“BME is a race-based British term assigned to all people of colour that carries loaded political significance”Sophia Luu

This academic year has seen a series of high-profile activism-related events such as David Lammy’s Access article, the media frenzy surrounding Lola Olufemi, and the ongoing UCU strikes. I find it interesting that some of the most vocal criticisms on both sides of these activist issues are from international students of East Asian heritage. While several frontline organisers are from this demographic, so is the student who wrote to the Pembroke MCR requesting a “White Majority Officer”. In this article, I share my experience as an international student of East Asian heritage with experience in American and British campus politics to illustrate the complex relationship that I think this foreign demographic has with the UK domestic label of ‘BME’.

I grew up as an ethnically Chinese woman in a conservative business family in Hong Kong. After graduating from an American international school in Hong Kong, I studied at a radically left-leaning liberal arts college in California. I was immediately categorised as a ‘Woman of Colour’ upon arrival. Being denoted as ‘coloured’ in America is effectively the same as being labelled as ‘BME’ in the UK; it is similarly politically charged with implications of oppression, powerlessness and injustice. But I was confused because I had never explicitly experienced these things as a majority ruling class member of my own society. I further struggled to understand why people of colour were asked to express solidarity for one another: it was not intuitive that my being ethnically Chinese (from East Asia) had anything to do with domestic political issues like Black Lives Matter.

“I recognise that historical and geopolitical reasons further explain why international students of East Asian heritage identify less strongly as ‘BME’ than other students of color”

While trying to navigate this foreign notion of “being coloured”, I experienced much cognitive dissonance in realising that I sometimes identified more with white men than with women of colour. One reason is that my family’s ruling class position in Hong Kong meant that I occupied the same seat of power in my own city that white people did in America. Furthermore, my American education in Hong Kong more closely resembled the mostly white college prep education experience than the public education experience that my working-class peers of colour had. A third reason is that I often felt excluded and alienated from certain activist circles because of my status as an international student in a similar way that white students were systematically rejected because of their whiteness. For example, the progressive campus culture meant that many students of colour blithely refused to engage with anything related to white people, whether it be historical intellectuals like Kant or Arendt, white professors, or white classmates. When I tried to challenge what I saw as an essentialising and non-rigorous way of thinking, my comment was immediately shut down “because I was an international student”.

Despite identifying with the positionality of white people, I have never felt comfortable occupying white spaces as a non-white person. Coming to Cambridge, where there is a larger concentration of international students of colour (i.e. students from the Global South), I have experienced some profound solidarity and empowerment with other students whose personal and family histories involve colonisation and/or transnational migration.

Similarly, reading (post-)colonial theory and Black Feminist thought has given me language to express frustrations and achieve personal liberation in profound ways. For example, the literature helped me see that my status as a “global cosmopolitan elite” with other white and non-white students from elite education backgrounds will forever be tainted by the imbalanced power dynamic embedded in the fact that I was born as a British colonial subject.

Beyond the many personal reasons why I’ve found it hard to wholly identify as BME, I recognise that historical and geopolitical reasons further explain why international students of East Asian heritage identify less strongly as ‘BME’ than other students of colour. BME is a race-based British term assigned to all people of colour that carries loaded political significance and connotations relating to British guilt, coloured people’s empowerment, interracial solidarity, and a history of shared suffering. However, arguably, East Asians have suffered less systemic harm by white people than their counterparts in other parts of the Global South.

“There is a large gap between the UK domestic student’s understanding of ‘BME’ and how international students of East Asian heritage view themselves”

Prior to the Industrial Revolution, China was a global superpower. During the peak of colonialism, though China experienced their “century of humiliation”, the overall degree and extent to which East Asia was colonised paled significantly in comparison to the Subcontinent and sub-Saharan Africa. Furthermore, during modernisation, Japan was the sole non-white country that was deemed ‘modern’ by Western standards. The Cold War era saw the rise of the Asian Tigers; indeed, South Korea has emerged as one of the most successful examples of recent development. Given the large amount of Singaporean and Hong Kong students in Cambridge, it should be recognised that the ‘international’, ‘modern’ and ‘cosmopolitan’ elements that make these city-states economically prosperous are the result of Chinese men inheriting the benefits from colonial administrative structures. Most recently, China’s ambitious Belt and Road initiative demonstrate a clear re-assertion of power.


Mountain View

The BME Cambridge experience

In other words, there is a large gap between the UK domestic students’ understanding of ‘BME’ and how international students of East Asian heritage view themselves, as most students of this demographic do not see themselves as oppressed. However, both the loose understanding of ‘BME’ and the relatively privileged position of most students of this demographic means that we can comfortably occupy both BME and white spaces without much questioning. In contrast to ‘white privilege’, I suggest that we possess ‘the privilege of being between’: of being able to easily slide between spaces of dominance and resistance without consequence and at our personal convenience.

I think occupying this ‘between’ space without careful and nuanced consideration of our individual positionality and our ancestor’s histories is very dangerous, because this privilege is not acknowledged or interrogated, not held accountable, and can enable people to receive lots of self-seeking advantages. The point of this article is to interrogate the British label of BME and its applicability to the specific demographic of international students of East Asian heritage in hopes that it allows us to be better social and political agents in this fast-changing world in which our ethnicity might cause us to play a bigger role than ever before.