Unlearning Normality

A hybrid personal documentation for understanding racism, seeing privilege and unlearning normality as whiteness.

Created as part of Visibility: Diversity and Design at the University of Applied Sciences Europe.
Unlearning Normality

A hybrid personal documentation of learnings through understanding racism, seeing privilege and unlearning normality for a white person.

Understanding White Allergy

Uncomfortable Conversations with a Black Man
Emmanual Acho
The greatest white allergy that we see played out as black people practically... backhanded compliments... You are assuming that black people don't sound educated. You are assuming that to be black I have to wear a durag or a wave cap and be sagging my pants. You are assuming something about black people and I contradict that assumption. And as a result, I am not "Black".

Fortunately, this is not something I’ve done to others, but it is something that has happened to me. Not white allergy, per se, more like Chinese allergy. Here I actually face a dilemma, to talk or not talk about my experiences? This is so not an about-myself moment, but this entire document is essencially a self centred experience, isn’t it?

So I will talk about my allergy.

I grew up in China. I wasn’t an immigrant though, I, like my sister and my father, held a German citizenship and lived in China on a residence permit. I went to Kindergarten, then primary and secondary school in Shanghai and spoke Mandarin as my mother tongue. My friends spoke Chinese. I learned to read, write, speak and recite in Mandarin. (Like every other Chinese school kid going through a Chinese education.)

What I didn’t realise for 18 years, and only saw today, was the back-handed compliments I received day-in and day-out. For example:

Your Mandarin is so good, where are you from?
Wow, your Mandarin has no accent, who taught you to speak?

And all this after I had explained my background. These are not questions you’d ask any ‘Chinese looking’ kid, because why would you, they grew up in China, of course they spoke Mandarin like a normal person. I understood today they asked because I had brown hair, white skin, and looked like a 老外.

Even with the knowledge that I had the same experience as any other Chinese kid growing up, I didn’t fit into their normality. Thus, me conversing in standard Mandarin, or being able to read and write in my mother-tongue is unusual for them, and worth pointing out or complimenting. No matter how well I spoke Mandarin, no matter how much lingo I master, how many poems I can recite, I will never become Chinese. 

The fact that the sounds I make with my mouth don’t match the expectations associated with my appearance calls for a compliment from every stranger. A back-handed, allergic compliment.

With this experience in mind, everything suddenly becomes self-explanatory. What is happening to people of colour, or the LGBTQ+ community is just more vicious, more demeaning, and takes place more often in more places.

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