It was two o’clock in the morning and I was in bed, face pressed to my phone. I was talking to Matt*, a friend from university. Somehow, as cities locked down, mass panic ensued and toilet paper ran out in the supermarkets, Matt and I confessed some unexpected feelings to each other. It was a cliché, the kind of thing you read about in romantic novels and post-apocalyptic movies. Sparks and butterflies. Too good to be true. Two months later and there I was gritting my teeth. He said “I’ve been considering this situation for a while… and it’s just a huge red flag that you’re… Asian.” I could suddenly feel the hard edge of the phone cutting into my face. Did I hear him right?
I had read about people who had experienced racism in dating. It usually involved white guys fetishising women of colour, disrespecting another culture, and asking uncomfortable questions. I had sympathised and wished so much that it was different for these women – but that was their lived experience. It wasn’t my reality. As I lay there, listening to Matt explain why I was the wrong race for him to be with, I couldn’t feel… anything. I was detached, numb. It wasn’t like this was the first time he had made me uncomfortable. It wasn’t the first time he had made a racist remark.
“He told me over and over again that all of his exes were Asian, Bengali specifically. I’m Indian, but it’s all kind of the same thing right? Well, no, but to him it was.”
Just a week earlier, we had had a heated conversation turned sort of interrogation about why I chose to write about racial identity, racial discrimination and the ‘point’ of my magazine, Diaspora Speaks. It started amicably as I explained to him that it was important to me to create spaces for students of colour at my university and to write about issues regarding cases of racial discrimination. He said, “I don’t want you to become one of those people that just write about race… I don’t really fuck with people like that.” My immediate reaction was to be defensive, to insist that I do write about other things alongside those issues. It wasn’t good enough; he kept asking me “but why do you write about race?” His repetitive questioning and obvious inability to understand had me on the verge of tears.
To him, I was just a fetish. He liked the idea of me more than the reality. He claimed to love Brown girls: “I’m just so attracted to them, I don’t know why.” He told me over and over again that all of his exes were Asian, Bengali specifically. I’m Indian, but it’s all kind of the same thing right? Well, no, but to him it was.
He told me how his exes didn’t accept him because he was white and their families would reject him because of his race. He thought I would do the same thing. I could tell it was a sore topic. There are a lot of outdated practices and traditions in South Asian culture that I can’t support. However, our conversations told me a lot about him; his dismissiveness of the legacy of colonialism in South Asia, and his refusal to acknowledge the damage that the British Empire has caused. I wonder, how can you expect to be respected by a culture that you don’t respect?
“‘Red flags’ are traits that you have control over and can change. I have no control over my racial identity or the culture I was born into. To call me a red-flag because I’m Asian was incredibly insulting.”
I was a fetish to him. I wasn’t the only one: he also fetishised the idea of having mixed-race children. Someone who refused to acknowledge the impact of racial discrimination today, and was, in his own words, “too busy” to educate himself about racism wanted to have mixed-race kids. It was a warped fantasy. What would it be like to have a father who refuses to acknowledge that you might be treated differently because of your race?
There are so many things that could suggest why a person might not be the one for you. ‘Red flags’ are traits that you have control over and can change. I have no control over my racial identity or the culture I was born into. To call me a red-flag because I’m Asian – as though it’s an annoying personality trait that I can just shrug off or dispose of – was incredibly insulting. I felt fragile in my identity for the first time in a while. I felt insecure.
What Matt didn’t realise was that after years of building up the strength to be proud of my race, he had propelled me back into a childhood of insecurities.
So there I was, at two in the morning, being rejected by Matt because I was Asian. To him, that meant my ideals were the same as his Asian exes; who, over time, had become an indistinguishable lump, rather than individual women with their own personalities.
He said we could still be friends, whatever that meant. I said no. He was no friend of mine. In a strange sort of way, I was glad. Inexplicably, I’d liked him so I’d been there. Now I couldn’t be, and I no longer had to deal with his racist remarks, his uncertain responses, his mixed messages. I was free to talk and write about race as much as I wanted. And yet, I was still consumed by guilt.
What Matt didn’t realise was that after years of building up the strength to be proud of my race, he had propelled me back into a childhood of insecurities. Growing up I had always been insecure about my racial identity, about the colour of my skin, the way that some words didn’t roll off my tongue so smoothly, the fact that I was different. I used to think, white guys don’t go for girls like me because of my culture.
I write this for all of the Brown girls who have had the same, or similar, experiences.
Coming to university shifted my perspective. Being in a diverse and multicultural environment enabled me to reconnect with my roots and be proud of my identity. I feel ashamed that I built up this confidence only to let someone knock it down so easily. All of the insecurities I harboured as a child started to resurface in my conversations with Matt. It was the way he would take stereotypes about Asians as fact and impose them on me as if I had no agency or control over my own identity. It was the way that all of my problems would be dismissed as just “Asian girl problems.” It was the way he made me feel like a problem… a red-flag because of my race.
I was talking to Matt when I was establishing my magazine. In the aftermath of cutting Matt off, I felt like a hypocrite. How could I have enabled a racist whilst I was preaching against it through my publication? I can’t shake it off. All of that time, and it didn’t dawn on me that I was speaking to a racist. One that I had enabled. It was only in the wake of his departure that I realised what I’d been a part of, and how many others it was surely happening to.
I write in the hopes that the hurt will one day fade. I write this for all of the Brown girls who have had the same, or similar, experiences. To Matt, you asked me once why I write about race: my answer now is that it’s because of people like you.
*Name has been changed.
Sawdah, pronounced soda – yes, like the drink – is a freelance journalist currently studying for an undergraduate degree in English at Queen Mary University of London. She is the editor-in-chief and co-founder of Diaspora Speaks Magazine. Passionate about writing and creating spaces for POC, Sawdah is always striving to empower herself and others. @sawdahbhaimiya