Mixed Scottish creatives, Cass and Siobhain are the minds behind ‘Hotline’, a thought-provoking performance that explores mixed race experiences and perceptions in Scotland.
Hotline was performed on stage at Glasgow’s Centre of Contemporary Arts and transmitted live on air in September 2016, but you can watch it here.
We interviewed the cutting – edge collective to find out more about their inspiration for their performance and what their next moves will be.
What inspired you to create Hotline?
C: Hotline was inspired by a few different things, I think primarily it was a positive way of channeling our frustrations at the ignorance we come up against on a regular basis.
At the time I had been reading a book of African Renaissance poetry and was also really inspired by Wole Soyinka’s poem ‘ Telephone Conversation’ in which a landlord tries to decipher whether he is ‘very light or very dark’, ultimately determining whether or not he would be afforded a room.
That got me to reflecting on phone conversations I’ve had where my ethnicity has been assumed because of my accent. That’s something that comes up a lot for me.
People seem surprised by how Scottish I sound yet look so ‘ un-scottish’ so it was a response to those people. Scottish doesn’t look or sound like one thing.
Siobhain and I have been friends since we were about fourteen and we’ve always talked a lot about the things we’re passionate about, this subject in particular, so it was great to be able to work together and make something more meaningful than us complaining to one another!
S: One of the first things I remember saying to Cass is that often I don’t feel ‘enough’ of something; I don’t feel Scottish enough or I don’t feel Chinese enough.
We talked about how growing up mixed race you’re constantly trying to reconcile these different parts of your identity whilst at the same time being constantly questioned about them.
It can be really confusing. I was reading a collection of poems by Sarah Howe called Loop of Jade while we were making Hotline, her mother is from Hong Kong and her father is British.
I’ve found that it’s quite rare for me to find work by people, especially women, who have the same background as me, especially as a teenager in Glasgow. We felt we owed it to ourselves and other young people to explore all of the difficulties and joys of being mixed race in a city like Glasgow.
How have your experiences of being mixed race in Scotland been played out in Hotline?
C: I think Hotline brought together both of our experiences as well as my friends; Khadija, Natalya Sally and Eva (whose interviews form a large section of the piece).
We all have different stories and experiences but the thread throughout is the frustration and a sense of looking for answers-that’s what I took from it-we’re all connected through it. It was important for us that we never spoke about anything we didn’t want to but without trying to sugar coat things.
I like the fact it’s honest and there’s some real funny moments despite it being a difficult subject, that’s thanks to all of us being vibrant young women with a bright outlook, you have to have that when dealing with these things.
S: For me, it was a way of exploring external experiences, the kinds of comments I get from strangers, and internal experiences, like how I form my own identity as a mixed race woman.
I felt such a range of emotions about being mixed race when I was growing up; joy, sadness, anger, pride, shame, so it was about trying to show that spectrum.
What kind of comments and reception did you get from the audience?
C: On the night I was disappointed that immediately after we performed the piece someone put their hands in my hair. It was a real slap in the face, especially when the piece deals with the subject of hair.
It turns out the guy wasn’t in the audience that night, so I advised him to have a listen and learn a few things. I was also a little disappointed that the audience was completely white but that’s more testament to the fact that we were in the Centre of Contemporary Arts than anything else.
I’d be interested to see how it would be received elsewhere. I think we’d do more work to promote it next time as well. We are rookies to the project so we learned a lot along the way.
Later I was really touched by the positive response we received. I think even though the piece deals with a very specific subject, it seems to have spoken to an array of people from different backgrounds and disciplines.
It means a lot to us that people have gotten in touch and were interested or inspired by it in some way. I never expected that so it’s really spurred us on to keep it going.
S: What I found really interesting was the amount of my white friends who came up to my afterwards and said “I’ve said those things before, I’ve asked people ‘where are you from?’”
I was glad that they were able to recognise that these things can be offensive, you’re immediately othering someone by questioning their identity.
During the writing process I would sometimes worry that people would feel uncomfortable or offended.
Then I reminded myself that mixed race people deal with this kind of stuff on a daily basis, so what if our white middle class audience feel uncomfortable?
Did you find it difficult to confront some of the comments in the soundbites that are part of Hotline?
