Dealing with racism on a daily basis

By Dionne Christian

Alice Canton in White/Other. Photo / Apiwat Singharach
Alice Canton in White/Other. Photo / Apiwat Singharach

In the bar at the Basement Theatre, there's a corner that looks like nana's lounge room: comfy chairs, a coffee table with a doily and dried flowers and old-fashioned art.

It's a comfortable sort of place, but the subjects performer Alice Canton is talking about are not.

Leaning back in one of the armchairs, Canton speaks of "racial hierarchies" and "exoticism" and whether we're all "a little bit racist". She's been thinking about the issues pretty much her entire life.

Her father's family comes from Wales; her mother is third generation Chinese from Sarawak, Borneo, and Canton was born in New Zealand and raised in Christchurch. When she gets yelled at to "f*** off home", she wonders where she is meant to go.

"Even when I don't feel like an 'alien', there's often a kind of sentiment of being a perpetual foreigner in New Zealand," she says.

"Most events are not overtly malicious; they're more assumptive but you can find yourself saturated in everyday encounters which weigh you down.

You start to question yourself and your interpretations of situations "did I really misinterpret that or was that intended to sound like that?" and you begin to wonder whether your perspective is right."

Now aged 29, Canton has made a performance piece called White/Other about identity, race and racism which uses dance, projection, poetry, metaphor and observations to ask a lot of questions.

She wants it to be engaging but also confronting, to shift how we think about race.

She's not as interested in the obvious examples of racism, but the more insidious forms it takes and the way it creeps into the day-to-day with impacts across all areas of life.

"People want to know how they should behave, they want answers we all want answers but maybe we need to come to a point, to accept that there aren't definite answers. We do need to talk, though, without blame or guilt," she says.

"In New Zealand we are very good at keeping things quiet and keeping them to ourselves but these conversations [about race and racism] need to happen. I want to shift into a habit of questioning, of asking why?"

Though these types of questions have played on Canton's mind for some time, she acknowledges recent events pushed the project along. They include the way those with Chinese-sounding surnames were implicated in Auckland's housing crisis.

Canton saw, at the Auckland Arts Festival, Tar Baby by African-American performer Desiree Burch, who uses humour and history to consider the ways she's had to confront racism, at a personal and professional level, and how she's been commodified because of her race.

It, too, focused on the casual attitudes and daily experiences Burch regularly encounters.

Canton says her show is less linear, more surreal and relevant to New Zealand. But, she says it is refreshing to hear alternative voices adding to the discussion.


What: White/Other
Where & when: Basement Theatre; April 12-21

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