Sue-Yen Bylund on Racism

On 3 April 2022, a group of 19 Australian intercountry adoptees participated in an ICAV consultation for the Australian Human Rights Commission (AHRC) who have developed a Concept Paper for a National Anti-Racism Framework. We believe intercountry/transracial adoptees are under represented in race discussions in almost every adoptive country and wanted to make sure we had a say. The next few blogs will be a selection of the inputs from adoptees who participated to give a more nuanced insight into our lived experience of racism and our thoughts on what needs to be done to better support us.

by Sue-Yen Bylund, adopted from Vietnam to Australia, ICAV VIC Representative

Racism is here to stay. It is enmeshed in the very fabric of society, at every level. It manifests within us as individuals, at a systemic level pervading our policies and practices, reflected in our interpersonal behaviours and is accumulated and compounded in the base structures of our history, culture and ideology.

In order to mitigate the harm caused by racism we must be actively anti-racist. It is not enough to merely be “not racist”, as this, often results in a passive racism, which is as equally toxic as overt racism. Tolerance is a poor substitute for acceptance. Tolerance offers tokenism and indifference. Acceptance offers a place for all voices, a public validation as individuals and a genuine place at the table to self-determination.

Every person carries their racial biases differently. Acknowledgment of these biases on a personal individual level is important, however being open to listening, validating and accepting the experiences of others takes courage. 

My expectation within this forum, is to offer to an opportunity to broaden the discussion of anti-racism to embrace all forms and manifestations of racism within Australian society today. To offer encouragement to address the complex “grey” zones of racism. Through this broadening a more mature collective and inclusive voice will evolve, which I believe Australia is ready to share with the world.

The foundations of my identity lie amongst the chaos of war time Vietnam 1974. Within the first 3 weeks of my life, I experienced my initiation into the full audio and aromatic reality of war, surrounded by screaming and traumatised children and adults. Racial identity did not protect any of us from the horrors, what we all absorbed would remain forever with us as visceral burdens to tame. War and terror are the greatest levellers in stripping even the bravest to the very foundations of humanity. And then in one swift spin of the planet I would find myself a world away in the eerie quiet and calmness of Perth, Western Australia. This journey would also mark the beginning of a life’s self-education of racial fluidity. Being one heart and soul, but a chameleon of racial identities. Born of one culture, raised in another, looking as though I belong to one group, but in at my core, I belong to another, the duplicity and fluidity is complex and exhausting.

The need to feel safe, accepted, understood and validated seems to be a naturally human pursuit. As an intercountry adoptee the journey is complex and confusing. We slip into the cracks of racial stereotypes offering up apologetically a reason for inclusion or explanation for exclusion. Either way no matter where we are in our communities we are an anomaly. We are constantly offered up as a reminder that a book shouldn’t be judged by its cover and if you care to listen carefully, you will hear the simple request for safety and acceptance.

My childhood cultural identity was shaped through the lens of middle class suburban 1970’s Australia. It was fortunate that the primary school I went to attracted a good proportion of Asian immigrant families. This enabled me, at a young age to observe the “other” type of Asian. The Asian person who spoke the language, ate the food, complied with the Asian cultural norms, while they themselves were carving out the unique existence in post “White Australia Policy” era. It was clear to me from the very beginning that I was an “Asian variant”. I was to experience racial prejudice from all sides. My immediate family comprised of a white Australian adoptive mother, a white Dutch (first generation migrant) adoptive father and their two biological white sons. Straddling my home and school environments I began to acknowledge the fragmented racial identity which was uniquely mine.

I would learn to instinctively navigate the pros and cons of racial profiling expressed by adults and classmates. At times it afforded me a shield to hide behind, at other times it just bewildered me at how ignorant and entitled people could be. 

Teachers would regard me with the marginalising stereotype of female Asian student, this meant that no matter what I did, or didn’t do, I was considered polite, conscientious and studious. This enabled me to glide through my studies relatively smoothly. Where this backfired was when I would be herded together with all the Asian “look-a-likes” to be given special instructions in Chinese/Cambodian/Vietnamese. There were always a few of us that would simply shrug our shoulders, knowing it was too hard to explain to the teachers that English was in fact our only language. 

Classmate interactions were more complex. While they seemed to want to flex their insecurities through bullying behaviours, I suspect they would often leave these bullying interactions more confused and with increased insecurities about themselves. They would corner me and spit out racial slurs “Ching Chong!”, “Go back to where you came from!”, “Asians out!” with the standard accompanying slanted eye gesture. I learnt very early to lean into the bullying. To not turn away in shame or embarrassment, I summoned the  airs of entitlement I learnt from my white Australian family. It was an educational opportunity. I would not show weakness. So armed with a vocabulary not generally associated with a small Asian female of 11 years I would lean in and say with a perfect Aussie twang, “Get f***ed you immature ignorant bigot!” While they processed the response in stunned silence, I was already half down the hall or across the oval. When I think back to those times, I know in my heart I still hold a deep resentment toward those who racially vilified me. The fact I could still name those individuals today shows how deeply it affected me. I built a wall to protect myself, a tough persona that would later in life be softened with self-depreciating humour. 

