As some of you may know, last week was Harmony Week, which caused me to think a little about the fact that I have brown skin but I live in a country that is vastly white. I know you’re dying to ask the question, so here goes:
What Is It Like To Be Brown?
Being brown is just the same as being white, except I’m brown. I guess, the main difference is that I am part of a minority in this country. The thing is, I don’t think being brown would be an issue if I was in India or Sri Lanka surrounded by brown people. The issue is not that I am brown, the issue is that I am different. For some reason, we all like things that are familiar and we shy away from things that are different. What makes it even more awkward for me is that I am only different on the outside. On the inside, I am the same as every other white person around me. Wait a minute, you say, we’re all the same on the inside. Yes, but when you look at a brown person, you make assumptions about their culture, their religion, the food they eat and the language they speak, and perhaps sometimes you’re right. But those assumptions are not true about me. Although my (non-biological) father is a Sri Lankan who migrated to Australia when he was a teenager, he didn’t have much of a hand in my upbringing. I was brought up by my white mother who came from a dairy-farming background. So culture wise, I don’t fit in with the Sri Lankans; yet, at first glance it doesn’t seem like I belong in my own society, Australia, either. People seem to have trouble coming to terms with a Sri Lankan Australian and are often confused with my lack of a ‘brown’ accent. Sometimes I even feel obliged to put on a slight accent to make them feel more comfortable.
Here’s some examples of the regular questions I get based on people’s assumptions:
Don’t get me wrong, I’m not complaining about these questions. They’re just common examples of the assumptions people make based on my skin colour without really thinking about it. It would be good to be asked these questions a little less often though.
You must love curries, right?
This is one of the most common questions I get.
Yes, I do, but not because curry-loving is an innate thing. Actually, I very much disliked spicy food when I was younger, much to the shock and horror of my Sri Lankan side of the family, ‘you should like it, why don’t you like it?’
They didn’t realise that it’s the same as saying to a tall person, ‘you must love basketball, why aren’t you good at basketball?’
This is what I imagine goes through most people’s heads when they see me, ‘dark skin…I know a dark skinned person who loves curries, therefore all dark skinned people must love curries.’ When my response is, ‘Yes, I love spicy food and I do cook curries occasionally’, I can see them nodding to themselves knowingly, satisfied that their inner stereotype has been confirmed and all is well with the world.
Do you speak Singhalese?
Just like curry-loving, language is another thing that is not innate. I was not born knowing the language of my biological parents. Were you born speaking English?
In all honesty, this assumption has not just come from caucasians. Once I walked into a Sri Lankan grocery store and the cashier started talking to me in Singhalese assuming that I spoke the language. I politely let her finish and then apologised because I had no idea what she just said
This hot weather doesn’t bother you, does it?
You couldn’t be more wrong! I love cold weather and hate being hot. In fact, my skin is very sensitive to heat and will break out in a rash if I get too hot.
Is your husband from Sri Lanka too?
I don’t understand why people ask this. When I meet somebody, I never feel the need to ask the nationality of their spouse, so I don’t understand why people seem so surprised that I’m married to a white guy. But it’s the same when people meet my husband and ask ‘is your wife a doctor too?’ It’s like they expect everyone to find their identical twin and marry them or something…I don’t know.
These are not negative assumptions, but they are assumptions nonetheless. People look at my skin and instantly form an opinion. We all do it every day, not just with skin colour, with every aspect of appearance. Our minds work that way. We feel better when we can place everything and everyone into perfect little categories; dogs good and cats bad, summer good and winter bad, day is good and night is bad, white is good and black is bad (these are examples only and do not reflect my personal opinion). However, life and people do not work that way.
I have felt beautiful in my skin, but I have also cried because of the way people have treated me for being different. I have been complimented for my exotic looks, and I have been looked down on for my colour. Although this discussion is about being brown, I’m sure many people have felt the same things I have felt, simply for being different; too fat, too thin, too tall, too short, for wearing glasses, for wearing braces, for having a pimple, for being too hairy, for not being hairy enough, for standing funny, for not walking the same way everyone else does… For any thing that make us stand out and be not normal. So, instead of, ‘what is it like to be brown,’ the real question I’m answering here is, ‘what is it like to be different?’
What Is It Like To Be Different?
Some of the negatives:
Unfortunately, I have had a few bad experiences due to being the delicious chocolatey coloured specimen that I am (I have also learnt that laughing at myself first stops other people from laughing at me and encourages them to laugh with me instead).
