When your race
racism defence toolbox is empty
Growing up, I rarely spoke about being ‘brown’ although I have always been quite outspoken on human rights issues that relate not only to race, but to sexual orientation and gender. I grew up believing that it does not matter what colour a person is, how rich or poor they are, where they are from or what they do. I now consider this belief has to be qualified. I do believe that all people are equal and are entitled to equal rights, no matter what their race, gender, age, religion, orientation, wealth or class status etc. These attributes do not matter to me personally – I would be friends with someone regardless of whether their attributes match mine. However, to say that these things ‘don’t matter’ to society, is wrong. These things DO matter because society can (and does) use them as a way to label, discriminate, control the narrative of, marginalise and disempower people. By believing that race was a non-issue, I unfortunately ventured into the world wholly unprepared for dealing with racism and race issues.
The only real culture I knew was Australian culture. Despite conversations or academic essays where I advocated the rights of ‘other’ non-white people in the interests of social justice, I did not want to think think of race issues as something that affected me too much (this is not because I was never exposed to racism, it was more denial, fear and cluelessness rather than anything else). I tended to think of race issues as something that affected immigrants and tended not to classify myself as an immigrant. While I did see a ‘shared browness’ or ‘shared otherness’ I did not realise the extent of the shared part. I did not see myself as Sri Lankan, because I had grown up with no strong link to the culture in which I was born. I thought I was wholly Australian, because that is all I knew. Every person around me was Australian.
As a baby and small child, I attended many intercountry adoptee events, attended a few Sri Lankan events and had (and still have) friends who are Sri Lankan adoptees. I had lots of brown dolls (I am not sure how my parents found all of these; Apparently finding a brown Cabbage Patch Kid was the hardest!). I learnt some Sinhala for awhile with other adoptees. I did a project at school on Sri Lanka and we talked about Sri Lanka sometimes at home. However, I did not know anything about ‘being’ Sri Lankan. And really, when we talked about it at home, our discussions were limited to superficial topics and dealt with from an Australian perspective because my parents did not know anything about being Sri Lankan either. How could they? And how could I know anything about being ‘Sri Lankan’? I did not share the culture, language, customs or religion.
My adoptee friends were like me – what we shared was being brown, being adoptees and being Australian. In this way, seeing other brown kids was a regular occurence, but a true grasp of Sri Lankan-ness was not…It was extremely rare that I saw any Sri Lankan (or ‘brown’) adults… As I grew up, I saw less and less of other Sri Lankan adoptees because we did our own things and became part of general society as kids do. Even toward the end of primary school, I had limited contact with adoptee and Sri Lankan groups and this meant that much of my time in these groups was as a baby and small child. The Sri Lankan-Australian adoptee community of young childhood was not in any way representative of the Australian (or world) community that I would need to navigate as a tween, teenager or adult (ie the majority of my life).
I definitely lost any of the interest I had in culture as I started heading toward the pre-teen stage. When I hear about parents saying, “My adopted child isn’t interested in their birth culture so we didn’t make them participate”: it baffles me. Of course the child is not interested because they are at an age where being different is hard. They are in an age of peer pressure. It makes me wonder why parents believe peer pressure can make kids do things like take drugs or drink, but they do not think peer pressure could affect a child’s willingness to participate in a culture that has no real value or relevance to any of the people in that child’s life.
At school I felt there was limited pressure to do the things that parents worry about, but a lot of pressure to be like the other kids. I liked wearing grungey fashion and and listening to alternative music – that type of difference was OK. It was tolerable and where it was not, it was still cool in being what it was – alternative to the mainstream. But being a different culture or race in a basically white community? That was too different to bear. My reluctance to learn about my birth culture at this stage was partly due to adolescence. It was also partly due to ignorance about the value of culture; How my birth culture was in me all along and is an integral part of who I am at my core. Ignorance about the fact that everyone saw me in a raced way, regardless of what I believed.
My understanding is that some intercountry adoptees experience a disconnection between their own physical appearance and that of the general Australian population (eg they forget they are a racial minority and think they are going to see a blonde Australian in the mirror). This was not my personal experience, but that it was many other intercountry adoptees’ experience, cannot be ignored (more about this here). For me, although I expected to see a brown person in the mirror, I realise now that I had no idea that the first thing most people noticed about me was that I was something other than white. I thought of skin colour like hair colour. I came to realise that others saw it as something more than that.
The illusion that people saw me as any other Australian person was definitely shattered at University during the Honours year of my psychology degree when I undertook social psychology research. It turns out, the research hypotheses could be easily tested by investigating whether my race stuck in peoples’ minds or not when they interacted with me (This is a very rudimentary explanation as it was much more complicated than that). I did not design the experiment and did not realise that this is what the experiment would be about. Once I knew, I possessed quiet horror at my race being so talked about. What race? I had spent years partly trying to ignore it, and for the other part, oblivious to its salience. I sat there not liking the attention brought to me by being different, but not being able to explain why it made me feel bad. I was already in my early twenties, however I could not understand in the slightest why it bothered me that people kept talking about my race and ethnicity as if it were a noteworthy thing.
I know that I was scared to bring up my feelings about the research because I wanted to avoid thinking about my own race as much as I possibly could. I had also been trained by society not to speak about race because it was uncomfortable for other people. I had never turned my mind sufficiently to the issue of my own race, nor had I discussed with anyone how to deal with this type of experience, and in the face of it, I did not say anything but participated in the study as if I had no concerns.
In the study, we assessed whether people were more likely to categorise someone according to societal groups (eg by their race, age, gender etc) if they had a bad experience with that person and less likely to categorise someone if they had a good experience with that person. (Again, a very crude simplification. It is an interesting line of research which I encourage anyone to read about). I will be honest and say that it was hard to read some of the things that people said about me. Some comments were quite offensive, criticising my clothes etc. My lovely research supervisor was quick to help me avoid seeing these types of comments by changing our procedures and I barely remember those comments now. They hurt when I read them, in the middle of what was an extremely busy and stressful, barely-had-time-to-breath university year.
However, what became abundantly clear to me during the experiment, and which probably hurt me the most, was something that I did not express to anyone and to this day have never really expressed…until now. What bothered me was that people in the experiment did see me in a raced way. It tended to be one of the main things that they saw. Many people commented on it. It made me realise for the first time that, whether they saw it in a good or bad way, many people saw me in a raced way and it was one of the things they first thought about when they thought about me. This of course flew in the face of all that I had been taught about the colour blind society. People did notice I was brown, and scientific research – including research I undertook as part of my own Honours thesis – proved it.
I had no real discussions on race or on dealing with race or racism growing up. I had no contact with brown adults who could show me how to be brown in a white society and how to defend myself against comments made about my race. No way to simply know how to feel comfortable when people make comments about people of racial minorities. Now when I look back on my Honours thesis, I known I contributed to research in any area which tries to find ways to reduce racial stereotypes and improve race relations, and because of that, I feel happy about my contribution. Though, I cannot forget the sadness that I had to learn the myth of colour blindness the hard way – When I was already an adult who had formed an identity almost entirely without race and who lacked a relationship with anyone who could empathise with my experience as a racial minority.
To this day, I am still looking for tools to deal with race issues and racism; working out what tools to put in the toolbox and which to discard. When to get my tools out. One thing I now know is that I don’t care if people see me in a raced way – with the proviso that seeing me in such a way is simply seeing what I look like physically and acknowledging my racial identity. In fact, these days I am more insulted by the person who says they can’t see that I’m brown. For that implies that brown should not be spoken of, is somehow less than or bad…is not something intrinsically woven into who I am. If you can’t see colours, you can’t see me.