Struggles with ‘Otherness’

This is a post that I’ve been wanting to write for some time but I’ve put it off, mainly out of fear. But given everything that’s going in the world right now, it would be remiss of me not to say something. This issue is infinitely more important than my planned descriptions of cemeteries at the Second Cataract, and it is directly relevant to the themes of the project, and to the dark legacy that we have inherited as archaeologists and historians.

The issue, of course, is that of racism, and particularly of racism in academia, and even more particularly in the field of Egyptology. It’s something that is being talked about more and more lately, which is great, but at the same time we all know that getting onto the right path is going to take a lot of work and a lot of time. Words will be said. Things will get heated. Feelings will get hurt. We know that things will eventually find equilibrium, but it will take time, and the journey will be difficult, but it’s a journey that must be taken.

So, what I want to do here is tell you a little bit about my own struggles with this issue as a person who is neither white nor black, and to express some of my own failings, what I’m trying to do about it, and link all of this back to the study of ancient Egypt and Nubia, however circuitously. It’s a little bit stream-of-consciousness, but I want this to be an honest and personal exploration of these issues from my own “InBetween” perspective.

My surname and my Australian-ness might not make it immediately obvious, but if you’ve ever seen a picture of me, you’ll know that I’m not white. My family is Singaporean, but we are of Portuguese, Dutch and Malay (and maybe also Chinese and Indian?) ancestry. Put simply, I and all of my immediate relatives are living products of colonialism and the European exploitation of… well… pretty much of the entire world. It’s why there’s a question mark around the possible Chinese and Indian parts of my bloodline. Our story, until maybe three or four generations ago, was told in a largely European voice.

Often in my research group, we discuss things like concepts of ethnicity and identity, and this has forced me to reflect on my own ethnic identity. To be honest, I don’t really know what I am in terms of ethnicity, and I couldn’t give you just one simple answer. I’m Australian by birth and citizenship. I only speak English (and passable German), and the only Malay that I know and understand is either food-related or curse words. At least fifty percent of the food that I cook and eat is from one or another Asian cuisine. Depending on the situation, I might feel more Australian or more Asian, depending on who I’m with, where I am, and what I’m doing. Sometimes it’s a conscious choice to emphasise certain aspects of a certain facet of my identity, but sometimes I find myself presenting as more Singaporean or more Australian without even realising that I’m doing it. Sometimes I foreground my European heritage for various reasons, perhaps to make myself seem less Asian, to highlight my family’s colonial past, or sometimes to just “fit in”. At other times I find myself exoticising the Singaporean aspects of identity, almost invariably in relation to cuisine because I know it makes people jealous! But then I wonder, why? Why do I make these choices? and why do I even feel the need to choose in the first place? I am, to all intents and purposes, a living manifestation of the InBetween-ness that my project is all about. I am many things, but nothing in particular.

My parents and two sisters migrated to Australia in 1980 (I was born in 1982), and even though it had been seven years since the abolishment of the White Australia Policy, my family was among the first southeast Asians to settle in the outer suburbs of Sydney. I distinctly remember going to the one Asian supermarket in our part of town, which was a 20-minute drive from our house. Asian culture was still relatively new, so much so that one of our first neighbours referred to my family as “the tribe”, and one of my sisters was interrogated by her Australian teacher because her lunch smelled weird. It was a prawn sambal sandwich, but my poor sister lied and said it was peanut butter to avoid embarrassment. Fast-forward 40 years and prawn sambal sandwiches are now a hot ticket item in some of Sydney’s most popular Asian eateries. My, how times change.

But even though things had supposedly changed, I myself have been subjected to what I would call racism in more recent times –– sometimes blatant, sometimes less so, and sometimes probably unintentional. I was once told that I’m not bad looking <quote> “for a darkie” <unquote>, which I can only assume that person meant as some kind of compliment. I can’t tell you how many times people have told me, in response to my saying I’m Singaporean, that I don’t look Chinese, presumably because they think all Asians are supposed to look the same. More recently, my own perspective of being an immigrant has drastically changed since moving to Austria. I’ve found that many (but not all!) local people assume that I don’t speak German. They’ll either speak to me in English (even after I’ve spoken to them in German!), or they’ll ignore me entirely and speak in German to my blonde-haired blue-eyed partner, who, in spite of his appearance and Germanic surname, speaks only very basic German. He inevitably stares like a deer in headlights, and I have to say, in my most polite German, “Darf ich Ihnen helfen?”

Whether or not it’s intentional, to me it feels like they assume that I don’t speak German because I don’t fit their expectation of what a German-speaking person is supposed to look like. One time, I was waiting at a crossing and a woman was asking for directions in German. She asked everyone around me, but they were all white American tourists. She looked at me, and I smiled at her, but she looked away and didn’t ask me. Maybe she had just given up and couldn’t be bothered asking, but the first thing to cross my mind is that she assumed I don’t speak German because I’m brown. The thing is, I knew what she was looking for and I knew exactly how to get there, but I decided not to help her unless she asked. Was it wrong of me to expect that she speak to me in German? Maybe. She wasn’t to know that I have a PhD and had been learning German on-and-off for about six years. But what is more wrong is that my first thought was that she had excluded me because of the colour of my skin. I felt that my voice and my experience was dismissed as not being worth the effort or time. That is not right, and it deeply upset me.