I remember Mum sharing a story about a time before I was school age when she put me in a playpen with some other young children and one of them told me to ‘go back to your own country, we don’t want you here.’
I had many of those experiences when I was young. In junior school, the favourite taunt was to call me, ‘poo’. I received this very original taunt from my ‘friends’ both in and out of school. So, I came up with a retort, ‘Yeah? Well you’re sour cream.’ This actually made one kid cry and then I got in trouble for it!
In high school, I had an English teacher who refused to believe that I was good at reading and writing because of my colour. She asked me what my native language was and I replied that it was English. Apparently that answer wasn’t good enough because she responded with, ‘we’ll try again. What is your native language?’ It was the exact same question so I gave the exact same answer, English. She grunted and then told me that I’m clearly not a natural born reader because I read way too fast and if I was a natural reader I would read more slowly to fully absorb all the words.
I didn’t get as much this sort of overt negativity about my skin in high school and I rarely hear anything said now, but it did have an impact on me. I have had immature young kids yell rude words at me in the street. I have had to sit there and smile while friends and family unwittingly say things like, ‘black people just can’t rule, they haven’t got the brains for it.’ I usually can expect to be pulled aside at airports or any metal scanners for a more thorough check, but that is most often attributed to the fact that I have an entire packet of hairpins holding up my extremely thick hair. I’ve felt people looking down on me for my skin colour and assuming I’m unintelligent. I’ve felt the pressure to prove that I’m just as good as those with fairer skin. I’ve been the topic of derisive jokes based on skin colour. Because of that teasing, I do have insecurities. If I fail a job interview, I wonder if it was because of my skin colour. If somebody doesn’t like me, I wonder if it is because of my skin colour. I’ve actually had an experience once where a baby looked at me and cried and his mother said, ‘oh, he just hasn’t seen somebody of your colour before.’ So now, if a baby cries around me, I wonder if it’s my skin colour.
The other day, as part of Harmony Week, I saw a Congolese man perform the Australian National Anthem for the first time as an Australian citizen. I should have felt happy for him when I saw his pride, but instead I felt sad because I worried that Australia might not live up to his expectations. I just hope that his experience will be better than mine has been at times.
To sum up my negative experiences, I will share with you a poem I wrote when I was in my early teens. This poem reflects the way I felt back then, rather than how I feel now. I never shared this poem because it was more like a journal and a way for me to vent my feelings, but it fits here because being different is what the poem was about:
No one understands me
No one really cares.
All I get from others
Consists of scornful glares
I always manage to do wrong
I often feel I don’t belong.
They treat me like I am not real
It’s unimportant how I feel
Nobody knows me well at all
Their knowledge of my mind is small.
Some even treat me like I’m dead
While others think I’m some half-bred.
Some people put up a great fight
In this place that’s ruled by white.
Although some try to understand,
I don’t belong here in this land.
Some of the positives:
I don’t want you thinking it’s all bad. Things have gotten a lot better for me as I’ve grown older. 99.99999% of my daily interactions are positive. It seems like having different coloured skin encourages people to approach me. I don’t know if it’s because they feel the need to overcompensate with the niceness because I’m different, but friendly strangers often start a conversation with me based on my appearance.
One time I was reading a book in the library and a lady came up and said, ‘I just have to tell you how beautiful your hair is, it’s so lovely and shiny and thick.’ That was the start of a short conversation.
Another time I was looking through some toys at a shop and a lady came up and said, ‘I just wanted to ask you if you were Sri Lankan.’
‘Yes, I was born there, maybe you can tell me more about the place,’ was my reply.
I’ve been invited to have coffee with the cashier at the supermarket. I was randomly invited to coffee at the house of a lady who I had just met at the gym. I don’t know if this had anything to do with colour, but it is a example of the positive experiences I often have every day.
I also often get approached by people who have newly moved to Australia and just want to have a chat. It’s great to meet these people and hear their stories of a life that is so different to what we can comprehend. I had one man run after me as I was walking to my car just to have a chat.
Just last week I met a lady who asked me where I was from and we got chatting and even exchanged phone numbers.
So, having brown skin is a great conversation starter and seems to cause a lot of people to approach me in a friendly way. I do love meeting new people and learning about their lives.
