Something happened at a friend’s place the other day, and it made me super uncomfortable:
One of my Caucasian friends called another friend of Asian ethnicity a ‘banana’. ‘You’re yellow on the outside but white on the inside’, he explained.
I was really taken aback. This is a bunch of friends who are generally pretty progressive and cosmopolitan – they’ve all travelled around a lot, they don’t buy into homophobia or Islamophobia, they’re all either atheist or agnostic – so this was the last thing I expected one of them to say.
This is a horrible racist word, because it implies that the way you behave towards other people is determined by the colour of your skin. – BBC News
Does that sound particularly scathing on my part? I spoke to a couple of friends about this after the fact, and while some of them were immediately disgusted, others just didn’t understand why I thought it was a big deal.
And I get it – this is the kind of thing I heard at my high school a lot, and I understand that if you’ve grown up around phrases like this (banana, bounty, coconut etc – which are all about being ‘yellow’, ‘brown’, ‘black’ on the outside but ‘white’ on the inside) you might never stop to question the subtext of those statements, and you struggle to understand why they’re problematic.
Never mind dancing around with the euphemism disregarding your cultural heritage, “coconut” is plain, old-fashioned racism. Any one who uses the term is revealing their bias that black people should behave a certain way… – BBC News
The thing is, I’m of Indian ethnicity and I’ve been called a bounty before and it’s super hurtful and offensive and I hate that – and I don’t think most people who say things like that have bad intentions, they just don’t realise the implications of what they’re saying. So I thought I’d try to remedy this by writing about it.
When you call someone a ‘banana’, ‘bounty’, ‘coconut’ or ‘twinkie’, you are doing the following:
- You’re implying that certain behaviours are attributable to skin colour.
I think this is pretty self-explanatory, but drop me a line if you require me to expand further on this
- You’re suggesting that lots of ‘normal’ behaviours are inherently ‘white’.
These terms tend to get thrown around when someone isn’t behaving ‘traditionally’ Asian/black/Indian/whatever – but it’s the 21st century and we live in a super globalised world. A lot of the young people from all kinds of cultures aren’t into behaving traditionally, and being progressive or edgy or hipster is not something that is inherently ‘white’.
Rejecting culturally ingrained ideas is not about trying to be ‘white’ either – throughout history people have questioned the dominant ideals of the cultures they’ve grown up in and decided that they don’t identify with them. It’s what often eventuates from thinking critically rather than accepting dominant ideals. It’s also how cultures change.
For example, I’m not a huge fan of Indian culture, and that’s not because I’m trying to be white, it’s because my parents brought me up always telling me that everyone’s equal, that I can do anything I want, and that I should question everything – while traditional Indian culture has huge disparities in gender equality, is based off a class system, and is mired in various religious beliefs, all of which I find abhorrent.
Or just look at the Moors, who were Muslims, and had a highly advanced civilization and culture that valued philosophy, art and science and provided universal education (open to all, even of other religions and ethnicities). A lot of the values that we attribute to modern ‘Western’ societies have existed, long before, in other cultures. It’s ridiculously insulting to refer to them as ‘white’.
- You’re implying that this person, who you’re calling a ‘banana’/’bounty’/whatever else has cultivated their personality and traits and beliefs in an attempt to ape another culture. You’re completely denying the importance of every other influence in their life that has made them who they are! You’re also suggesting that you expect someone to behave a certain way because of their ethnicity, regardless of what life experiences they’ve actually had.
A lot of my dad’s family have been sailors, across numerous generations. When I was learning to cook, Dad encouraged me to learn how to cook paella because he’d really enjoyed eating it when he was in Spain. I grew up listening to lots of Queen and Pink Floyd and Lynyrd Skynyrd because that’s what my Dad had listened to growing up. My mom was a university lecturer and she taught me about protons and neutrons and electrons when I started primary school.
All of these things that fundamentally make up who I am – they may not be traditionally Indian but they don’t stem from an attempt to try to fit into a different culture, they’re shaped by the experiences I’ve had. Besides, why am I expected to act in a traditionally Indian way, just because that’s my ethnicity? If I’ve travelled around the world extensively, grown up in Australia, and been through the school system here, surely it’s not surprising you’d expect those factors to contribute more to the way I behave rather than expecting me to conform to racial stereotypes?
And look, even if you don’t fully agree or understand why using terms like this are offensive, ask yourself why you need to say something like this. What’s the subtext? What are you trying to imply?
I want to end this by reiterating that I’m not trying to blame or vilify anyone – but I do think that people need to think about these kinds of things more and question what underlying ideas we’re perpetuating.
It’s important because language in many ways does shape our reality. It doesn’t matter if someone who is of a different ethnicity is actually okay with it – or even proud of being called a ‘bounty’ or whatever – the fact is, if you use these terms – and even when people casually say that someone’s so ‘white’ or so ‘black’, you’re reinforcing this idea that certain behaviours are inherent to people of certain skin colours. And even if you don’t get offended by it, please be aware that there are many people who you’re hurting by saying things like that.
So what I’d like to leave you with is this: the next time you want to comment on someone’s behaviour and you’re about to tell them that they’re so white, or that they’re such a banana, I want you to stop and think of a better term that doesn’t bring skin colour into it.
It’s not that hard, I promise – and you’ll be helping dismantle an outdated ideal. Thanks in advance!