Never again locked out by whiteness

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Recently I locked myself out of my apartment, and had to go to the office of my real estate agent to borrow their spare set of keys. After asking for some identification and taking a look at my driver's licence, which lists my English name as my middle name, the white, middle-aged lady glanced at me and said, 'Oh, we'd better correct your name in our system, then.'

Clive HamiltonMy heart stopped for a couple of seconds while I processed her words. I knew I had to reply quickly, and the only thing I could think to say was 'No, I've been called Yen-Rong my whole life'. I hoped I didn't sound like I was begging. But even so, she still shot me a look that seemed to say, 'I don't really believe you.' She handed me the keys with a glare. I wilted slightly, and scurried off to catch an Uber home.

I had spent the last few days reading tweets with the #whitenesstoldme hashtag, which had been sparked by Tori William Douglass' tweet, 'Whiteness told me that whiteness wasn't supremacy, it was just behaviour. Whiteness told me, "Anyone can be equal, you just have to act right".'

Whiteness is a cultural construct that centres itself as the norm, and by doing so, situates everyone else as 'other'. It assumes authority just by existing, and uses that authority to keep itself in place, and in charge.

People from all manner of backgrounds latched onto the hashtag, telling their experiences and speaking their truths. They spoke about assimilation and colonisation and structural racism, about absorbing whiteness as the default, without even knowing it was happening.

That afternoon, the lady at the real estate office made me feel less-than, like I wasn't truly 'Australian' unless I went by my English name. People have always had issues with my name — they don't pronounce it properly, or they want to give me a nickname (and call me unAustralian when I refuse), or they straight up make jokes out of it. I've lived a life of people telling me my name was too different, too hard.

That afternoon, whiteness wanted to erase my name. It wanted to erase my identity and my cultural background — and to what end? To make it (and by proxy, me) easier for white people to digest? The keys the real estate office had didn't even work, so while I waited for the locksmith to get to my apartment, I perched on my landing and kept reading those tweets.

 

"Hamilton demonstrates a fundamental misunderstanding of what it means to be part of the Chinese diaspora in Australia."

 

I felt a solidarity with these people, some of whom were my friends, some of whom were strangers from the other side of the world. There was a sort of comfort in knowing that my experiences weren't singular, but at the same time, I was angry at whiteness' pervasiveness. I was angry at the violence it had perpetrated throughout the world, most significantly on black and brown bodies. I was angry at myself for the times where I had given into whiteness, where I had sat on the sidelines and stayed silent, instead of speaking up for myself or for a peer.

I am proudly Malaysian-Chinese, and for the past couple of months, I have been sitting silently on the sidelines while the burgeoning fear of China's influence in Australia has reached a tipping point. In Clive Hamilton's book, Silent Invasion, he claims that in Australia, '"patriotic" students brainwashed from birth' and 'professionals marshalled into pro-Beijing associations set up by the Chinese embassy', among others, are engaged in a bid to 'erode Australian sovereignty'.

There are legitimate concerns around the influence of the Chinese government in Australian politics and society, and the silencing of voices who speak out against human rights violations and the like that are taking place in China should not be taken lightly. Race discrimination commissioner Tim Soutphommasane agrees, calling for civil and serious debate — but not at the risk of exacerbating existing racial tensions.

He notes, 'there must be responsibility exercised in public debate. It is a dangerous thing to invite hysteria. It is doubly dangerous to invite anxiety about the Chinese party-state that may shift into animosity towards people with Chinese heritage.'

However, Hamilton seems content to barrel on. In a piece for The Conversation, he states, 'Chinese-Australians critical of the Communist Party have no representation in parliament. Who will speak up for them if their family is threatened, or if their business in Australia is sent broke by a boycott organised by the consulate?'

To me, Hamilton demonstrates a fundamental misunderstanding of what it means to be part of the Chinese diaspora in Australia. This diaspora is multi-layered and multi-faceted, and consists of more than just those who come from the mainland. There are those of us who have never stepped foot in China, and yet strongly identify with our Chinese backgrounds. Whiteness, whether it be in the form of the lady at my real estate office, or Clive Hamilton, is constantly trying to erase my identity, and the identities of my fellow Chinese-Australians.

But guess what? We're all here to stay. I'm here to stay. The locksmith arrived and let me into my apartment. I was no longer locked out — and I will never let myself be locked out by whiteness, just because of my name or my heritage.

