Disclaimer: New Zealand artist Gabby Malpas is a transracial adoptee of Chinese descent. She “followed the herd” to the UK in 1989 and lived there for 14 years, before emigrating to Australia in 2003. She became an Australian citizen in 2017.
It is only recently at 48 years of age that Malpas started coming “out of the adoption fog”. She is now 51. Malpas met her birth mother when she was 38, however it has only been in the past few years that she has begun to process her life experiences and understand why race and racist incidents are such a big deal for her. She doesn’t hold herself up as blameless or without racial prejudice of her own but she is putting energy into developing empathy and awareness and trying to keep a sense of humour about it all.
All in all Malpas says she is living a fantastic life. She has had opportunities and adventures most only dream about and she grasps every day with both hands as an artist, because that is what she does and has been working towards for over 30 years. Her reason for opening up about racism is to help other transracial adoptees coming after her. The world is a different place to the one Malpas grew up in and she had to find her own way. She believes that if sharing her experiences helps someone else, it is worth it.
Malpas says she is still learning how not to be a dick.
Being a transracial adoptee: a unique perspective on racism
If there is one thing guaranteed to cause a frenzy of outrage and defensive indignation, it’s an accusation of racism. Mainstream and social media erupts with analysis, condemnation and fury over the alleged insults; both the derogatory slur and being labelled a racist.
Throughout it all, tempers flare. Equally adversarial personalities argue over which “human right” takes precedence; the right to freedom of speech, or the right to be free from racial abuse, while other commentators question if everyone is being just a tad oversensitive, or if it’s another case of “political correctness gone mad”. And then the media cycle moves on, and a new outrage gains prominence. Racism is yesterday’s news.
Yet the lives of people of colour aren’t dictated by populist trends. Personal attacks based on skin colour and ethnic origin don’t stop once racism is out of the spotlight. There is no reprieve for those subjected to a lifetime of insults, harassment or abuse on the basis of who they are.
For New Zealand artist Gabby Malpas, this is an exhausting experience. As a transracial adoptee of Chinese descent born in the ‘60s, Malpas has seen countless media cycles bring racism to the forefront of people’s minds. However, the voices of those most intimately affected by racist sentiment are often overlooked in favour of the loudest commentators “being offended on behalf of ‘brown’ people” or insisting that “brown’ people choose to take offence”.
Malpas’s upbringing has given her a unique perspective on racism. One of ten children in a “white” family, she was raised exactly the same as her siblings, and received no special recognition of her Asian ancestry. This, of course, means that she has a keen understanding of western culture, mentality and expectations.
Yet Asian race-hate was rife across western nations in the sixties and seventies, and as a child, Malpas became increasingly aware of the different way she was seen and treated in the community. She was subject to daily bullying and taunts, something her family and friends did not understand, acknowledge or even vaguely appreciate. Malpas quickly learned that no one was interested in hearing about the racial slurs and abuse; in fact, no one believed her experiences were racially motivated. She was dismissed, told to ignore it, or disbelieved.
This pattern of having her experiences ignored and dismissed became a familiar occurrence, and continued long into adulthood. Malpas learned to expect it, just as she learned that she would be subject to racism. She found she was constantly in “attack mode”, attempting to preempt and prepare for the next wave of abuse. Yet whenever she tried to change how she reacted, another incident would occur; being racially attacked, followed by dismissal and denial by those around her, and the cycle would begin again.
It wasn’t until she was in her thirties that the extent of the difference between how she expected she would be treated, having been raised in New Zealand in a “white family”, and how she was treated, on the basis of her Asian appearance, finally became clear in her mind.
Malpas recounts a shocking example; in her early twenties, she embarked on a backpacking holiday in South East Asia with a male friend. Her recollection is vivid, but she now understands the cultural reaction: “In my naive and culturally ignorant eyes I should have been treated with the respect given to white tourists – yet in many places I was seen as a prostitute because I was an Asian with a white male.”
This wasn’t an isolated incident, and was just one of many distressing situations Malpas found herself in where she was judged and treated differently to her friends and family based on racial stereotypes. Malpas came to realise that her “life experiences were not, are not, and never will be the same” as her adopted family.
For people of colour, “racism” isn’t a buzzword, it isn’t a hot topic, it doesn’t provide a chance to bemoan the loss of freedom of speech or congratulate oneself on the nation’s “tolerance and acceptance of diversity”. Yet for many “white” Australians, it is unfathomable that they, or their friends, may be complicit in defending, condoning or supporting racism.
For people of colour, racism is reality. It is something they experience with weary regularity. It forms a part of their lives from which there is no escape, no matter how much people tell them to “lighten up”, “take a joke”, “just get over it” or “stop playing ‘victim’”.
Still, public discourse focusses on superficial questions: “Is Australia a racist nation?”, “Is it racist to call an Indigenous man an ape?”, “Is racism an issue in contemporary society?”
The time for “debating” these topics is long gone, if there ever was a time. However there is still fierce denial from many in the community, who cannot come to terms with Australia’s racist history, or accept that racism still exists. They fall back on the narrative that as Australia is a multiculturally diverse and “tolerant” nation, it cannot possibly be racially motivated when people of colour experience abuse.
Racism exists in every culture, and it is just as deeply embedded in Australian society, culture and language as any other nation. The Government and institutions unrepentantly support racist policies: The proposed Citizenship law changes impact disproportionately on people of colour and are a thinly veiled return to a White Australia policy (which only ended in 1973), the Northern Territory Intervention, where the Army was sent in to an Indigenous community and paternalistic controls set in place, occurred just ten years ago. Indigenous Australians were only recognised and counted as “people” in 1967.
