So... if you’re from India, why are you white?
When I was born, my parents were worried about my older sister. They weren’t concerned she would grow into spoilt-middle-child syndrome or feel lonely as the only girl in the family, but a problem that was harder to describe. Indeed, it came as a shock to my parents that when they brought me home from the hospital, my sister’s first words were:
“Oh… It’s an Indian baby?”
It’d be easy to dismiss this problem as the naivety of a 5-year-old, but the problem is rooted in our surroundings, not age.
We grew up in suburban Sydney, making friends with many Italian and Anglo children in our neighbourhood. To me, I was exactly the same as all the other kids. At the time I didn’t know these were their cultural backgrounds. After all, it was never something spoken about. Never something I was actively told to notice.
I grew up in the same way my white Australian friends seemed to. I’d watch cartoons in the morning, ride bikes to school, begrudgingly attend Catholic mass on Sunday, and eat Dunk-a-roos and Mammee noodles. It was normal for me. My knowledge of Indian culture was limited to its famous food culture and big holidays.
My story may have been wildly different were my parents not able to assimilate into Australian society. Goa, a city of India where they’re from, is a community of devout Catholics. So, in coming to Australia, religion helped form some common ground. I would even say that my parents became so Australian that they eventually vacated the Catholic piety and assumed liberal thought and progressiveness. In fact, I often think now that my greatest liability for a future political career are my mother’s leftie Facebook statuses: “Fuck Malcolm, Fuck Bill, why do all these politicians suck”, “The Pope is so naive. Everyone knows that to be a real Christian, you have to own a Bible, and be Facebook friends with Jesus”. This was from a person who used to go to mass twice a day back in India.
It was only after my first family trip to India that I realised there may have been a disconnect between the way I was perceived, and the way I perceived myself. I finally experienced the differences between my cultural origin and what I experienced back in Australia. The thick wall of humidity, women clad in saris, sensory overload of smells, rickshaw horns and different languages were completely foreign to me. I blended in, yet could not have felt more on the outside. I felt more like the conspicuous map-holding white backpackers on the street corner than my Indian brothers and sisters.The culture there was not mine, nor was the culture in Australia, leaving me confused as to where I stood.
I think this was when I first realised I was a ‘coconut’ — brown on the outside, white on the inside — a somewhat sweet combination of the two cultures.
Baby Noah proving you're never too brown to wear Pumpkin Patch.
My journey is not the exception for first generation Australians. Esther, an Australian-born Korean, is a student at the University of Sydney. Esther is a self-described ‘banana’: yellow on the outside, white on the inside. Her parents both moved to Australia around the age of 17, growing up in heavily Anglo dominated suburbs.
Compared to her parents, Esther had a very different experience of race at school. She attended a private girls school on Sydney’s North Shore, a school with a small, but not insignificant, number of Asian students. Esther says her peers perceived her as being a little bit smarter than ‘the rest of us’ due to her appearance, and as a result she consciously worked to differentiate herself from that stereotype.
“In high school I took a lot of pride in being bad at maths. I was in the lowest class for maths and would be almost excited because I would be with all the white kids and not with other Asians in the top class. When people would be like ‘oh you’re not like the other Asians’ I would always sadly be kinda chuffed.”
Esther remembers when she was still in primary school, she felt some level of embarrassment for her Korean background. “I remember my mum made me fried rice and I dropped it all over the playground and a guy in my class was laughing at me and was like “eww, yuck” and that really upset me,” says Esther. “From that day I insisted on bringing sandwiches”.
I’m inclined to agree with the fact that school lessened my claim to ‘true’ ethnicity. I attended Saint Ignatius’ College, Riverview, which featured in the news last year for it’s stunted ethnic diversity — a measly 5% of the student population. If racism was ever an issue, I took control of the situation, making the joke mine. If my Indian origin was ever under threat, I became the threat to it, creating a caricature of the culture.
This kind of internalised racism does not always manifest as overt shame of one’s culture, but can resort to what some people refer to as ‘compartmentalisation’. Rani* is another Australian-born Indian university student who says that race was always a fragmented concept for her and her parents. She says to avoid dealing with racism, they were only unabashedly Indian among other Indians and then tried to suppress that aspect of themselves when among white people. They strived to never merge the two despite feeling strong ties to both cultures
“You’d go to school being as white as possible and then you'd have to dress up Indian on the weekend and go to Indian events or classes. But the two never intersecting just meant you never truly believed in either narrative you wanted to sell yourself,” says Rani.
Even her mother feels like she has to hide herself. “My mum will feel self-conscious if she needs to jump out of the car while sari-clad to fill up petrol on the way to a cultural event. People will stare; there’s an unspoken fear someone will shout something racist. But she blends in seamlessly when she’s in her jeans and a button-up shirt-- even if she’s less comfortable that way. Isn't that so fucked that society makes her filter herself to the point she feels most safe when upholding the status quo?”