The casual racism isn’t just limited to strangers. People I know well, e.g. academic colleagues, and sometimes even friends have told me that they don’t see me as being “brown”, even if I had just identified myself as such. This used to confuse me; I knew I was offended by the statement, but I didn’t understand why. Then, recently, I spoke to my sister back home in Sydney, and she said that people have said the same thing to her in her workplace, where she is the only non-white person on her team. She explained to them that by saying they see her as “one of them”, it implies that being “one of them” (i.e. white) is somehow better. Suddenly I understood why these comments had upset me. “Not seeing colour” isn’t a compliment. It suggests that being “colourless” is an ideal, or that it’s necessary to fit in. But I don’t want to be colourless, and if you’ve seen my collection of shirts you’ll know this to be true! But seriously, why should anyone assume that I would? or that I would prefer to be “one of them”?

My point in saying all of this is that being subjected to racism is unpleasant, to put it very, very mildly. Even if it’s unintentional, it hurts, and often it’s difficult to articulate why it hurts.

But what on earth does all of this have to do with Egypt and Nubia?

We all know the discipline has a racist past that is built on colonialism and the European exploitation of Egypt and Sudan. I don’t need to dwell on that as many others have already done and are doing a better job than I ever could. But in thinking about all of this I realised a few things:

  1. I am one of only two not-white Egyptologists in Vienna, and possibly even in all of Austria (as far as I know).
  2. Besides myself, I know only four other Asian people working in Egyptology personally.
  3. I only personally know one Black American person working in Egyptology.*

That last point truly shocked me more than any other. It also strikes me that when most scholars who are based in “the West” (i.e. Europe, the USA, Australia etc), are asked to think about Egyptologists, we generally first think of well-known names, usually male, based at big universities in Europe, the UK or the United States. But what about our colleagues in Egypt and Sudan? There are so many Egyptian and Sudanese researchers, and we all know them (especially anyone who has ever done any fieldwork), but why do most of us not immediately think of them? I myself am lamentably guilty of this failing.

This problem and personal failing became immediately apparent to me very recently, and in a manner that makes me feel deeply embarrassed and ashamed. I’m organising an online conference for the InBetween project, which, of course, focusses on ancient Nubian cultures and their interactions. I think I have a really good panel lined up, but just a few days ago I came to a shocking realisation:

Apart from myself, the panel is entirely white.

I was so focussed on having an even gender balance that I didn’t even think about other types of diversity. It embarrasses me, as a brown man, that I am hosting a workshop that is focussed on the history of Nubia, but I don’t have any African voices in the room. And not just African; I don’t even have any other non-white voices in the room at all. It embarrasses me that I – someone who has himself been subjected to racist remarks and actions – have myself been unintentionally racist and exclusive.

But what do I do now? On the one hand, I’m reluctant to add a person of colour to the panel at this stage, because it would feel like I am just making a “diversity hire” for the sake of it. Like I’m just ticking a box as an afterthought. I myself would feel very uncomfortable if someone hired me for a similar reason. I never want to be a “diversity hire”, and I refuse to do that to somebody else. But on the other hand, perhaps that person would be grateful for the opportunity to be at the table and to provide their perspective. But the even bigger problem is that, try as I might, I can’t think of any people of colour doing research immediately relevant to the workshop. The few people that I do know of (at least by name or reputation) conduct research on aspects of Nubian history that are not directly relevant to the very specific theme of the workshop. Adding them to the panel at this late stage would feel like the most blatant of diversity hires, and that makes me uncomfortable… but why does my own comfort level matter? But more importantly, where are these people?

History, as they say, is written by the victors, and when it comes to Egypt and Sudan, that history is almost exclusively white. The British, the French, the Germans (i.e. the Prussians)… all of them went into the region with grand colonial aspirations, furnished their museums and institutions with the wonders of Egypt, and shaped the version of Egyptian and Sudanese history that we have inherited today. Our Egyptian and Sudanese colleagues have not been afforded the same opportunities available to those of us in ‘The West’, and, as a result, their voices have been stifled. I am not immune to this charge. How can we tell the story of the region without the voices of the people who have inherited that land and a history so long and glorious that Europe was driven to claim it as its own?

This is such a complex topic, and to be honest with you, I don’t really know what can or should be done to address the issues. All I can do now is share with you my experience and my perspective as a non-white person in a white field, in the hope that it might help us find some answers together.

Diverse voices must be heard, but it is vital that those voices are included because they are truly valued, and not because they fill a quota. I want the field to be more inclusive, but I don’t want that inclusion to be a token gesture. I don’t ever want to feel like I’ve been employed because I’m brown, or gay, or whichever aspect of my diversity ticks an empty box, and I don’t ever want anyone else to feel the same way.

This stream-of-consciousness foray into these intensely complex issues doesn’t even begin to scratch the surface, and there are a lot of things that I can’t fully articulate. For now, what I’d like us all to take away from this is the simple fact that nobody is perfect, and that we all make mistakes. We all have the potential to display racism or some other bias – unintentionally or otherwise. The important thing is that we learn from our mistakes, that we accept our faults, and that we actively seek change for the common good.

These conversations will be difficult, and at times they may be uncomfortable, but they need to happen respectfully, constructively, and with open ears, hearts and minds if the field is to change or progress. And you know the funny thing about conversations? You can’t have them alone. We’re all in it, and we all deserve to speak, but we also need to know when to listen.

* My deepest gratitude to this person, my friend Sasha Rohret, who listened to me as I was preparing this piece, offered valuable feedback, and who generously shared some of her own personal thoughts and experiences on these issues.