Humour has become one of the most powerful tools for disarming awkwardness though it should be noted that humour can only be genuinely offered by me (the vilified) otherwise it can have the effect of adding insult or increasing alienation.

Australian society in general is getting better at navigating racially blended families. However, there have been times where an awkward visual double take or racial slur has been reconsidered once formal introductions have concluded. 

For example, my adoptive mother is the personified “white saviour” heroine and therefore in this narrative, I embody the role of a grateful saved soul. There is no place in this narrative version for reality and it only serves to perpetuate the stereotypes. This distilled classification of our relationship as an adoptive mother and daughter has resulted in a chasm of empathy where my experience of racial prejudice and marginalisation cannot be reconciled with my adoptive mother’s version of my lived experience. She cannot/will not acknowledge that I have/do experience any racial prejudice. It’s unfathomable and therefore remains a taboo subject between us. I would suggest a classic case of “colour blindness” which is the most common manifestation of passive racism. Let me strongly suggest that racial “colour blindness” is not a positive construct to build a relationship in. I don’t advocate for a monochrome world. It cancels out important conversations that need to be had to build empathy and understanding. It bypasses the integral act of individual and collective validation.

A typical interaction in a social setting with my white husband, would start with a few awkward glances while people assessed my proficiency in English. Once the conversation has warmed up a little, the question is always asked “How did you two meet each other?” At this point all newbies begin listening in the hope to hear some spectacular Tinder dating app story with me gaining Australian citizenship when we married. Sad to say the story takes an epic sad tone when it is revealed I was a baby from the Viet Nam war. The conversation moves very quickly from one set of stereotypes to another. The chameleon game is afoot. We have now moved into the Viet Nam war genre and to be honest the racial stereotypes are just as nauseating. As the conversation peters out, I am left with a very uncomfortable feeling that I might be the daughter of a B-Grade war romance story of a soldier and prostitute but on the positive side, I have ruled out that I am a “mail order bride” from Asia desperate to get my claws into a rich white “sugar daddy”. Either way, I always leave these gatherings feeling like I have shared way too much about myself, simply to justify my equal status at the table of white Australians. Needless to say, it’s exhausting and incredibly invasive. At times my inner evil chameleon just wants to re-enforce the stereotypes rather than use my life as an education case study. In the end I see curiosity is better than fear and putting examples forward and building knowledge is a slow continuous but necessary journey.

With regards to my children, I am conscious that they physically are racially ambiguous. They could have genetic origins from various backgrounds, but once I stand next to them then it becomes evident their dark features come from me and they are of Asian origins. My daughter has experienced racial slurs from having an Asian looking mother. It wasn’t until she spent her gap year in Viet Nam that she developed her own understanding of her origins. She has in fact spent more time in Viet Nam than me. 

School parent social groups are an interesting micro society and navigating them is a full-time job. In the private school my children attended I had two very distinct social groups that I interacted with. One was a group of Asian looking mothers where I felt like an honouree member. I learnt Asian cultural things and etiquette that I didn’t get elsewhere. I did a lot of listening. The other group were all Anglo-Saxon looking mothers and I was dubbed the “token” Asian (humorous chameleon!) These girlfriends understood how I saw the world. It’s in these situations that I reflect on the sophistication of my chameleon gift and in a positive moment reflect on the bridges I can construct between the groups just through listening and sharing.

There is a niche and powerful position that intercountry adoptees have in the conversation around racism and prejudice. It’s borne from the hybrid and fluid nature of our self-identities. We exist in the space between cultures and races. The triumphal story of our survival is in fact a narrative of weaving together of cultures, racial identity, tolerance and acceptance. Intercountry adoptees must reconcile the disparity between the physical and internal nature of racial identity, because at every turn we are challenging the stereotypes and presumptions. As an Asian in white Australia, we challenge the mainstream colonial stereotypes, as an Asian in Asia, we find ourselves challenging the long-held stereotypes in our birth culture. We belong to both yet neither wholly. 

If I was to consider the future of racism in context of Australia, I would continue to raise the challenge to government and individuals to embrace the complexity. Find the words, create the platforms, lead with optimism. Systemic racism embedded in the policies and practices by government and institutions needs to be constantly questioned and reviewed to ensure it leads in activating change. Structural racism that unpins mainstream think-tanks needs to be shaken loose. It is an uncomfortable and confronting task, but I believe Australia is mature enough to take this task on. Interpersonal racism is very difficult to navigate as an intercountry adoptee, but the freedom to express an alternate reality from the stereotypes is a good platform to build upon. Internalised racism is insipid and so very damaging. We want to move from passive tolerance to active validation of individuals. 

Ongoing political bi-partisan support for research and consultation is an essential investment to engage in effective societal change. A firm commitment to reviewing and evaluating key milestones is required for accountability and integrity.  Educational resources coupled with public awareness and youth engagement are core to developing a more mature future for all Australians.

For more from Sue-Yen, read her ANZAC Day Reflections, her contribution to What’s in a Name? and advocacy with Green’s Senator meeting.

Resource

Read ICAVs small collation on Color blindness in Adoption

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