A Smile is Not Fucking Universal

By Gigi Liu

Content warning: racism, mental illness


Callout culture is a way of dismantling kyriarchal oppression in its linguistic or behavioural forms. It is publicly criticising someone and holding them accountable for their shitty actions. It also means providing emotional labour, which can be taxing and apprehensive. This method isn’t easy, especially when that someone is a close friend, a relative or a colleague. How do you call out a senior colleague when they say “Asians all look the same,” or when they casually throw around the n-word? Or that time your close white friend tells you, “he said this really racist thing about Asians to me, but I don’t care because I’m not Asian”. Navigating that question of, “should I or should I not confront them?” is a test of courage, one which I feel I’ve failed on multiple occasions. But as a person of colour who lives with anxiety, I’ve learnt that race, mental illness, and privilege are complexly intertwined.


Admittedly, I’ve had shortcomings; moments where I didn’t confront my colleagues or friends out of convenience. I was in a position to educate them knowing that it wouldn’t fully drain my mental energy, but I opted out purely because I could. However, there have been instances where my anxiety, paired with my identity as a person of colour, has hindered any possibility of a confrontation. What if I have a panic attack? What if I’m the one in the wrong, and I have no place to tell them what to do? What if they publicly drag me and I lose all my friends? All these “what if?” scenarios will run through my mind, but it is always this last question that I come back to: what if I actually did take the time and energy to educate them, and they completely refuse to acknowledge any wrongdoing or display a willingness to empathise?


It’s this question that I’m sure many people of colour, irrespective of mental illness, can resonate with. My white friend doesn’t have to be Asian to be affected by her dickhead friend’s comments. She should care because it’s basic human decency to be affected by mean comments even if they weren’t directed at her. If she can’t even feel this simple level of empathy, then she could never understand what it might feel like to sit down on a train and be scared that the white woman eyeing you suspiciously might start racially abusing you too.


As an Australian-born Chinese, it’s far too easy to see where I lack privilege, but it’s much harder to confront my privilege. I have been socialised by Western, upper-middle class ideals of etiquette and language. This became very obvious when I started working at a luxury skincare counter, where our clientele was comprised mainly of Chinese on-sellers and tourists. These were people who stared at me strangely, or just didn’t acknowledge me at all. People who spoke too loudly or demanded my attention by shoving my shoulder. I started to resent them while also questioning why I didn’t like them. These were people who looked like me, but weren’t me (and definitely didn’t treat me as their equal).


I would bitch about them to my colleagues and friends who also worked in retail. You’re meant to say, “good, thanks,” when retail staff greet you. You’re meant to say please and thank you. A smile is universal, isn’t it? But I knew deep down, my resentment didn’t seem right or valid and the fact that I often ranted to white people made it all the more problematic. This was confirmed when I was called out by my friend, who is also an Australian-born Chinese. I argued with them. I was hesitant to accept that I was wrong. My reluctance to hold myself accountable stemmed from the realisation that I had to start questioning how deeply I perpetuated white culture in my actions and patterns of thought. Things like people’s behaviour in front of strangers seems menial, but it signifies how conditioned we are by our circumstances and the people around us. I had failed to consider that social protocols don’t transcend culture. A smile is not fucking universal. No one is obligated to greet you or thank you just because you—born and raised in a Western country—expect them to.


For me, callout culture doesn’t just encompass confrontation or awkward moments or ruined friendships. It is about rising above what inconveniences you. It is being brave enough to challenge damaging actions and language simply because it is the right thing to do, all while acknowledging that your mental health comes first. But it is also about recognising the nuances of your own privilege and the fragility of your own entrenched beliefs. It is unlearning the racist and classist mentality you clung onto so dearly in your teenage years, and knowing this process doesn’t take a day.