What’s your full name?
Colin Santisuk Green but my professional name is Colin Ryan.
How old are you?
Where were you born/brought up?
I was born and bred in Birmingham.
What do you do for a living?
I’m an actor.
What’s your ethnicity?
My mom was born in Bangkok, Thailand, to Chinese parents, and my dad was born in Birmingham to English parents but having done the Ancestry.co.uk DNA test I’ve discovered my English genealogy extends to France and Sweden. I identify mostly with being Thai and being English as those are the languages and cultures I grew up with, so for a short hand I choose to identify as Thai English.
How did your mum and dad meet?
Mom and dad met at a refugee camp in Cambodia where they were both working during the time of Polpot’s dictatorship. My dad proposed after a few weeks but my mom turned him down, it turns out she had had another offer! Dad did a bit more traveling then returned to try and propose again but mom had left the camp. So my dad, with the help of other workers in the camp, managed to track her down and proposed again. She thought since he’d come all that way she’d better say yes.
How old were you when you became conscious that people saw you differently? What impact did that have on you?
I became aware of my difference when racism reared its ugly head. Initially with it happening to my eldest brother. When I was seven my dad picked me up from school, as we walked through the playground my dad suddenly let go of my hand and ran over to where I saw my brother, on top of another kid, laying his fists in to him. I knew precisely why my brother was punching the other kid without any need for explanation.
Describe your most memorable moments when you were made aware of being mixed race.
When I was in Year 4, ahead of my time, I decided to do myself a salad for my packed lunch. When I opened it at school I was blasted by the worst possible smell known to humankind - fermented shrimp paste. It turns out my mom had used the same tupperware box to store the hellish stuff. No amount of Fairy Liquid gets rid of that stench, trust me. I gagged my way through my rotten shrimp-odoured salad as I didn’t want to let on to the other kids that anything was up.
Do you feel your parents prepared you for life as a mixed race person?
My parents did their utmost in giving my brothers and me different experiences in order to connect with our dual cultures. I would love going to the Buddhist temple for Thai celebrations where there would be other children like me, banquets of Thai food, and the smell of incense. I also enjoyed Sunday school where my nan was the Sunday School teacher, where we’d sing hymns and get Chewits afterwards. I do think it’s hard for parents of mixed race children, unless the parents are mixed race themselves, to fully understand the unique experience of what it is to be mixed race. It’s a scary thought when suddenly you not only realise you’re different to people at school but you’re also different to your parents.
What ignorant comments have you heard about being mixed-race that really rile you?
What I’ve had a surprising amount of times is people reassuring me - ‘oh but you don’t look it!’ The connotation being that to look more Asian would be a bad thing. I remember one person saying to me about my appearance ‘don’t worry, you’ve inherited the better parts of being Asian’. What also gets on my nerves is when I’m mislabeled as being ‘white’. To highlight lack of diversity, what often happens is a photo is presented of a seemingly ‘white’ group of people and berated for its lack of colour without realising there are many ‘people of colour’ who have light skin. We need to diversify our vocabulary with talk of diversity and representation and move away from our reliance on skin colour as a tool to discuss race and ethnicity in order for progress to be made.
What do you wish people who aren’t mixed-race understood?
One of my least favourite things to do is filling in those equal opportunities forms. There’s never a box for me and I’m not going to call myself ‘other’ thanks. I wish people would understand that you can’t fit my ethnicity in to a box. Although I call myself Thai English in order to get by in this society, I want people to know that race and ethnicity is not a label or a box to wedge people in to but a story to be told. As beautiful and useful as language is, it can also be restricting and limiting - there aren’t enough words in any language to describe the entirety of the human experience so to assign labels is to diminish the complexity and history of one’s identity.
Do you think mixed race people/families are well represented in the media?
I think black and white mixed-race families are pretty well represented in media, but when it comes to other multi-racial couples and families I think there could be better representation.
Back in the late 19th century/early 20th century being mixed race held a stigma, as it was clear proof of interracial relations which was seen as an affront to society’s morals. Do you think it’s easier nowadays to be mixed race or is it more that racism has become subtler?
I think it’s definitely easier nowadays to be mixed race as there are many more of us around. Immigration and the internet have helped as we’re no longer limited geographically in finding a partner.
Is being mixed race a burden or a blessing for you?
Growing up, at times it was definitely a burden but as I’ve got older I’ve learned that being mixed race is a blessing and I’m lucky to be a part of two widely differing cultures. I also recognise the privilege I have as a (for want of a better term) ‘white-passing POC.’ I’ve gone through periods of wishing I looked more white, wishing I looked more Thai, but now I love my uniqueness in that I’m a very fair-looking, Thai English guy and there’s no one else that looks like me.
Have you felt a struggle with your identity? If so, how did you deal with it and if you are now at peace with who you are, how did you come to a place of self-acceptance?
As children we like our stories to be simple and we’re encouraged to think along binary lines of him/her, good/bad, us/them; so when faced with an internal cultural story of two halves, I felt like I had to pick sides. Things have definitely gotten easier as I’ve grown up but even in adulthood I’ve experienced that same sense of displacement, but generally I’m at a place now where I’m extremely proud of my identity and embrace my duality as a whole. I’m not ‘half Thai’ or ‘half English’ I’m both Thai and English and each component is as complete as the other.
What advice would you give to your younger self?
Too many things to mention! I would start by saying ‘be kind to yourself’ and then ‘don’t worry, no one else knows what they’re doing.’
Is there anything more you would like to say?
Over the years I’ve become very aware of the reliance on visual signifiers to denote race. Yes, it is usually easy to determine if someone is ‘black’, but how would you know if someone else’s father was Nigerian and their mother was Vietnamese? To simply label that person ‘black’ would be to erase the other aspect of their heritage. Using skin colour as the sole indicator of someone’s race is simplistic, inaccurate and unhelpful in conversations about race. Skin colour accounts for so little of our genetic makeup, to categorise populations by nut intolerance would be just as valid. This isn’t to say we should ignore colour, quite the opposite as there are many mixed race people whose experiences are overlooked due to their light skin. Let’s move away from rushing to find a quick-fix label to satisfy a curiosity and instead take the time to listen to people’s stories and histories - surely a much better way for human beings to connect.