Fantastic blog! I first read you over at overland.org.au and can’t help but feel we share a similar place in Australia.
I’m writing a PhD on postcolonial identity and your writing has opened up some great sources on non-white identities in Australia.
My mother and grandmother were born in Kenya, but they (and I) are Seychellois Creole. I am of African descent, but also European, Indian and East/Southeast Asian. Visually – if you ask me – I look Creole, bang in the middle of all my heritage, but to others (read, white Australians) I am a whole variety of things that have included Maori, Indigenous Australian, African, Indian, Arab, Brazilian and more.
I’ve always identified as black, as do my parents, as do people with dark skin in Seychelles, regardless of whether they look more African or Asian or Indian. I grew up in a rural area in Australia and as a child I was black to white Australians. I was even ‘really, really black’ to some. Then, in the last 10-15 years, the amount of Africans calling Australia home has increased greatly. Something strange happened and, to Australia, I was no longer black – I was ‘brown’. I can accept ‘coloured’ as it is much more encompassing, but not ‘brown’, especially if it is in reference to not being ‘black’. And instead of being offensive, people think they are being politically correct when they are really just using American and apartheid terminology used to categorise the non-white other more divisively.
Of course race is a construct; ethnicity is a much more accurate categorisation, if it must be done. Black is a label, and labels are horrible, especially if you didn’t choose that label yourself. But at the same time, people develop identities according to the labels they are provided with. I chose black, which means different things in different places. I’m not saying I’m African-American by saying that I’m black, which is what it has meant in different places and times in the US.
It’s easy to say, as progressives often do, that doing away with labels will pave the way for greater social equality. But people are different, taking away labels also takes away autonomy. People are also complex, and taking those labels away strips how people can express their identities in the ways they choose to do so.
I read an interesting article on gendered language that illustrates the above point in a different way (I’m sorry, I really can’t find it!). It discussed how gendered language (i.e. waiter vs. waitress, cousin vs. cousine) impacts, at least superficially, on levels of social inequality in varying societies. It would be expected that social inequality would be greatest where gendered languages are also the greatest, but that was not the case. I can’t remember the exact findings, but basically it was suggesting that the LACK of gendered language impacted on sexual inequality about as much as the the existence of it. The explanation for this was because society is not equal, so ‘equal’ language takes away from, rather than gives to minorities. In a society where the default is ‘man’, (or white), a woman (or coloured person) becomes invisible. The paper discusses it as if the ability to use labels to highlight differences allows minorities to be empowered. ‘Chairman’ obviously demonstrates a gendered job position, people assume it is a man. ‘Chairperson’ opens it up to both, but people will, because it is probably the case, still assume it is a man. By changing it to ‘Chairwoman’ when it is a woman, rather than ‘Chairperson’, which hides gender, it shows the broader public when women hold positions of power when, if it weren’t highlighted, they would just assume it was a man.
It’s a constant negotiation is, I think, the point. There is difference, we should embrace it, not hide it and pretend everything is equal when it is not. But, at the same time, people should not label others without understanding their identity and preferences first. And – using Nazeem Hussain’s hierarchy of acceptable discrimination – labels should definitely not be applied by dominant ethnic groups to minority ethnic groups. Even if that minority group has a name they would prefer to be referred to as, there could be individuals in those groups that do not appreciate those labels. ‘Indigenous Australian’ might be accepted by some Indigenous Australians, but many consider it offensive: they are Nyoongar (or Koori, or Yolngu) not Indigenous Australian. That is the generic, culturally insensitive term that white people made up for them.
Anyway, that’s my rant over. Thanks for sharing your work!
I need to add: I don’t agree with the findings of that article on gendered language and social inequality. There are problems with it, just as there are with every study. But the discussions it raises are useful for exploring some of the explanations of how gendered and genderless languages may influence social inequality, and how the terminology we choose to use to express our identities.
Thanks for taking the time to introduce yourself. Great to hear that you’ve got something from my blog and that the sources have been useful. I never really planned to start writing a blog, as such. I was just tired of having others define how I’m perceived, so I decided to have a say in things myself.
It’s affirming to hear what you say about being Black and finding yourself being seen as Brown in recent years. This is my experience also. It feels like the erasure of my personal history – all that I went through during the ‘white Australia’ years. As you suggest, the presence of more darker skinned people with foreign accents has positioned us as less Black (or even not Black).
As well as the lack of other Black people, generally racism used to be a lot more overt and socially acceptable; the isolation I felt as a non-white person was more acute than it is now. I can’t imagine what your experience was like in rural Australia – I found visiting country towns to be a particularly unpleasant experience as a child.
