I almost backed out from writing this piece. What was something I eagerly pitched in a meeting a couple of months ago became a blank, tumbleweed-riddled document on my laptop.
Worrying about what my white friends think of me has been a constant hum throughout my friendships. What will they think of my food? My home? My parents? What will they understand about me? And what will they never?
Being the token Asian was a badge worn with pride for most of my childhood and teen years. One of one, I was. My chest puffed at the fact that I had broken rank and been accepted into the tiers of my white peers. In their eyes, I was one of them. I was not like the others. Racism bleeds into internalised racism, because how could it not? It was an unspoken rule, I was their friend despite the fact I was Chinese.
Out of survival, many people of colour who grow up in Australia try to assimilate as best as we can. That means we shed parts of ourselves and heighten others. For 30-year-old writer Sabina McKenna, this looked like “doing everything [she] could to not be a person of colour”. She tells Refinery29 Australia that growing up in Melbourne’s south meant being around white, blonde, privately-educated girls. As a Nigerian-Irish woman, she felt compelled to straighten her hair, get spray tans and follow mainstream music.
McIlwraith has Cantonese heritage and distinctly recalls a memory from when she was seven years old at Girl Guides. She mentioned that she was going up to Sydney for Chinese New Year to her blonde-haired, blue-eyed best friend, excited to share the news of the festivities.
“Then the next week, I went to sit next to her and she moved to the other side of the circle. And I was really confused about that. So afterwards, I said to her, ‘Why did you move?’. I remember so vividly, she looked at me and she said, 'Well, you're Chinese and my mum told me you make us sick',” she shares with Refinery29 Australia.
Almost every non-white person will have experiences tucked in their back pocket that are reminders of how they’re different, encounters that have scarred our future interactions with others. McKenna offers up the searing (and all too common) memory of a man telling her that he doesn’t date Black girls. McIlwraith recalls a time when she was 15 years old that made her instantly remove herself from her existing all-white friendship group.
“The Black Lives Matter movement really started in the US and I was following that [and] connected it to the deaths in custody here. I remember telling them about it. Then one day, one of them turned to me at lunch and said, ‘Phoebe, you have to realise we just don't care about that’”.
Can you really be surprised that now McKenna has no close heterosexual white friends? Or that McIlwraith, who is ethnically ambiguous, proudly shares her heritage with others off the bat, as a means of weeding people out? Or that, after soldiering on as the token Asian for many years, I consciously sought out others with a similar ethnic background?
There’s comfort and ease in familiarity. It’s something I see through my 19-year-old family friend Lucy, who surrounds herself with a tight-knit circle of East Asians.
“I normally hang out with Asian people because I feel like their values are more aligned with mine. We also have similar passions [and] I feel more comfortable being myself. Whereas compared to being with white people, I feel like I have to act a certain way,” she tells Refinery29 Australia.
"You literally lock eyes across the room if something happens that has racial undertones that other people don't really seem to pick up on. It's a whole moment of like, ‘Did you just see that? Am I the only one that saw that?’."
Whenever she’s found herself in a friendship group with only one or two other women of colour, she notes the importance of The Debrief. “[After a hangout] we can talk about something that made us feel uncomfortable, we can have a shared experience. Since the pandemic, it’s just been a bit more racially motivated,” Lucy says.
McIlwraith has another name for this: the ‘ethnic side glance’. “You literally lock eyes across the room if something happens that has racial undertones that other people don't really seem to pick up on. It's a whole moment of like, ‘Did you just see that? Am I the only one that saw that?’. There's that breath and you just quickly look to the side [and] you’re telepathically telling each other, ‘we’re talking about that later’.”
This instinctive pull to fellow women of colour isn’t accidental. Artist Kaydee Kyle-Taylor previously told R29 that outsiders often mistake her and other First Nations people as family, as there’s this intangible bond and energy that’s shared. My eyes flit around a room of strangers in social gatherings, resting on people who feel safe. Unsurprisingly, this often means other women of colour.
Far from monolithic, our experiences as women of colour vary tremendously — but shared stories, mutual respect and a lack of code-switching remove a lot of the built-up anxiety of socialising.
And when there’s none around, whether in a group of strangers or a close group of friends, you notice. There are no non-verbal communication cues or unconditional understanding to lean on.
Far from monolithic, our experiences as women of colour vary tremendously — but shared stories, mutual respect and a lack of code-switching remove a lot of the built-up anxiety of socialising. Moving through the world, we have no choice but to be subjected to uncomfortable situations. We can’t avoid workplaces, public spaces or public services, but we have a say in friendships.
“I [choose] people that I want to surround myself with based on the way they make me feel. I think [it’s] connected to race a lot,” McKenna says. “If I get the wrong feeling about somebody, I [decide] I’m going to step right back. It's more of a protective kind of thing, where I [realise] my space is very valuable.”
Whether it takes the form of code-switching or censoring yourself to not offend white people, McKenna simply doesn’t have the time or energy for it anymore. “I think that it’s reasonable to not be willing to make people feel comfortable,” she puts it.
Some of my best friends are white and I wouldn’t have it any other way. They know my quirks, my coffee order, the YouTube vloggers I’ve obsessed over and the latest pair of shoes I’ve deliberated buying. And through no fault of their own, they will never fully understand my cultural background, my familial obligations, my intergenerational struggles.
But I also need relationships with other women of colour who get me, no explanation required. Friendships are a place of rest and relaxation. And what's more restful than being seen and understood in all your glory?