Perhaps in some regards, that kind of behaviour is the biggest threat to racial relations with it trivialising the experience of racism. Then again, for millennial ethnics, like Rani, Esther and I, racism still never seemed like a huge issue. I mean, Australia isn’t a racist country, right? Sure kids acted strange when I brought onion pekoras and pork vindaloo to primary school, but that all changes when hipster Anglo teens reach the precociousness of 15 or 16 where Pho, lentils and Korean BBQ become hip things to have around. In a culture where wearing a bindi to a festival cemented your indie status, surely they’re accepting of foreign cultures?
Australia’s millennial anthem “I am, you are, we are Australian” supposedly heralded a new age of an inclusive, multicultural Australia. To some extent, this was true. The White Australia Policy was over 25 years earlier, immigration was booming, and there was a spike in foreign investment in education with many international students coming here to study.
But, this sense of a multicultural Australia was and is a façade. Even if there is some acceptance of many cultures, this distinction and acceptance is still borne on the idea of assimilation. If you belong to a different race, you’re either cast as ‘the other’ or ‘one of us’. Rani and Esther were divided over which of these two representations should prevail.
Rani says she was once interested in acting or pursuing stand-up comedy, but the constant caricaturing of her identity by well-intentioned but ignorant white peers alienated her from accessing those spaces. “I hate mocking my own culture. They really wanted me to put on the accent or seem very ‘FOB’ like but I hated playing into the stereotypes rather than subverting them,” says Rani. “Like I know those Bend it like Beckham type mums do exist, and that is a valid experience for some people. But it’s not the experience of me or most of my friends whose parents have spent years striving to assimilate. Especially when there are so few POC in those spaces it’s important to let them speak their truths rather than speak for them.”
Esther too has long aspired to join a whitewashed industry-- the Australian media-- but still fears its lack of true diversity.
“When there are people who are diverse or people of colour on the Australian media, they all have perfect Australian accents and are very articulate. Look at Waleed Aly, look at Lee Lin chin – none of them have an ethnic twang in their accents,” says Esther. “I think maybe that is a little bit problematic because maybe that’s not a good intersection and reflection of how our culture looks like today”.
Waleed Aly from The Project. Pic source: news.com.au
Indeed Waleed Aly, Channel Ten’s prized co-anchor of The Project, fits the mold well. When Aly recently won the Gold Logie it was heralded as a monumental moment for people of colour in Australia. I’ve got to admit, even myself as an Australian-born Indian began to hope for a brighter future in the Australian mainstream media. Sure, gone are the days when ethnic people had to hide or change their names — but like Esther said, what about their accents? This raises the question of whether there is a happy medium that embraces ethnicity without making a caricature out of it. Or is the sad truth that to fit into our ‘diverse’ media, you’ve got to be a banana or a coconut: coloured on the outside, and white on the inside?
I’ve also never worn the label ‘coconut’ with any sense of shame. Only this year, newly made Australian-born Indian friends tried to taunt me with “God, you’re such a coconut”. I merely saw it as a successful transformation and assimilation.
Racism always comes to those who don’t fit in, and my logic was if I fit in on the inside, I couldn’t be the target. It was only this year when someone called me a ‘white apologist’ that I really questioned where my allegiances lay.
I realised I am probably the harshest critic of Indian culture and attitudes. I hated it when people refused to assimilate.To me, things like speaking one’s own language in front of other people who didn’t understand was highly rude. I was a walking manifestation of all the casual racism that white people spurted.
Esther says she actually takes pride in being called a banana. “Actually another Australian-born Korean and I described ourselves as bananas. We would ooze with pride saying, ‘Yeah, we’ve fully assimilated into the Australian culture, and pretty much white on the inside,’. And that was a term I actually enjoyed being called, and maybe even now to a certain extent, kind of still enjoy…?”, says Esther.
Rani finds the societal pressure of this unspoken assimilation a confronting reality. “It's heartbreaking this country often acts like they are doing migrants a favour. But taking the cream of the crop from developing or other countries is a privilege. And those who are different should be welcomed with open arms for giving all they have to this country. Instead we are often made to feel othered during our developmental years or stuck juggling both cultures and our obligations to each,” says Rani.
The natural state of ‘Australianness’, or white culture is indeed inherently imperialistic. White culture not only exists as the new centre of our being, but as a part of our psyche that seeks to undermine our inner ethnicity too. The white interior of the coconut is not only the majority of your being, but will attempt to seep and crack through the orifices until the white spills over the brown coating.
Navigating Australia's multicultural landscape is by no means an easy endeavour, and often there is no clear solution. The strict division of races creates the question of which race one will preference. The integration and assimilation of races risk misunderstanding and cultural appropriation. In reality their needs to be a greater understanding that assuming racial identity is more of a process than a label.
We need to remember that the acknowledgement of other cultures and the reality of compartmentalisation is a step in the right direction. I’ve realised that for so many years my frustration and confusion surrounding my ethnicity was a manifestation of white apologism, trying to reconcile ethnocentric equivalent of “yeah the boys”. Today, I understand that my identity needn’t be one or the other, and am comfortable living through the nuances of being a first generation migrant. No person should be pressured to stick to one racial identity over the other, but be free to form their identity without social constraints or embarrassment.
*Name has been changed