Also, Black used to be indiscriminate with regard to skin tone, place of origin etc. I recall that when I was in primary school there was one other Black girl a few years my junior. Strangers would often start talking to me assuming that I was her, yet she was dark skinned with two Black parents. These days, the greater sensitivity to variation in Black identity has introduced nuance that was not previously evident. On one hand, I’m injured by the denial of my Black experience and all this entails, on the other hand I’m receiving the benefits of being perceived as less Black. From what I’ve seen, other races and ethnicities are feeling the shift too.
I think one reason why I don’t call myself ‘coloured’ is that by grouping everyone together except for whites ‘coloured’ affirms the non-colouredness/ non-racialisation of whites. So, it is a term that I would use only in the context of a group of people seeking to address white supremacy. Same for POC.
Also, I find ‘coloured’ to be old fashioned. I guess it comes down to personal experience. A friend of mine, of similar racial identity to me, suggested that I call myself Brown to avoid the aggression that I’ve been receiving for calling myself Black. I told her that I like being Brown, but I am also Black. I like the way that Brown aligns me with other Brown people (e.g. indigenous South Asian) although the nature of our racialisation is different; South Asians may be Brown through being Asian; I am Brown through being Mixed. Like you, I would not call myself ‘Brown’ where Brown is incompatible with being Black. But, Brown and Black don’t have to be considered mutually exclusive. I know that overseas (I’m thinking UK, US, Canada) there are political divisions between people who identify as biracial/mixed and people who identify as Black. But, for me, biracial/mixed/Brown is not exclusive. I’m Black and I’m also Brown, Mixed and POC.
I don’t like ‘biracial’. I remember years ago trying to explain to an American visitor, who insisted on calling me ‘biracial’, that we don’t have ‘biracial’ in Australia. I was telling her that we have Asian, Black and white. Having met Maltese Australians who identify as Black, I don’t consider these categories to be straightforward, but they are not defined in portions. This was back in the 90’s when we didn’t yet have ‘Brown’ as a racial identity in Australia.
I’m not a big fan of ‘Mixed’ either. ‘Mixed’ implies impurity in contrast with Black and white as pure. But a word is needed to refer to what I am and ‘Mixed’ is better than something that gives the impression that my identity is divided into fractions. Of course ‘Mixed’ doesn’t make much sense as I am the same race as my father and not the same race as my mother. I am not a hybrid or in-between or third (relative to my parents) race – defined in relation to my parents rather than independently. But I do use ‘Mixed’ to convey that my parents are different races from each other. I also use ‘Mixed’ to acknowledge that I have relatively light skin and the privilege this entails. Not – as I have seen done in the US and UK – to distance myself from my Blackness.
I agree that race is a social construct, but ethnicity can exhibit the same illusoriness and complexity. I am culturally British Australian (with some Irish influence). I have British and Meru biological inheritance. What ethnicity am I? British Australian? I have no culture from Meru, and I had not met anyone from Meru until I travelled overseas as an adult. Yet, because of my race, I’m not recognised as being of British Australian ethnicity either.
In many discussions of ethnicity, whites and especially British whites are deemed to have no ethnicity – it’s something for the rest of us, a mark of deviance from a white norm. The recently launched Ascension magazine markets itself as being ‘Australia’s first lifestyle magazine for Indigenous and Ethnic women’. It aims to provide representation for Women Of Colour – women who are underrepresented in the media. I fit the description of being underrepresented as a WOC, but I’m not ethnic – my cultural identity is not ‘other’ relative to British. So does the magazine represent me or not? Must I identify as belonging to a culture that is foreign to me in order to feel included in a magazine which is intended to cater for underrepresented WOC such as myself? Or do I have to wait for the creation of a magazine that includes all WOC, including culturally British diaspora?
None of us gets to choose our race. I didn’t choose my identity. And I didn’t choose the language which refers to my identity. But, I don’t find labels to be horrible. Rather than considering labels to be restrictive, perhaps we should be developing and expanding our definitions. It is circumstance and the relationships between people which bring about division. People can be mistaken in their reference to themselves or (more likely) to others, and this can be harmful. But labels themselves are not the culprit. (Sorry, I tried googling Nazeem Hussain’s hierarchy of acceptable discrimination as I’m unfamiliar with it, but didn’t find it.) I’m not going to use the term ‘Indigenous’ if I know a more specific and appropriate term, but it is not the term ‘Indigenous’ that causes certain people to be indigenous. Your discussion of the paper on gendered language reminds me of this terrific video:
Anyway, thanks for your comment. I’d love for you to keep in touch – my twitter handle is @guantai5
Thanks for sharing that!
You’ve explained your position amazingly – I can’t argue with your justifications. It’s funny that it is just that: justification differs according to context. I feel the exact same way that you do, it seems, but then it depends on the context, and perhaps even just my mood. I have always tried to understand everyone’s position, even if their position might directly impact negatively on me. The KKK and similarly radical groups are always a challenge, but it’s actually quite easy to understand the reasons for the actions of such groups. It’s not that I see their actions as justified, obviously, but it’s important to see the dynamics that shape people to do what they do, and to see that it’s not as simple as ‘good/bad’, ‘wrong/right’, it’s all contextual.
