Privileges Transfer and The Leftover of Colonialism

Back when I had recently arrived in Phnom Penh, I struck up a conversation with, what I was hoping, a potential new friend at the birthday party of a mutual friend. She was born and raised in Cambodia but had lived in the US for a bit. Our conversation went like this:

Her: So, what are you going to do in Cambodia.
Me: I guess I will try to find a job.
Her: Oh, do you even have any qualification?
Me: What do you mean? (I was a bit confused)
Her: Do you even have a degree? Did you to school? Like a formal education?
Me: (I start to feel uncomfortable), ummm… I guess, yeah…

Her: You know that I work with all of these people, right? (at that time we are in a bubble of white people who live in Phnom Penh) You know that I work with them, right? (she repeated herself) I have a qualification, I am qualified. I went to school in the US. I plan to get my master degree in the US. That would be easy for me. Anyway, what is your undergrad?

Me: communication, but my m... (she cut me)

Her: Ooooh, that is really easy. I took some communication courses in my undergrad in the US as well. You know that in the US you can take classes from different departments, right?

Me: oh, cool.

Her: anyway, I guess you can try to get an admin position in ISPP (the school where she works). Well, it’s a bit hard though. I am the admission officer, but it was easy for me because I went to this school. You know, it’s a really good international school. So, it would be hard for you. But, maybe… you can try.

Me: oh… are you Cambodian? (awkwardly trying to change the conversation)

Her: Haha… why are you asking? I know I don’t look like Cambodian! I am not really Cambodian I AM MORE INTERNATIONAL!! You know, I don't cook. I don't like to cook. I mean I can't cook. I don't do domestic works...

It annoys (and saddens) me when individuals are ashamed of being Southeast Asian and trying so hard to be seen as a more western individual. This kind of attitude is usually accompanied by being condescending to other people of color (moreover to those from the global south), while kissing ass or being overly flirtatious with the whites. Why is being Cambodian, Indonesian, Thai, or whatever your Southeast Asian nationality not enough?

This is probably a case of internalized racism. As written by Donna Bivens, “In relationships with other people of color, it (internalized racism) can manifest in a myriad of ways, including projecting one's own sense of inferiority and inadequacy onto those of the same race.”

Becoming White
Over the last decade, I have written a lot about gender equality and women’s rights in my native language, either on my own blog or paid article. But it was only last year when I started to touch the issue of racial identity and white privilege in Southeast Asia. The responses to those articles are unexpected: those who defend white privileges are women of color who marry or in a relationship with the Caucasian. Privileges are transferable (to some extent) through direct connections to whiteness is probably true.

It is interesting to see how whiteness is internalized by Southeast Asian, and how the white privilege is “transferred” either through marriage, western education, or by living in the global north -- or simply by living in the bubble that is white or so-called expat communities). Often, people who got the privilege transferred to them through one or more of these connections are prone to the obsession of "becoming white".

What I meant by "becoming white" is a situation and perception when a Southeast Asian is so whitewashed--in a negative way--that she/he sees herself/himself as a white. Thereby becoming better than any other people of color because she/he has a direct connection to the whiteness. She/he sees herself as a higher class and treats other Southeast Asian badly/rudely just because she/he is trapped by the idea that darker skin deserves less respect than whites.

In some cases, these people might not see themselves as better than other Southeast Asian, nor see themselves as white. However, internalized racism has taught them that white people deserve more respect than people of color. As a result, some restaurants, hotels, or bars in Bali or some other touristy places in Southeast Asia, are overly nice to white tourist but not as attentive to people of color.

In some Southeast Asian countries, the obsession to "become white" is often strengthened by the post-colonialist society, which often sees Southeast Asian as inferior towards whiteness.

Cross-racial hostility and Connection to Whiteness
In Indonesian, we call both attitudes “mental Inlander”. The term Inlander was used by the Dutch during colonization to mock local Indonesians. At that time, the Dutch put Indonesian in the lowest caste of social status. Thus, "mental Inlander" can be translated as the inferiority when pitted against white people. People with the Inlander mentality are those who treat other fellow Indonesian badly while kissing the ass of the white. In other words, they support the white oppression of Indonesian.

Gloria Anzaldua explains the idea of Inlander mentality through the term of cross-racial hostility. Bivens interprets Anzaldua idea of cross-racial hostility as something that "is created in a racist system when one oppressed racial group supports the oppression of another oppressed racial group by supporting, benefiting from, maintaining or participating in the set of attitudes, behaviors, social structures and ideologies that undergird the dominating race's supremacy.”