 

 

Yen-Rong WongYen-Rong Wong is a Brisbane-based writer, and the founding editor of Pencilled In, a literary magazine dedicated to showcasing the work of Asian Australian artists.

 

Recent articles by Yen-Rong Wong.

Cultural appropriation a year after Shriver furore

Topic tags: Yen-Rong Wong, racism, China, Clive Hamilton

 

 

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Existing comments

Good Yen-Rong, I am very moved by your story. As a language teacher, lecturer and education officer dealing long-term with overseas students and migrants I have often pondered on the consequences of foreign names in our land. I was delighted to be Mr Yeung-Seen SEE for my Singapore students, to be Gauvain in France, Gavino in Italy and Aryeh by a rabbi. If I'm on the wrong track in my comment I'm open to correction correction or advice. COMMENT - Cheng-pang CHOU and his cousin Samson LEE had equal qualifications in this country. Samson was more readily 'assimilable' than Cheng-pang on account of his name being easily remembered. People here often had problems with my French wife's name ' Raymonde'. -- Blessings from Kevin Gauvain Gavino Yeung-seen Aryé SMITH-DEVRAINNE (baptised Kevin Goodhope SMITH).
Kevin G Smith | 06 June 2018


I also had some difficulties with my name during my 3 years living in Malaysia, always resulting in some mirth and good natured banter, never outrage and arguments about whiteness and yellowness. Let’s spend more effort doing something useful, and less on looking for something to whinge about.
Jenny O'Rourke | 06 June 2018


I sympathise with Yen-Rong. She needs to get over the victim mentality. I've lived, worked, and travelled in many countries(particularly Asian countries) where my name has been mispronounced, spelt incorrectly in computer systems because people have no or little experience of English style names. I don't take offence because I am white nor do I take any notice because I am surrounded by the overwhelming brownness. I accept it as human fallibility. In the old days she would have been told to drop the chip on her shoulder. Most people don't care what she is as long as she is a good person.
John Castor | 06 June 2018


Yen-Rong I'm with you. Names are an essential part of our identity.After 50 years I am very tired indeed of being 'corrected' over the correct pronunciation of my (married) name.As in-oh you mean CURR - when I say CARE. FTR I'm also tired of hearing the names of my children's friends and classmates hideously mispronounced by teachers who lack the basic courtesy to learn the correct pronunciation. Sorry but it's nothing to do with a victim mentality or goodnatured banter or mirth.Just a basic (if unintended) lack of respect that needs to be recognised and addressed.
Margaret Ker | 06 June 2018


You're not wrong, y'know, Yen-Rong ;) although I do think that Whiteness in Australia confers an identity and power nowhere near as oppressive as in those societies, such as the UK and the USA, where either imperialism or slave economies have taken their toll.
Dr Michael Furtado | 07 June 2018


Would she like the estate agent to give the key to her apartment to somebody without identification. What is the problem with the use of a drivers licence as identification? The rest of us seem to be OK with this. Would it be less of a problem if the real estate person had not been a white middle aged lady?
Jenny O'Rourke | 07 June 2018


Jenny O"Rourke the use of a driving licence as ID is not the problem and nowhere does Yen-Rong suggest that she had an issue with her 'English' name being given on that. And FTR some of us do have an issue with the use of a driving licence as ID since we don't have one and the assumption that we are somehow 'abnormal' for not having one is frustrating to say the least.Though hardly on a level with the assumption that there is something 'wrong' with having a non-English name.
Margaret Ker | 07 June 2018


Yen-Rong I am the worst in the world at languages other than English, something I am ashamed of. But I believe the least I can do is get someone's name correct. My best friend in primary school was called Maris, a perfectly easy name to pronounce but one ignorant teacher insisted on calling her Mavis for a whole year. Try to let it roll over you. Congratulations on an extremely well written article that some people would do well to take seriously.
margaret McDonald | 07 June 2018


Hopefully the locksmith was not a middle aged white man. More evidence that victim hood is self inflicted.
Locksmith Jason | 08 June 2018


A mean remark, Jason, triggered, I suspect, by your ignorance of the fact corroborated by the most assiduously scholarly research, that skin colour is the most absolute and basic marker of identity in the human pecking order!
Dr Michael Furtado | 08 June 2018


