. In her analysis of the ‘political grammar’ of feminist stories presented within feminist journal articles, Clare Hemmings emphasises how narratives are constructed within an institutional context, involving collective processes (including not only the author of an article, but also editors, peer reviewers and the wider academic feminist community). Similarly, I want to argue that problematic discourses on ‘race’ and the privileging of whiteness is institutionalised within mainstream feminism: it is the collective responsibility of white feminists, and bigger than any one individual – although each individual has a role to play. And related to this: I do not see myself as outside of this discourse – but rather as working from within it to destabilise and trouble it. And I know I may well get something wrong and my work critiqued in turn. But that’s how we move forwards, right?
  • I think there is a particular anxiety around race-related critiques – a greater fear on the part of (“well-meaning”) white people associated with being seen as racist – which is more acute than with other topics. Would I have been asked the question above if I was critiquing the texts on other grounds? We need to reflect on the role white anxiety plays in deflecting attention away from challenging white privilege and racism.
  • Anti-racist critique within feminist spaces has too often been left to women of colour. This is often difficult and emotionally fraught work. Sara Ahmed writes about the black feminist being perceived as ‘killing feminist joy’ when she points out white feminist racism (and accused of being ‘angry’). I see my work as part of taking responsibility, as a white feminist, for challenging racist and white-centric theory and politics – of being accountable on the subject of white privilege and racism, and taking calls for addressing these issues seriously.

As I’ve been writing this post, I’ve been reminded of something a friend of mine said towards the end of a particularly difficult conversation a few years ago, and something which I think encapsulates what I’m trying to get across here: ‘We critique because we care’. In a way that says it all, really.

Call for paper: The Feminist Killjoy in the Feminist Movement

Humaira Saeed and myself currently have an open call out for a third person to join our panel at the Feminist and Women’s Studies Association conference next summer (21-23 June 2013 in Nottingham). Read more about the panel below and get in touch if you are interested!

The Feminist Killjoy in the Feminist Movement

  • Terese Jonsson, London Metropolitan University – Looking for anti-racism in narratives of British feminism.
  • Humaira Saeed, University of Manchester – Saving Brown Women: Transnationalism and the Third Wave
  • Third paper TBC
  • With respondent comments from Dr Nirmal Puwar (Goldsmiths, University of London)

These papers will address the vital role that internal critique plays in feminist politics. This work has been crucial in challenging exclusions within feminist thought, opening up conversations about the differences between women, and crucially reorienting feminism towards an intersectional analysis. This often difficult, emotionally taxing and thankless work is predominantly led by women speaking from marginalised positions: women of colour, disabled women, working class women and sex workers, among others. The papers will address some of the ways in which this work has been marginalised, and argue that internal critique needs to be understood as an important site of feminist activism. In order to focus the discussion, the panel will concentrate specifically on anti-racist critiques, although it is hoped that some of the content will have a wider relevance in relation to all forms of internal critique within feminist spaces. The panel takes its name from Sara Ahmed’s observation (2010) that the black feminist is often blamed for ‘killing feminist joy’ when she points out white women’s racism. Although there is a long and rich history of anti-racist critique within British feminism, instances of racism and white privilege continue to make disturbingly regular appearances within white-dominated feminist communities. These repetitive patterns suggest that the critiques are not being adequately taken on board within feminist movements. Instead, anti-racist work tends to be marginalised, repressed, or even completely erased within dominant accounts of feminist histories, and indeed feminist practice, especially when these histories and practices are defined from positions of privilege. As well as resulting in the frustrated labour of anti-racist feminists, white feminists’ failure to engage with these critiques seriously hinders the radical potential of feminist movement.

Call for paper: We are looking for a presenter for this panel whose work addresses the above themes. Potential topics for papers are: instances of anti-racist critique, historical or contemporary; the ongoing relevance and necessity of anti-racist critique; anti-imperial and transnational feminist interventions; and/or internal critique as activism. Please send an abstract to  terese.jonsson@gmail.com and humairazsaeed@gmail.com by 1st December 2012.

Forthcoming Feminisms

Registration is now open for the conference Forthcoming Feminisms: Gender Activism, Politics and Theories, which will be held in Leeds on Friday 26th October 2012.