It has taken Malpas almost her whole life to understand her relationship with race and identity, and how her life experience has shaped her. The reality is, and always was, that she is different. She was never truly equal to her “white” contemporaries and her experiences have been tinged by colour. She is different too, to Asians who have grown up in their own families or culture. Malpas identifies that the experiences of transracial adoptees is so unique that they are generally only understood by other transracial adoptees.
Malpas says self-denial played a huge part in her life. She couldn’t identify as “white”, but she didn’t identify as “Asian”. And Malpas didn’t want to be “Asian”; Asian women were portrayed in the media as “sexy and submissive or conniving”, and Asian men as “weak”. Her family had no concept of what it was like to be “Asian”, and no understanding of Malpas’s personal experiences. She felt isolated, and in her struggle to find her place, participated in self-deprecating banter to “get in first” with the inevitable racist “jokes”, if only to show she wasn’t really one of “them”.
Malpas believes that social media has been brilliant at exposing racist behaviour and actions. Smartphones capture incidents as they happen, in all the terrible, distressing detail, and the images and videos may be widely shared. Malpas feels validated and heartened by the community calling out incidences of racism and stepping up to denounce it as unacceptable.
But with so many people still in denial that racism is present, and many who don’t understand what constitutes racist behaviour, there is a long way to go. Even more so when the Government, media and other institutions openly support division in the community. In the past month alone, a Sky News’ Outsiders program presenter told the Government appointed Race Discrimination Commissioner, Dr Tim Soutphommasane, to “go back to Laos” (he was born in France). Last month, another veteran broadcaster, Red Symons, asked ABC journalist and radio producer, Beverley Wang, “what’s the deal with Asians” and if she was “yellow”. Senator Pauline Hanson has built a political platform on divisive policies.
However, unless a person has personally experienced racially motivated abuse, many find it hard to recognise and identify racism. Consequently, they fail to appreciate the impact a seemingly minor incident can have on a person, and how dismissal over the incident can add to distress.
But what counts as racist? Who gets to decide what is offensive?
Malpas believes that a good starting point is to “let the ‘brown’ people decide”. And then, most importantly, listen to what they say; if a “brown” person says it is offensive, believe them.
The lived experience of people of colour shows that racism comes in many forms. It may be calling someone a “nigger” or “dirty Abo”, or saying “go back to where you came from, you yellow c***”. It may be as subversive as subtly reminding a person that they are an “other”, for example, by using a person’s individual name as an identifier for a whole race, or assuming that an Asian in a “white” household is the “nanny”.
It might be in the form of a micro-aggression, for example, by declaring, “I’m not racist, my friend is brown/yellow/black”, “You should know what that is – you’re Asian,” or by playing on the fetishization of a race, for example, by only dating a person of colour when it’s fashionable to have a “cute Asian girlfriend”.
Malpas is encouraged by the rise in awareness of racism. Yet when it comes to comment and debate, she says it is crucial to listen to people of colour and acknowledge that the experiences of people of colour are not the same as a “white” majority in western nations.
Structural inequality is deeply embedded. While simplistic “colourblind” mantras, for example, that “all races matter, we are all one race; the human race,” may be well-meaning, they ignore the reality that people of colour have far greater challenges to overcome than others in the community due to systematic and institutionalised discrimination.
Current generations are still impacted by the inequality, abuse and state-sanctioned controls exercised over their parents, grandparents, extended family and ancestors. This is particularly the case where indigenous people were captured, murdered and deliberately dehumanised, or in the case of African Americans, imported and bred for slavery. The trauma, passed from one generation to the next, is still very real today.
Malpas talks honestly about her experiences with racism and her isolation until connecting with other transracial adoptees three years ago. The connection with others with similar experience has lessened her feelings of isolation. She believes that promoting inclusiveness and diversity through acknowledgment of difference will have a far greater impact in combating the never-ending cycle of racist abuse than resorting to idealistic principles of “oneness”.
For Malpas, coming to terms with her past has been a lengthy, thought-provoking experience. She uses her art to express her feelings about race, culture and identity in “lavish and beautiful images”. Sensitive subjects are explored in an engaging and respectful way. Her art is a gentle response to being silenced and a subtle reminder for people to listen to those who have a story to share. It took her 48 years to begin to make art about her life experiences that communicated the way she wanted; with “love, respect and a little bit of humour”.
When Malpas was growing up, very little support existed for transracially adopted children and their families. Now she provides some support to the next generation of young people by volunteering her time, skills and experience. Her reason for opening up about racism is to help the next generation of transracial adoptees and their families.
In addition to being a professional artist, Malpas runs art workshops, including monthly sessions for adolescent Chinese adoptees with the FFCA (Families with Children from China Association). She is on the advisory committee of the NSW Post Adoption Resource Centre (PARC), part of the Benevolent Society, is actively involved in adoption groups such as Intercountry Adoptee Voices (ICAV) and is the “down under” ambassador for the Peace Through Prosperity Foundation. Malpas speaks at adoption and art events and meetings, and provides personal support to other transracial adoptees. She also donates art to charities on a regular basis, including the Cancer Council, Epilepsy Action Australia, Thompson Reuters, and Wheelchair Sports NSW.
Malpas’s story is important not only for other transracial adoptees. Her experience and observations also provide insight into what the broader community can do to lessen the divide and limit the impact of harmful public debate:
Listen before you speak. When calling someone out on racist behaviour, consider, are you speaking your own mind, or are you amplifying the voices of those who are personally impacted? Listen to the stories, accept history and acknowledge the distress and anxiety caused by repeated race-based attacks. Show empathy, kindness and understanding. Listen.