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ESEA heritage month: an interview with Racism Unmasked

Noushka Summerfield talks to Allie De Lay, co-founder of Racism Unmasked, about celebrating ESEA creatives in their new art show.

Can you tell us a little about Racism Unmasked, how it was founded and its goals?

My friend Feiya Hu and I co-founded it together after a hate crime was committed on our university campus in 2021. I think that we both just reached a breaking point in terms of the micro-aggressions and the rise of sinophobia during the pandemic.
A lot of the aggression had gotten significantly worse, we both personally hMy friend Feiya Hu and I co-founded it together after a hate crime was committed on our university campus in 2021. I think that we both just reached a breaking point in terms of the micro-aggressions and the rise of sinophobia during the pandemic.
A lot of the aggression had gotten significantly worse, we both personally had experienced it, and it got to a point where we thought we just had to do something. When you’re being oppressed and discriminated against,, there comes a point where you almost become desensitised to it. I think in some ways that can be very powerful because once fear stops being the overriding emotion, you’re able to channel that into focusing on justice and seeking to make change. You’re no longer scared, just angry, and rightfully so. The organisation was born out of necessity for our community and what we
were experiencing at the time, and the response was amazing. Everybody was so welcoming and encouraging and it snowballed into this massive thing which is still growing. I think that we are hopefully making a significant difference in presenting a community and space for people who maybe felt isolated before.

This is the first Eastern and South-East Asian heritage month, but it is still not officially recognised by the government. Can you tell us about the importance of ESEA heritage month?

I think it’s incredibly important. I do appreciate that everything takes time, and the unfortunate reality of a lot of social justice issues is that we cannot expect change overnight. These sort of ‘realistic expectations’ can be very disheartening: especially when you’re the person who is being effected most by these injustices. But I do think that, hopefully, with time, ESEA heritage month will be more cemented in our cultural values. The more that we talk about it, the more that people will be exposed to and the less they will be threatened by it So, I think it is a case of just persevering with it. It’s unfortunate, I think, that the burden of education tends to fall disproportionately on the shoulders of people of colour, but I also hope that with time things will get easier.

Does the previous lack of recognition of ESEA heritage speak to an invisibility of ESEA communities within the UK, compared to other minority groups? Can art, and the art showcase, have a role in challenging that?

Yeah, absolutely. East and Southeast Asian people have existed within the Western world for – I mean, I’m not even gonna put a timeline on that! The problem is not necessarily that people aren’t aware that East and South East Asian people exist, the problem is that people already assume they know everything there is to know about ESEA people. When it comes to the actual ESEA nuanced cultures and differentiated history, people don’t know anything, they’re so far behind, and I think that is what we need to bring into conversation: that there are so many differences between ESEA people. That is why it’s so important to bring more diversity in culture and art, because it’s a lot more than just dragons, and red, and lotus flowers, and cherry blossom – that’s obviously part of it too – but it’s so much more complicated than that, and to pretend that it’s this kind of artificial, homogenised culture is just completely disingenuous.

Can you tell us about how you came up with the idea for an artist showcase?

We had already been in touch with Dear Asian Youth London about wanting to collaborate on something. With East and South East Asian heritage month coming up, we figured this would be an ideal opportunity to showcase a lot of artworks. There are a lot of talented ESEA artists who I think deserve exposure and we really want to celebrate what they want to show us.

There are so many amazing creatives in the showcase who work with completely different mediums, styles and topics; how did you manage to organise and collate all of them?

It was difficult because art is in many ways very subjective, and we wanted to be as inclusive as possible. We ultimately decided to leave it a bit open: as long as the theme was somewhat related with passion and significance and portrayed something that the artist felt deeply about. I think it was more of an invitation for us to share our platform and say to the artists: “look, this is your moment, do whatever you like”. I had a freelancer business myself over the pandemic so know that the more you restrict somebody artistically, the less authentic art can be, and the biggest thing that we wanted was authenticity.

