But you are a living vessel, a breathing archive…
I wanted to be white. I was seven years old and mad keen on cricket. All of Australia’s players looked white and I didn’t resemble them. I feared—with imminent fury—being perceived as less Aussie, less real, than anyone else who did share their colour.
Also, I wanted to be a boy. Girls didn’t play cricket on television; at least, not that my Dad watched. But maybe there was more to my feelings than that. My Dad was the boss. I was a girl and I was bossed. I didn’t want to be bossed; I wanted to be strong and capable. Besides, I didn’t identify with the stereotypical ‘girl’ mould. I refused to wear dresses from age three. Dresses were very impractical for tree climbing.
I loved Shane Warne. I thought I could communicate with him in my mind, telepathically. One day he was flying overseas on tour (or so I imagined) and we chatted while he was on the plane and I was in my lounge-room. It was all in my head.
That year, the year of being seven-years-old, a cricket magazine was on sale in the school Book Club newsletter. Warnie’s face was on the cover. The seven-dollar price tag was way outside my seven-year-old budget, but begging my parents astonishingly led to the imminent realisation of my dreams. They agreed to purchase the magazine on my behalf! Then, my downfall: I expressed my extreme excitement by crayoning ‘I love Shane Warne’ all over my bedroom wall. I can still see it now…the green lines running along bumps of cream wall texture. As soon as the wave of ecstasy passed, my stomach dropped. What had I done?! I pre-empted the result and began my feverish, silent scrubbing…to no avail. Stubborn crayon and minimal grace; the parents were not happy. The magazine purchase was off the table; I had crayoned over my soul.
Luckily, I had a best friend. She bought the magazine instead. She gave it to me after she’d done with it…but she’d cut out all the best pictures. It wasn’t as happy a moment as it might have been. I wanted to be blue eyed, blonde haired and white, like Warnie. Or at least, I wanted to look at him. But there was an empty space on the cover where his face should have been.
This is all strange because I didn’t consciously notice anyone else’s skin colour. I just wanted to be white for no conscious reason, except that I wanted to be like the Aussie cricket team. Otherwise, I didn’t know skin colour was ‘a thing’. Difference was normal in our suburb—a patchwork of accents, languages, foods and faces. Melting pots and living hybridity. Our streets weren’t much to look at and neither were our clothes or houses, but there was complexity, diversity and richness; there’s nowhere I’d have rather spent my first ten years of life. I’m proud of my multi-cultural, lower-socio-economic early upbringing.
And, despite my yearnings for whiteness, we fitted in to our neighbourhood because it was diverse. My siblings and I have grandparents who were Anglo-Indian, Jewish-Hungarian and German, all of whom emigrated to Australia in the second half of the twentieth century. When I’m filling in forms, I never know which boxes to tick (there are never enough) or how to identify. We are mergers of complex histories and it’s never simple. Genes drawn from a hat—you get what you’re given and have to make sense of it.
Other complex lives shared our home at various times growing up: Ango-Indian grandparents, a young Sri-Lankan refugee couple, my German Oma, a Sri Lankan-Canadian Mum and her two kids. Our Czech next-door neighbour, two years older than me, spent half his life at our place. Primary school photos record a smattering of Anglo-looking kids in my classes (but complexity hides behind those fair faces too), alongside all the others—with interesting names, accents and lunches all part of the mix. My best friends were of English, Vietnamese, Aboriginal and Sri Lankan descent; Catholics, Protestants, Muslims, Hindus and agnostics all walked to school together. Every house smelled of different flavours and spice blends; everyone’s parents spoke different languages. Everyone’s names contained different combinations of letters that looked more and less familiar to English blends. Maybe as a kid I didn’t pick up on tensions or antagonism. But difference seemed so normal we didn’t need to name it. To name it would have been laughable; it would have been stating the obvious. It must have made an impression because at some point, I think I stopped wanting to be white. I realised that my colour was an advantage: I didn’t sunburn. My skin tone and I were reconciled! Or perhaps we just agreed to ignore each other.
I hated moving to a new house, school, and suburb when I was eleven. I felt powerless and swept along by the current of Fate (or God or my parents). A thirty minute drive from everything and everyone I’d ever known was akin to moving halfway across the world. It’s laughable now. But this was before the ubiquity of the internet and smartphone, and it wasn’t so long ago.
I hated my new school. Subconsciously, I must have felt different; consciously, I refused to feel that difference. I would have a place, regardless, and if I were on the outer, it would be by my own choice. The place was clearly inferior to my old school, I decided; it wasn’t good enough, despite—or perhaps because—it was an independent Christian school. No one was good enough for me either, because they weren’t my old friends. The worst of it, to my eleven-year-old eyes, was the apparent monoculture and the ignorance it perpetuated. I begged my Vietnamese friend to come and join me. There was minimal ethnic diversity and it was a shock; I only saw diversity once it was absent. I had, like all children, thought my world was the whole world.
