This column first appeared in the April 2015 issue of Metro.
When I was sent a screenshot of the Ya Ya Club’s invitation for members to dress up as “Intriguing Geisha Twins, Seductive Sari Queens” or even “Striking Pacifica Princes/s” for their inaugural ball, my first instinct was not outrage, but rather a heavy sigh, an eye-roll, and the thought, “Oh yep, there goes some white people just being casually ignorant again.”
I had wanted to ignore it. Not because it’s not offensive, because it is, but because I didn’t want it to ruin my day, and because, depressingly, this sort of thing happens a lot.
I’d been chatting about it with a friend of mine who’s Chinese, and she had similarly not been shocked by it because, to quote her, “I grew up here.” That bummed me out but, again, didn’t surprise me. We were in frustratingly familiar territory, and I’d felt deflated as soon as I’d read it. I knew that even if the initial comment hadn’t upset me so much, everything that tends to unfold after that would.
First comes the offensive comment or image. Then the protest at said offence, and the request to take down the image or comment. Then comes the pseudo-apology, which invariably includes the words “no offence intended”. Then the online debate rages, trolls and all, and I have to read comments that pop up in my Facebook feed from people wondering what all the fuss is about: “Don’t we have something better to do with our day?” or “I don’t get how this is racist?”
Despite my best efforts, I still ended the day feeling like shit, because it once again reminded me of my minority status. It once again made me feel separate from the society I live in.
And for the record, yes, we do have better things to do with our day than to have to painstakingly explain why our cultures mean so much to us, even if they mean nothing to you. Yes, I’d rather talk about the weather than have to explain to someone, “No, you can’t dress up like me for one night and expect me to be flattered at your vague attempt at multiculturalism.”
Didn’t we learn anything last year when Trelise Cooper apologised after sending models down the runway wearing Native American headdresses, when Rhythm and Vines also apologised for featuring girls on posters wearing the same offending items? Didn’t Nike just a couple of years ago pull a line of sports gear after complaints over its use of traditional Samoan tattoo patterns?
Here’s the thing: I actually believe there was no intention to offend, I really do. I don’t think these kinds of things are done maliciously. Some people just don’t know. But sometimes it’s the not-knowing, the ignorance, from people you otherwise probably have a lot in common with, that is most disappointing.
Too often apologies are offered up as token gestures, with no attempt to right a wrong, or there’s no acceptance that a wrong was done in the first place. It puts the onus of justification on the offended person, rather than the offender. It implies (or simply states) that we can’t possibly be the best authority to comment on what we find offensive to our own race, to our own culture.
As if we’re not smart enough to be in on the joke. As if we’re too dense to see it as some good ol’ fun.
I get that in some people’s worlds, class and race and culture are not problems for them personally, so they lack the life experience to empathise or understand when it’s an issue for other people.
But here’s hoping they can understand this… Stop telling us our opinions on our own culture and values are not valid. Stop telling us it wasn’t your intention to offend, but you’re going to continue anyway. Stop making a judgment on behalf of another race as to whether something is or isn’t racist. Stop doing that.
Just stop. It’s draining, it’s tiring, it’s hurtful and, at the very least, it ruins a lot of people’s days.