Meanness is not intended, Michael. I have spent 33 years in many countries where people have all sorts of skin colour. I have grandchildren with Phillipine ancestry. Skin colour should be irrelevant, and I have often experienced this to be the case. This ideal situation is more likely to happen when people just accept the fact that people are different, and do not make a big thing about color differences. We are all Gods children. He chose to make us with different skin colours, and other things, so it cannot be pleasing to Him when His children squabble among themselves about the way He chose to make them.
Jason | 08 June 2018


There's a vast difference between a 'should' and an 'is', in case you hadn't notice, the former being prescriptive and the latter descriptive. That being the case, it is precisely because I delight in endorsing your view of a bountiful, diverse and inclusive God, that, like the author, I take the trouble to challenge those who would treat his Creation as a mere and incomprehensible frippery. Instead, Whiteness Studies examines the various ways in which people with a White skin have collectively perverted and distorted our social, economic and political arrangements so as to ensure that they are collectively advantaged by such cultural arrangements and continue to exercise control over them. Whiteness Studies is an accredited subset of the Cultural Studies genre as well as a well recognised and established research analysis methodology. It exists precisely to insert the necessary correctives to ensure that every one in God's universe gets an equal chance to excel and isn't relegated by those who value exoticism over justice to the sphere of a mere phenomenon, never to be interrogated or interfered with because somehow it might upset the plans of another kind of god who looks askance at issues of inequality and injustice.
Dr Michael Furtado | 09 June 2018


Jason I too am a little perplexed as to what was intended in your comment.But to go back to the beginning of the story: Why do YOU think the woman in the estate agent's office wanted to 'correct' Yen-Rong's name? And if you were living in an Asian country and a woman in an estate agent's office wanted to record your name as say Jae-Son, would you be happy with that? It's not the apparent meanness in your comment that perplexes me so much as the apparent lack of empathy.
Margaret Ker | 09 June 2018


Any estate agent would be failing in their responsibility to a tenant if they were to hand over a key to that tenants apartment without first checking the identification of the person asking for the key. An unauthorised person in possession of a key could make a copy of it before handing it back, thus putting the personal safety of the tenant, and the security of her belongings at risk. It is in the best interests of the tenant that the estate agent has an accurate record of their identity, and if the tenant, as in this case, chose to use her driving licence as identification, it is perfectly logical for the estate agent to correct their record if necessary. Skin colour has got absolutely nothing to do with this. Is it right that a person be subjected to criticism just for doing her job properly and for having white skin in a publication that claims to promote the principles of Catholic justice? Where is the justice for this person? Is Eureka Street exempt from obedience to the eight commandment?
Jason | 11 June 2018


Thanks for that, Jason. Those 'squabbles' as you call them, contained and mediated within your family by your Christian witness as they undoubtedly are, bear no resemblance to the wider arrangements in our society that determine a division of spoils according to skin colour. The merest glace at history would tell you that, which is why Whiteness discourse has been developed to educate those who personalise all moral dilemmas into understanding that injustice, hatred and indeed sin has a social, structural and cultural aspect to it as well that is beyond the individual and all the more lethal for those who are blind to, and especially victims of, it.
Dr Michael Furtado | 12 June 2018


Margaret Ker, the estate agent woman did not want to “correct” Yen-Rongs name. She wanted to correct the estate agents record of her name in their system so that it was the same as the name on the licence that Yen- Rong chose to use as identification.
Jae-son | 12 June 2018


Jason I entirely agree with you that the estate agent was doing her job and that ID is important.But when Yen-Rong first entered into the lease agreement ID would also have been required, and presumably produced and recorded. And my understanding of the need for photo ID (given the numerous cases where I have to explain I don't have any!) is that the photo is the priority. Be all of that as it may I'm still surprised that you seem to see this as an instance of 'playing the victim' when as Michael Furtado points out there are broader and deeper issues involved. Meanwhile back to my dual heritage baby granddaughter who no doubt has all this ahead of her. and whose father I never refer to as Daddy. That not being how he refers to himself.Simple really... Blessings in your day!
Margaret Ker | 12 June 2018


This just shows what trivial and non-existent excuses some trouble makers (mostly in academic circles) use to attack white people. Just look at that nonsense at Melbourne University recently.
Joan | 14 June 2018