The idiotic and racially ignorant attitudes displayed by some people at my new school boiled my blood. Throw-away remarks were made by the dozen, as if they didn’t mean anything—when really, they did; mocking caricatures revealed attitudes of superiority. I didn’t consciously link this to my peers’ whiteness, and I didn’t allow myself to identify with those being mocked. But I wanted more than anything to show my peers how wrong they were; I wanted them to understand how little race or appearance mattered to human dignity and how ill-informed they were. That’s why I begged Vietnamese Natalie to join me at my new school.
It was at my new school that I first encountered the term ‘black’ as a personal adjective. I couldn’t and didn’t believe it at first; it seemed the bluntest descriptor. My peers were calling people ‘black’ who were clearly not black (by tonal definition) but whose skin colours were nuanced and diverse shades of maybe-you’d-call-it-brown, and whose ancestry could not be summed up in a single word or by reference to skin tone (and to be fair, that applies to whiteness too). My peers weren’t using the ‘black’ word nicely, either. Didn’t they bloody know their colours? And why the hell did it matter? What an imbecilic mode of categorisation, I thought.
Had I ever heard of racism-proper before that? No. Have I mentioned that my sister—a full sister, not half or step—is alabaster white, with freckles and blue-grey eyes? She burns in the sun in a mere ten seconds. Not me. My brother? Not alabaster, but fair blonde and yes, blue-eyed. My siblings and I represent a wide colour spectrum within a narrow genetic range—like our father and his siblings—and are on equal footing. We are a case-study on the absurdity of racism. Even more so now that our genetic testing suggests that I (the brown-skinned one) have the lowest proportion of Indian genes of the three of us. Never would have guessed that. Racism doesn’t make any sense.
But my tweenage-self was learning that racism was a major thing if I were to look at the history of humanity—which I began to do, mainly thanks to later high school history classes (thanks Mr. Woodbridge; you did well). Racism, when I encountered the concept, felt surreal. Surreal, because so obviously unreasonable.
But wait…was it really the first time I had encountered racism? Or was it only the first time I could put a name to it? Why did it feel so surreal? Hadn’t I myself wanted to be white all those years ago, when I was seven-years-old and in love with Warnie? What had prompted me to think that having lighter skin would get me places quicker than my own colour? When I saw that it was the white Australian male cricket team who were successful and worth emulating—literally—what was I seeing? Was it structural, systematic racism, ingrained into a nation’s way of being? Was I imbibing that racism myself? And hadn’t I also wanted to be a boy? Oh yes, I had. Why? For me, I’m sure it was related to opportunities and respect—things I so desperately craved. I wanted to be heard.
It’s funny, the way silent dynamics so powerfully shape us. We live out our reactions, but the causes and forces that do this shaping are often invisible and tangled. Humans are shaped in relation; we relate to our primary caregivers who we depend on for our early survival, and then to our siblings and peers. We are parts of a wider whole—in schools, sports clubs and churches. Collectively we make a suburb or town, a shire, a state and a nation. Our rights are protected by law, but the law is also responsive as social values change and develop. Our genetics are our maps, but they don’t tell us everything about who we are, even if they also do encompass who we are. We have agency in the ways we interpret our identity, experiences and world, even as that agency is shaped by the options of which we are aware—through our family circumstances, the country we’re born into, the access we have to resources and education. Being human is complicated. Identity is not simple.
Black and white thinking has never been adequate to humanity and its complexities. Perhaps in reaction to the intensity of difference that occurred in my new school, and my unconscious association of difference with antagonism, I erred on the side of eroding difference. Maybe I blinded myself to difference so that there were fewer barriers to fitting in. I refused to be judged in a shallow and unjust way; I just would not allow it. My ginormous, powerful feelings were a mismatch for my small frame, which I did not notice either. Vulnerability? Nope, not for me thanks.
But denial doesn’t work forever. Strength and vulnerability don’t have to be opposed.
* * *
Sitting in the rain at the footy in Cranbourne, watching an AFL Women’s match … that’s where I felt balm for my wounds. I felt it very strongly. I’m not even into footy but I just wanted to be there. As I saw girls strong and celebrated, with little ones running around in their team colours and kicking footies on the sidelines, I felt … entire. Affirmed. Not hollow anymore. Real. Like there was a place for me. It’s how I feel when I don my work clothes and tradie-boots and set off to dig in people’s gardens. Like I’ve found me. For now.
I don’t want to weaponise identity but I want to recognise and fight inequality. Its vestiges live in me, as do forms of advantage. Tyranny abuses difference but humanity celebrates it. Identity is a living, dynamic movement; language can reflect this, if we work hard enough at it. Concepts are like human beings—they involve contradictions. Like me. Anglo and Indian. Darker in skin tone but less genetically Indian than my siblings. Jewish-Hungarian and German. Non-stereotypical female, but still invisibly bound by the frameworks I’ve inherited, despite my best efforts to move beyond them. Mix it all together. The threads cannot be separated; the living body cannot be dissected. With cognitive complexity and openness to tensions, we can understand ourselves in the contradiction of life, no matter how we self-describe.