Challenge: The Problem With White Spaces

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Words || Jasmine Phillips

Look, I’m not gonna lie. This was the hardest Grapeshot Challenge of my life. 

Which is ironic. Because it is my life. 

Let’s backtrack a little. 

The original challenge was to attend a rehearsal or workshop with The House of Sié. I am incredibly white-passing, but as the number of articles in this issue might have indicated, I am technically a woman of colour. 

My biological father is a Filipino immigrant who arrived in Australia as a child. 

I say biological because I have nothing to do with that man. 

My mum is the daughter of English immigrants, which is part of the reason I’m so pale. I was pale when I was born (my Mum assures me that I almost looked white until I opened my eyes) but by the time I was a child, I was recognisable as mestiza – a halfie. Caramel skin. Coffee-coloured skin. 

My parents and family were very vocal about how beautiful they believed my skin was. I remember at least a dozen times off of the top of my head that my Mum kissed my brown arms and told me that my colouring was perfect. 

I was never quite as brown as my sister, growing up – she was very much an outdoor kid, and I was absolutely not. But I was absolutely not the kind of off-white colour I am now. The kind of pale that has given me the dainty freckles I wanted as a child, the kind that allows me to hide under a new, anglicized last name and to pass so easily.

I didn’t change my last name purposefully to hide my ethnicity. 

But I did purposefully change my skin colouring. 

I don’t have an excellent memory, but I don’t think I ever told that to anyone before now. It seemed incidental enough; I was an indoor girl, so it made sense that I became paler as I got older. I got less sun. 

But I got less sun on purpose. 

I stayed in the shade and I wished on fallen lashes and dandelions for skin as white as snow.

Like I said, I had it relatively easy when it came to my immediate social influences and their perspective on my skin colour. 

But the fact is, the simple act of existing within the world was enough to make me dislike my skin. I remember telling my Mum tens on hundreds of times that I wished I looked like a beautiful white girl – blonde hair and blue eyes, with rosy cheeks. 

When my parents split and Pandora’s box opened, I didn’t just lose my relationship with my father. 

I lost everything I had that made me brown. 

I’ve lost my extended family – every family function, with every cultural dish. I’ve lost my grandparents and their tough love and their obsession with making sure I was the smartest in the class. I’ve lost my cousins and our shared stories over how strict our parents could be. I’ve lost my aunties and their passive aggressive ability to only ever buy me presents that consisted of clothes two sizes too small (to encourage me to lose weight). 

Some of these losses I had more choice in than others. I strongly believe that I made the only choice I could when I cut off my Dad – but both of my siblings will still occasionally visit other family members. And maybe one day my choice will be different – but it was never fully mine to make. I never had full agency in this. 

I have a very complicated relationship with my sense of culture. I don’t ever regret cutting off contact with my toxic parent – but I do feel sad that this has cut me off from my culture. 

With my white face, and my white name, most days I feel much more white than I do brown. 

Which brings me to the challenge. 

This is, quite literally, not the challenge I signed up for. 

But it’s the challenge I completed all the same. 

When I was originally approached by the initial conveynors for NOWSA, I did not want to be involved. I was already stretched thin, and I didn’t feel like I had the capacity to handle being involved. In fact, I repeatedly both of told them that I couldn’t commit to meetings and that if they really needed me, I could help out in the month (singular) leading up. 

But this is what being a visible woman of colour in a feminist space means: I saw that the conference was incapable of going ahead without intervention, and that the pledge toward intersectionality meant nothing when there were no women of colour being actively invited into a space. 

Actively invited, because of the expertise they could offer, and not because of their skin tone. 

Dear white people, when you are told that your space is not inclusive, you can’t just shout into the void and ask for more brown and black people to volunteer. You need to independently research and make connections and invite people in based on their talents. 

When you ask us with the caveat that “you need more non white people” it’s a goddamned insult. Nobody – nobody – wants to hear that they are the diversity candidate. 

There are so many talented people on this campus, and there are so many things that poc offer. Do not tell them that all they contribute is their ethnicity. 

Regardless of whether I like it or not, I move through my world every day as a white person, and this makes my life easier. I have a white name, and a white appearance, and, in some part, a white person’s upbringing. I will never experience the full extent of racism that my fellow poc do. 

In order to confront the White Feminist environment that had been created, I had to thrust myself forward as a person of colour. Regardless of how white I felt, or how white I looked, I needed to confront this part of me – the part of me that had been dismissed and tokenised just like every other person of colour. The part of me that is brown, and that is disadvantaged for my brown-ness. 

And this is often a bigger part of me than I realise. 

The part of me that grew up incredibly money-conscious, the part that was taught the harsh lesson that I am my own person and my adult life is my responsibility alone to maintain – so I’d better not fuck it up. The part that holds myself to impossible standards, that knows that to be successful I have to work the hardest and be the best. The part of me that is so conscious of people who have less, that knows how easily I can be there. How recently I have been there.

I am someone who knows that safety nets are not there to catch me. 

Like everything else, domestic violence is a social problem with a social root. I am a survivor largely because of the intergenerational effects of immigration without social support. 

My grandparents chose to leave my father behind for years while they set up their life in a new and better country – because it was the only choice they had. They couldn’t stay in Manila, the city with the largest population of homeless people in the entire world. Manila, where children are born, and grow up, and die on a literal giant pile of smoking trash. Where they never know anything but that mountain. 

But it was this decision that affected his understanding, and his understanding that affected my upbringing. 

I am mixed, and I have not experienced everything that racism has to offer – but I have experienced some of what it does. And I will strive to keep pushing for my rights, but also the rights of those around me. 

For everyone who had to try a little harder than me, the naturally pale mestiza, to have white skin. 

For everyone who had to try a little harder than me to get the best education. 

For everyone who had to try a little harder than me to have a full and happy family. 

I have fought for you, and I will keep fighting. And I will only talk until we can all talk.