I will be presenting a paper, provisionally titled “‘Race’, (anti-)racism and whiteness within feminism in England: Learning from the past?“, in which I will look at some of the dominant narratives around feminism and ‘race’ within contemporary feminist discourse in England. I will argue that underlying claims to a diverse (and implied anti-racist) present, feminism in its dominant forms in England is still structured by whiteness, and that in order to change, contemporary white feminists must engage with and learn from the complicated histories of ‘race’, (anti-)racism and whiteness within feminist communities.

Here’s the full blurb about the conference:

Forthcoming Feminisms: Gender Activism, Politics and Theories
Organised by the BSA Gender Study Group & the Centre for Interdisciplinary Gender Studies (CIGS), University of Leeds

26th October 2012: Centre for Interdisciplinary Gender Studies, University of Leeds

Keynote Speakers: Julia Downes (Durham); Imogen Tyler (Lancaster)

‘Forthcoming Feminisms: Gender Activism, Politics and Theories’ seeks to explore the contemporary landscape of gender politics and theory at a crucial moment of feminist resurgence. Against the backdrop of political economies of austerity, in which women are disproportionately disadvantaged, and in challenge to ‘post-feminist’ cultural prophecies, current times indicate a renewed interest in, and commitment to, feminism. In academic climates, while women’s and gender study programs face threats of closure, the popularity of such programmes continues to grow; reflecting the continuation of feminist and gender theory as a flourishing and dynamic arena. This conference speaks to these political and theoretical paradoxes and flows in exploring varied (and sometimes opposing) feminist cultures, values, ethics, knowledges, challenges and aspirations across the levels of the social and cultural.

The conference aims to examine these issues in relation to temporality: how do current feminisms speak to those of the past and how might we imagine feminisms’ future?; the micro and the macro: how do grass roots feminist politics respond to structural processes and materialities?; the local and global: what are the similarities and differences – the uniting and dividing features  – of national and international feminisms?; place and culture: how are feminisms formed through, and in opposition to, fields of habitus and spaces of public/private; citizenship and recognition: who can – and who can’t – find a place within feminism, who is – and who isn’t – able to ‘belong’?; equality and diversity: to what extent has feminism been mainstreamed?, what are the effects of this on gender studies and politics in and outside the academy?; intersectionality: how do social identities and material positionings impact on feminist commitments and lived experiences?, how do patterns of inequality bear on feminist aspirations and imaginings?; difference: how can feminism productively interact with trans and queer politics, theories, and communities?, how can feminism account for embodied diversities?

Papers will address questions of:

  • Sites of Activism
  • Political Agendas
  • Knowledges and Ethics
  • Spaces and Places
  • Gender Mainstreaming
  • Feminisms at the Local and Global
  • Intersections of Class, Race, Ethnicity, Faith, Age, Gender, Sexuality and Embodiment
  • Feminist Times and Generations
  • Agency and Affect
  • Political Economies
  • Inclusions and Exclusions
  • Transgender and Queer Feminisms
  • Representation, Media and New Technologies

You can register on the BSA website.

Playing with Pinterest

Pinterest makes me feel like a kid again, back when I was always cutting pictures out of magazines and assembling them for various purposes. When I heard about it, I set up an account and started playing around with random pretty pictures (another great procrastination tool!).

But coming across the LSE Review of Books Pinterest account – with pinboards on subjects like ‘Gender Studies’ and ‘Politics: Protests and Revolutions’ – started me on a new train of thought in terms of potential uses of Pinterest. As Deborah Lupton wrote on the Impact of Social Sciences blog in June, Pinterest as a visual curation platform has “the potential to be a very useful tool for sociological research and teaching (as well as for other academics in the humanities and social sciences)“.

So I started thinking about possible ways in which I could use visual curation in my research. Today, working on pulling together a thesis chapter on representations of feminism within popular media discourse, I was going back to look at lots of online articles which I have analysed from The Guardian and The Observer. And the thought occurred to me that here was something that Pinterest could potentially come in useful for. While my focus is on analysing the text of these articles (I’m looking specifically at how they represent British feminism in relation to issues of race), the images are also interesting. So I decided to create a Pinterest pinboard, more as an experiment than anything else.

So here it is. I won’t go into any analysis of the images – but would be interested to hear any thoughts on this collection, in relation to the themes of British feminism and ‘race’. Some related words in my analysis: diversity, inclusive/exclusive, multiculturalism, whiteness… Seeing all these images together for the first time certainly makes me realise there’s a lot more to say!