And let’s not forget the most basic benefit of dark skin: I don’t want or need a tan. In fact, it’s the opposite. I don’t want to get darker! I want to keep my lovely ‘pale’ complexion. I don’t burn as easily, so I don’t have to worry about being in the sun as much, but my skin is quite heat sensitive, so I don’t choose to be in the sun. While everyone else is lying there exposing as much skin as possible so that tomorrow they will be walking around groaning and spraying on aloe vera spray while begging me not to bump them, I am lying there nice and cool inside my little cocoon of towels.
Honestly, I wouldn’t change what I look like because then I wouldn’t be me.
So Here’s the Big Question, The Struggle To Fuse My Skin Colour and My Culture:
What Nationality Are You?
This is a question I get asked often and it is a hard question to answer. I am Australian, but sometimes I struggle with the concept. ‘Australian’ is supposed to encompass a wide variety of ethnicities, but in reality when somebody says ‘Australian’, we all picture a white guy casually wearing denim jeans, a check shirt and an Akubra while munching on a piece of straw. I am under no illusions. I know that when I walk down the street, people do not look at me and think ‘Australian’.
Last week there were many events happening in town that celebrated cultural diversity. I went along to one of them and enjoyed basking in my cultural diversity until I realised that I wasn’t culturally diverse at all. I’m just…diverse. In fact, I’m so non-culturally diverse that everyone, including myself, was confused.
One man tried to introduce me to his friends and it went like this:
Man: This is my friend, she is Australian
Everyone else: Oh..(awkward silence while they all wonder how I’m possibly Australian and wait for me to justify this outrageous statement)
Man: She grew up in South Australia
Everyone else: Okay..(starts looking a little bored at my lack of cultural diversity)
Me: I was born in Sri Lanka
Everyone else: Oh really? (looks a little more interested)
Me: I was adopted
Everyone else: Oh, wow (now I have their full attention, not because of my cultural diversity, but because adoption is just one of those weird things, like twins, that everyone wants to ask questions about).
So, is your nationality defined as the culture and country you were brought up in, or is it the place you were born? For most people these two things are the same, but not for me. Sometimes I see Sri Lankans or Sri Lankan food or Sri Lankan things and get all excited about it, and then realise I know hardly anything about Sri Lanka. It’s just that when I see a bunch of Sri Lankans walking along, I feel like I could be a part of that group and blend in. I see myself as Australian, but I will always stand out because I look different. Strangers will always assume that I am a foreigner. The fact that I look one thing and I am another makes life difficult, confusing, and often amusing. When I get people come up to me and ask if I’m Sri Lankan, I can either say yes, in which case I am then met with a proud look because of their exceptional ability to judge people by their cover, followed by an, ‘I knew it because I have a Sri Lankan friend who looks a lot like you.’ Or I can say no, and tell them I’m Australian, which will always be followed by that awkward pause while everybody waits for me to elaborate and justify how someone who looks like me is really an Australian. It’s a weird feeling to be perceived as a foreigner in your own country.
I find though, that once people get to know me, we all forget about our skin colour. You know how when you see the people you love, you don’t see their hair colour or that pimple on their nose or their body weight, you just see that person for who they really are. Once you know and love somebody, you don’t see their looks anymore, you see them. Well, that’s how it has been for me all through my life with my loved ones. I’ve often had friends who’ve been asked ‘who is that dark girl you were with?’ and they’ve stood there confused, not realising that they had a dark friend, because they don’t see me that way. I wish we could all look past the superficial and see each other for who we really are.
As for my skin colour, I struggled a lot when I was younger, but the older I get, the more it grows on me. Pun aside, I appreciate the fact that I am different. It is because of these differences that I have had many experiences, both positive and negative, that have made me the person I am today. Although being different has not been easy at times, it has made me a deeper, more empathetic and more thoughtful person. It has made me want to be kinder to the underdog. It has made me realise not to be deceived by looks, but to find the person underneath the veneer.
We are all different, yet we are all the same. Who would we be without our differences? I am different to you because I am me. Without my differences, I would be you. So instead of trying to change ourselves into clones, let’s celebrate the things that make us all unique and special.
Although we are all unique, we are also all the same. We all have the same basic needs, and most importantly, we’re all people who want and deserve to be loved, no matter our age, colour, health, wealth, religion or social status.
I would like to close with something somebody told me during Cultural Diversity week. He said, ‘I am Bhutan, you are Sri Lanka, they are Congo, but we are all Australian. We are all family.’
I wish everyone thought like this.