What was your experience in creating an entirely online showcase?

I would say that art shows are definitely more accessible online, and in some ways it was easier to do. The pandemic has happily dismantled certain structures that often held back people with disabilities such as myself. But I would also argue that this option existed before, it’s just that people didn’t consider it viable. I do think that the pandemic has given us an opportunity to connect with big people, big organisations: opportunities that probably couldn’t have existed beforehand.I think that the more open we can be to alternative ways of working, the better and more diverse results we will see.

What role do you think art, and specifically the artist showcase, have in challenging the issue of racism?

I personally believe that the fight against racism is often seen as very one dimensional. When people think of anti-racism education, they think of people with big billboards making chaos – which is a very valid way of protesting. But I think that there should be a balance between protesting and celebration because protesting is exhausting, especially for people who are involved in social justice campaigns, and it can be very disheartening and heavy for the soul. So I think there is something really beautiful in trying to create opportunities for growth and for celebration to balance out the heaviness of fighting against racism. This balance is really needed and it gives people something else to unite for; something that can bring together a community in a way that isn’t just about the angst and anguish of it all.

Do you think that art is an important space for people to celebrate their identity?

Absolutely. Art is a space where you frequently find creatives expressing themselves, usually in a very raw and authentic way. There are so many people from all different backgrounds who appreciate art that is traditionally rooted in ESEA culture. I suppose what I would like to see is an acknowledgement of just how much ESEA heritage has impacted our popular culture today, because if you look back at the trajectory of how art itself has developed, there is a huge amount of influence upon every art medium that you can find that has been an amalgamation of different cultures. I really wish that people knew and understood that.

Do you think there are potential issues connected with spectatorship and fetishisation when East and South-East Asian art and artists are showcased in white-dominant spaces?

Yes, and I think the biggest thing that’s really concerning for our community is that there’s an awful lot of tokenship. You will find that in some of these predominantly white showcases there might be one or two East and South East Asian artists, but that they are usually presented with the most cliche interpretation of art. I think the danger is that it’s often seen as a tick box, as opposed to actually celebrating them.

To sum up, what are the main things you hope to achieve with the artist showcase initiative?

I think, firstly, we obviously do want to celebrate the amazing artwork that’s been submitted by all these different artists from different backgrounds and experiences. The biggest thing we are trying to really push is that nuance, and that difference, and to highlight that all East and South East Asian Artists are not the same. They don’t just paint dragons, you know?I think the main thing is understanding that we all have different backgrounds and whilst it is our ethnicity that unites us in the community, our lived experiences are fundamentally very different, and that means that we as individuals are very different. What I’d really like to portray is that an East or South-East Asian artist can create art and you could never have known that the artist was East or South-East Asian. I really value the fact that the art being portrayed can celebrate our culture but equally doesn’t have to do so; there is no obligation to cement what is traditionally seen as Chinese, or Japanese, or whatever, in the eyes of the Western world. What we want to push more than anything else is freedom of our multicultural and multi-ethnic society. The reality is that people will often not fit into one box or the other, especially in art which is about being limitless.

How do you think this work in celebrating ESEA culture and fighting against racism towards East and South East Asians can be continued outside of ESEA heritage month?

There is definitely the danger and fear in our community that this will be seen as a fad, and that the fight against East and South East Asian racism will be seen as something that’s trendy and then is phased out, and I think that’s incredibly damaging. It’s something that we’ve seen with Black Lives Matter, where it becomes cool and popularised but then, 6-7 months later, we forget. The most important thing for us is to consider the long game. Some people are able to post a certain picture on a screen in solidarity and then walk away from it, but I guess what I’d like to emphasise is that this fight is not something that we can ever walk away from. We want to keep going for as long as we can, for as long as people will listen and for as long as people want to get involved, which I hope never stops.

[Image: Woo Jin Joo 虎死留皮,人死留名 2020
Image Credits to the artist]