As I mentioned earlier, the obsession to "become white" usually related to some kind of transferrable white privilege through direct connections, either married, westernized education, by living in the global north, or just by living in the bubble of white communities. By "becoming white", these people probably receive a certain kind of benefit, or the feeling of superiority, which was inaccessible before.

Anna Holmes has the same experience and wrote it in The New York Times, “our direct connection to whiteness — through the immediate and extended family — had contributed to a certain familiarity with, and therefore accessibility to, the white norms, traditions and power structures that so many of us depend on for opportunity and success.” She believes that the close connection to white people has created real opportunities for some black individuals or communities.

However, while it is probably true in the US, does it also work the same way for Southeast Asian in Southeast Asia?

Being a Southeast Asian Woman
I wouldn’t be able to answer that in the name of Southeast Asian or Indonesian in general. Personally, I don’t think marrying a white person always gives positive benefits. Of course, I get some surface-level benefits by being around white people, like being accepted in a racist bar or cafe. But, why would I go there at the first place? However, as an Asian, I am not fully accepted into the white community, and am also treated differently by my local community for being "more westernized".

Casual racism from both whites or other browns happens on a daily basis. I’d say I handle it alright and kind of expect it everywhere I go. For example, when an Uber driver asked where did I get my "guest" and how much did he pay me when I hang out with my partner, or when a shopkeeper stared at my partner, waiting for his approval when I was about to make a transaction.

However, racism in a professional setting happens more than I expected, and they don't even try to make it subtle. For example, the finance person and cafe manager (both are Southeast Asian) of our business partner are always unfriendly towards me. I tried not to think about it and I thought maybe it was just their character. But, when my partner shows his correspondence with the manager, and the manager was way more polite and friendly to him, I knew it was just a classic internalized racism.

So I did an experiment. On one of the weekly payment, I asked a white male volunteer to visit the financial office for the invoice on behalf of me. Expectedly, the finance officer was way more friendly and helpful towards him.

Sadly, I also received this kind of attitude from organizations as prominent as UN agencies. There were times when white people from the UN agencies would rather discuss the initiative of our business with the white male volunteer who had only been working indirectly with us for two weeks and knew nothing about the heart of the business yet, than with me, who was in charge.

There are obvious prejudices against Southeast Asian women (perhaps Southeast Asians with East Asians or South Asians background have different experiences). We are not "the smart East Asian" nor “the ambitious South Asian” (please note that these stereotypes might also hurt East Asian and South Asian community).

Southeast Asian women are often seen as the domesticated one, great for nursing and taking care of their families, but not individuals to be generally accepted in a professional setting. Thus, it's probably hard for some people to see me as the capable one, or has more authority in comparison to my white counterpart.

Don't get me wrong, of course, there is nothing wrong if we are great in nursing and take care of our families. I love cooking and baking, and religiously developing a weekly meal plan in my household. I guess the problem is the stereotype and when we are perceived as just one dimension.

The prejudices are even worse towards Southeast Asian who have married or dated a white male. Some other Southeast Asian (or at least Indonesian) would think that you are too ugly for a local guy. Partly because white people have a certain taste of brown skin that is not perceived as beautiful by most of the Southeast Asian (it is not a secret that Southeast Asian are a bit obsessed to skin whitening). But, it’s also probably related to the legacy of postcolonialism in which female Caucasian faces are more desirable. More Caucasian models are used for fashion catalogs compared to models who look more typical Indonesian, and mixed races celebrities are more desirable. And yes, the perception of mixed-race-babies-are-cuter is acute in some Southeast Asian countries.

Meanwhile, in the white community, Southeast Asian women are often seen as less capable, less smart, and in a lower class than whites. In every new community, there will always be a white person telling me:
“You are beautiful for Asian.”
“Your English is actually good, where did you learn?”
“Oh wow, you actually went to a great grad school!”
As if they are not expecting a Southeast Asian in general to be beautiful, capable of speaking several languages, and academically intelligent. I guess people are also not trying to hide their judgment towards Southeast Asian women in Southeast Asia as a gold digger who marries the old white guy for a better economic and social status. Even if that case is true for some women, it's really none of other people's business as long as there are consent and agreement in that relationship.