Joan, I am unaware that White people are under attack by academic or any other persons who engage with new intellectual thought and knowledge. Is your's perhaps an anti-intellectual reaction geared to eliciting the support of some marginalised quarter of the Catholic community that happens to be White? A sort of Catholic section of Donald Trump's constituency that is too afraid to speak up for itself for fear of owning the embarrassing nonsense that his constituency stands for? Why not give it a try. Surely an ES reader would not have too much difficulty in googling Whiteness Studies and then spending a minute or two on explaining why she might disagree with it. Wouldn't that be much more in keeping with the spirit of these columns, in which Catholics and others, somewhat uniquely for Australia, converse and discuss topics that are usually censored in the rest of the Catholic media? Your blunt assertion, unaccompanied by reason, suggests that your real purpose is to shut down Catholics of the Left who might engage with aspects of contemporary culture rather than submit to the cultural straight-jacketing that used to be a feature of right-wing Catholics in this country over very many years.
Dr Michael Furtado | 15 June 2018


Joan may i respectfully suggest you study Matthew 25:31-46 and consider how it might be applied in 21st century Australia. Though I do not have Michael Furtado's academic knowledge and depth of understanding (thanks for the suggestions though Michael) the treating of those outside our own necessarily narrow personal experience as 'other' is an ongoing danger. Can we really claim that 'we know not what we do' if we have bothered to read Yen-Rong's article with an open mind?
Margaret Ker | 15 June 2018


Margaret, I am familiar with this passage and do not have any trouble with it. In no way does it condone unjustified criticism of a person who is doing her job properly and has white skin, nor does it criticise those who come to her defence
Joan | 15 June 2018


Joan I do not see any unjustified criticism in what Yen-Rong wrote and as I have noted to Jason I entirely agree that the member of staff had to ask for ID. But why did she suggest that the records (presumably very thoroughly prepared at the time the lease was entered into) needed to be changed ? I have been unable to arrive at any explanation that differs substantially from the one suggested by Yen-Rong namely "I wasn't truly 'Australian' unless I went by my English name." As Yen-Rong then suggests this enabled her to feel solidarity with those whose experience of "otherness" was (as I am sure she would agree) more serious than the insensitivity of a possibly overworked member of staff on a busy afternoon. "Lord when did we see you" addresses our blindness and insensitivity on so many busy afternoons. So may whiteness studies.I'm just reflecting on comparable ideas from a source with which I am more familiar.
Margaret Ker | 16 June 2018


Margaret, the headline and first few sentences show that exception is taken to an estate agent wanting to keep accurate records, and to her white skin. The reason why the records needed correcting was to add the name on the drivers licence that Yen-Roni offered as identification for the spare key, and differed from that used when entering the lease. Names should match, no matter what language is used. Yen-Rong has every right to be proud of her background, but the estate agent did nothing to make her less than Australian, erase her name or her identity or her cultural background, and saying that she did is unjustified. Michael, among my workmates, neighbors, grand children, their schoolmates, football club mates etc, there is a vast range of skin colours and names of different nationalities, and there is no trouble. This “is” as it “should “ be. A lockout is normally dealt with by a locksmith, so a comment by a locksmith is relevant, but what has being a doctor got to do with it? The reason for some topics being “censored” in the rest of the Catholic media might be because they are Catholic.
Joan | 18 June 2018


Joan, I am not a medical doctor (or general practitioner) but a real doctor, which means that I have achieved the highest level of award in my academic field. This happens to be about human identity, inclusiveness and diversity studies. Within this discipline is a vast body of evidence-based knowledge that address issues of inequality based on matters of ethnicity (or culture, if you like), class (or economic status or wealth), and gender. Much that I admire your inclusive personal and interpersonal attributes and behaviours, one person's experience doth not a universe make. You have, accordingly, yet to advance an evidence-based principle that segregation never happened, simply because those in your circle have never practiced it. It actually happens that the foundations of modern Australia were built on White exclusivity beliefs and claims, and that takes a very long while to demolish. Ask any Aboriginal Australian!
Dr Michael Furtado | 19 June 2018


Joan the 'correction' of a complex legal document such as a lease agreement is hardly a trivial matter. And production of a driver's licence is primarily a matter of producing photo ID. However since neither of us knows precisely what the member of staff said or intended (or indeed whether Jae-son really is a locksmith?) may I respectfully suggest we take seriously the issues raised by Dr Furtado on the basis of his own field of expertise. Though my own 'real' (if sadly outdated ) qualification is in the field of church history I find his arguments persuasive. You are of course free to dismiss this as simply another instance of academics defending other academics. This, as indeed academics attacking other academics, is, for better or worse, a fairly significant part of the history of the Catholic Church. Unless of course that too has been 'corrected' in the last few decades.
Margaret Ker | 19 June 2018


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