C: That was very difficult at points, there’s some heart-breaking things in there but ultimately we need to share these stories to try and make some kind of difference for ourselves.
Speaking about it is just the first step. It was important to include those difficult soundbites.Everyone involved found the interviews cathartic in some way.
It was definitely a cathartic process for Siobhain and I, but yes the overriding feeling was that this is really sad that we’ve all had to deal with this, and its ongoing.
S: The saddest thing for me is that we’ve all had to deal with this stuff. On the flip side, I definitely found it comforting to know that I wasn’t alone.
What have your personal experiences been of growing up being mixed in Scotland?
C: I think I found it quite a lonely and confusing experience. I was always a bit angsty about it as a teenager but always proud none the less- proud but confused! However sometimes I think that pride came from an insecurity of not understanding, now I’m more content.
I think the thing that I struggled with the most was not seeing any reflections of myself in the city, that gave me quite a deep sense that there was something wrong with me. I never had any mixed race or black friends at the time so I never had anyone to talk to about it who would understand.
I also never had any family that looked like me either so I think I was constantly looking for answers and piecing things together.
Glasgow is a very ethnically homogenous city. As much as it has become slightly more multicultural in very recent years, that doesn’t take away from a lifetime of only seeing white faces. It still very much feels like I stand out but that’s something I try and embrace now.
S: I was lucky that growing up I went to a multicultural school in the centre of Glasgow but I was still bullied for being half Chinese, even though there were other kids in my school who had two Chinese parents.
There’s quite a big Chinese population in Glasgow but I didn’t know any other mixed Chinese kids. All of the Chinese side of my family live in Hong Kong, and even though growing up my mum always made an effort to expose me to that side of my heritage, I never really felt Chinese until I became a teenager.
That’s also when I started noticing microaggressions with people questioning my Scottishness. All of these things made me want to explore the Chinese side of myself more.
To say to myself and others that you can be both, you don’t have to choose to identify as one thing if you don’t want to.
Have you noticed any differences between the way that mixed people are treated/seen in Scotland and England?
C: I can only speak for my experiences of living in Glasgow and London, I haven’t spent an extensive period of time in other parts of Scotland or England. It’s quite a loaded and complex thing.
I think what I love about London is that you can just be yourself, there are so many mixed race people, so much of every kind of person and everyone seems to just go about their business. On public transport for example, I’m just another person on the tube. I don’t feel that there’s anything to answer for.
Glasgow feels different because there’s not a massive population of mixed race people, or black people, there is always something to answer for. I will always be asked ‘but where are you really from?’.
There’s very much a feeling of being looked at or questioned, having to explain yourself. I’ve found it challenging to just ‘be’ without having to explain myself in some way, the piece was really made so that we didn’t have to explain anymore.
Conversely, from having conversations with mixed race friends in London and elsewhere I think universally there exists this sort of fascination with mixed race people more generally.
A stereotype that came up again and again in London was that mixed race girls (and guys) are very permiscous, hyper sexual and definitely exotic. It important to remember that ignorance and racism is everywhere.
Whilst it’s been tough at times in Glasgow, for very specific reasons, I acknowledge that we’ve all had the challenges that come with being mixed race and non white (which is another subject) no matter what corner of the world we’re in.
The media has a lot to answer for in that regard but it’s also part of a bigger historical conversation…for another time?
S: Like Cass, I’ve only ever lived in Glasgow and London and I experienced ignorance and racism in both places.
I guess the difference for me is that in Glasgow people will compliment me on my “good English” whereas in London that never happened, I never felt “foreign”.
One time when we were living in South East London, Cass and I were going to the shop and a guy yelled at me “you must be called Kim because all Koreans are called Kim”. Our white housemate was really shocked.
Do you have any other projects in the pipeline?
C: Yes! We have a lot in the pipeline which we’re both very excited about. The next step is a printed publication and later on we’ll be working towards a exhibition and I’m going to work on a piece specifically dedicated to hair.
S: We really want to grow the collective to try and get other people involved, I think in Glasgow it’s really important to have like-minded people working together.
Something I’ve been thinking about for a while is creating a piece about rice. Cass and I often talk about the importance of food and how it’s such a good way of feeling connected to your culture, it would be nice to explore that more.