White and Whiteness
Because of that prejudice, in the past, I often see myself trapped in a circle of justification. My favorite justification was “I did not marry a white person for his skin color, and I did not exclusively date white guys. I didn’t marry him for his money or for a mixed-race baby. I earn my own money and am capable of living a comfortable life on my own. I have dated more Asians and I really like them. I just happen to be in love with this person and marry him, whatever his race is.” Well, why am I even trying to explain myself? I know I shouldn’t, but I found myself trapped in this circle a lot, which probably has something to do with internalized racism.

In internalized racism, the standards for what is appropriate or "normal" are white people's standards. Thus, unconsciously, I--and many other people of colors--have probably accepted this standard as appropriate. I feel like I have to distinguish myself through justification. Some friends and I have gone as far as doing the exact opposites of the prejudice so as to reverse the prejudice against Southeast Asian, which is bad. We shouldn't be burdened with this responsibility just because whiteness has the wrong opinion about Southeast Asian.

To be fair, even a civil right activist as prominent as Maya Angelou was being shunned for marrying a white male. It is hard to shun somebody like Angelou because I don’t think her choice of love would severe her value and her impact. However, for some white communities, this very event, made her powerful blackness is less.

People often forget that hating whiteness is totally different than hating whites. Marrying a white person doesn’t mean accepting whiteness. My interracial marriage does not erase my Southeast Asianness, I didn’t date and marry as a way to take on whiteness. I refuse to see white, or any other race for that matter, as a savior or holding a higher status than Southeast Asian. I’m still going to be completely Southeast Asian, and proud, despite the race of my husband. I do not defer my brownness when I love who I love.

So what?
If we go back to the question of whether or not I get some privileges being transferred by my white husband, I should say it's very hit and miss. For some people, being with their white counterpart probably give certain kind of access, but, it is going to be related with class and social status (of both the white and the brown), more than just the whiteness.

However, one thing is for sure, "becoming white" tangled with mental inlander/cross-racial hostility has become a disease. Just like how white folks are responsible to address the whiteness disease, we are responsible to address the mentality of "becoming white" and the cross-racial hostility.


  1. "You don't like Indonesian guys, do you?" (The question I receive a lot everytime they know I date another Caucasian guy. I HATE IT! The same people also tell me: "Coba pake pemutih deh, biar kulit lo gak buluk amat." BRENGSEK.)

    1. So basically they expect you to get whiter and date an Indonesian? Mungkin hidup mereka kurang menarik aja, jadinya ingin urusin hidup orang lain :D

  2. Setuju banget Mbak. Kita sangat direndahkan apalagi sy pakai jilbab dan bertubuh kecil. Kalau sy keluar negeri (kemanapun itu), sy pasti disangkain TKI. Pernah mau ke Jepang, ketemu para TKI di Soetta. "Mbak mau kemana?". "Ke Jepang". "Ohh berapa gaji disana? Kayak di Hong Kong gk?".."gak Mbak, sy mau conference".
    Waktu mau conference ke Amerika juga begitu. Petugas imigrasi Singapur memandang rendah dan melecehkan, beda perlakuannya ke org Cina dan India yg memang udah banyak sekolah disana

    1. Mb Dyna, I feel you! Dulu banget, sekitar 2002-2005 aku pernah berjilbab, dan selalu dibilang tampang TKI. Padahal apa salahnya juga yah, misalnya, aku TKI. Padahal lagi, kita kerja di luar negeri, walau kantoran sekalipun, kan tetap TKI juga.

      I guess what doesn't kill us makes us stronger, but it would be nice if they stop being racist :(

  3. Oh dear. beberapa bagian bener2 sangat2 relatable, apalagi bagian trapped in a circle itu. Kadang mikir if I end up being with this guy I'm gonna have to deal with it forever. Bakalan terus2an dihantui perasaan mau pembuktian diri. Kadang capek. It's nice to see that what I feel is a thing. That it's not just me. Thank you for writing this!

  4. I dated mostly white men because of mental connection. My relationship with Indonesian males, altho physically i am more attracted to brown skin men, never went deeper than how they viewed me as a “trophy” girlfriend. Anyway that story too cliche. My personhood is irrelevant simply for my genital. Such situation evoke pain and struggles. But in my story, nothing beats the pain of being called a prostitute when my partner was a white man who are also sitting on a wheelchair. I did not proejct that as an undervalue to myself since i am perfectly comfortable with who i am, but i feel ashamed to my partner that people are seeing him, this amazing individual as not good enough, only a prostitute would want to be with him. That is, i found, to be the saddest part of human prejudice.


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