I understand racism. I am someone who discriminates based on race, and I don’t really think anyone can say that they don’t. The intention is probably the thing that differentiates the discrimination that I can, at least on some level, sympathise with, and the discrimination that is based in greed. Take Australia and white Australians in low socio-economic demographics. I’m not a fan of Aussie culture – and by that I mean football, beers, tradies. It’s a demographic that commonly, in my experience, generates, harbours and spreads xenophobia. Not that all those within that culture and demographic do that, but it’s just a characteristic of the working class in capitalist culture. I think Karl Marx (or some other sociologist) commented on the tendency of the lowest classes to actually be the strongest supporters of the ideologies of the elite, rather ironically. ‘In Search of Respect’ by Philippe Bourgois contains a discussion o how the newest waves of migrants are almost always discriminated against by the prior wave of migrants. In New York it went something like this: the Irish Americans discriminated against the newer Italian Migrants. Then Italian Americans and Irish Americans discriminated against the wave of Puerto Rican migrants. Then the Nuyoricans (Puerto Rican New Yorkers) discriminated against the wave of Mexican migrants. My mum does that with migrants to Australia (even if they’re family!), but especially with asylum seekers – but that’s probably just as much about the information she gets from today tonight or a current affair or whichever show it is (but what’s the difference?).
I think that racism in low socio-economic demographics is kind of like that: the last wave of migrants discriminating against the newest wave of migrants. Not exactly, obviously. But it’s usually (on some warped, deep level) about protecting the position you hold in society. Recent migrants have established themselves and are now feeling threatened by newcomers. But by jumping on the bandwagon and discriminating against those newcomers, they are also including themselves in wider Australian society, creating an ‘us’ and ‘them’, hoping that by discriminating against ‘those boat people’ they will stop being seen as migrants themselves. On another level, it’s also about a threat to culture and identity. Nationalistic white Australians feel that their way of life is being threatened by ‘multiculturalism’. I totally understand that! Chinua Achebe’s book ‘Things Fall Apart’ is about culture being threatened by colonialism and wider global dynamics – I sympathise with that story, and it helps me understand the story of White Australians feeling threatened by multiculturalism. It’s rubbish – but I can understand it. They are, after all, also victims of colonialism and capitalistic culture – it is the elite minority that shape and benefit from these wider dynamics. White Australians benefit from it a lot more than those caught in the lithium-ion wars of the Congo. White Australians benefit from it more than just about anyone, really. But the point is, they (we?) are just higher level workers in a capitalist pyramid.
Discrimination by elite classes, though, is just shithouse. I get that it’s another context that I will never be in and understand thoroughly. And on some level it is also about protecting identity and culture. But – and this goes with why I think xenophobic Australians are idiotic – if it’s about discriminating against those with less privilege than you, then it shouldn’t happen. That’s Nazeem Hussain’s hierarchy, by the way. I’ve had trouble trying to find it online too. It was on a standup of his and he referred to it a few times – I think it may have been done in ‘Fear of a Brown Planet’. Basically, it’s about who can justifiably discriminate against, or make satirical comedy about, who. ‘The Party’, with Peter Sellers (a white actor) playing an out-of-place (South Asian) Indian at a high-class party. All the humour is about the Indian looking stupid. That’s an example of discrimination going down the ladder. ‘Black Comedy’, or ‘Salam Cafe’, or ‘Legally Brown’ or even something by the Wayan brothers, are rough examples of discrimination going up the ladder. Hussain’s ladder goes kind of like this: a black woman with a disability who is also gay would have a low level of privilege compared to a rich, white, male. That woman could make fun of a black woman who does not have a disability, or is not gay. A black woman without a disability who is also heterosexual could make fun of a black man. That black man could make fun of a white man. That white man can’t really make fun of anyone, except maybe another white man with more money. The idea is that you can only really ‘poke fun’ at people above you in that ladder, you can’t ‘punch down’. Obviously it’s cloudy between a black man and white woman (who experiences more discrimination? I’d say black man, definitely, but many would argue otherwise), or what about a rich black man and a poor white man? It’s not a concrete guide to be taken seriously, but it does provide a pretty good point of reference to use when considering who can talk in what way about who.
Wow – that was a bit of a tangent. Let me connect it back. I’m really talking in more depth about the basis that racist terminology stems from. It’s confusing, and it’s about strengthening identity – whether it’s done by black people calling themselves black, or white people calling non-white people something. The black people may be strengthening their own identity by differentiating themselves, and the white people are strengthening their own identity by differentiating themselves. But use of that terminology – black, brown etc. – is best justified when it is used by a group or ethnicity for themselves, not to denote others. Because those ‘others’ might not want to be denoted at all, or not in the way that they have been referred to.
Regarding the use of ‘coloured’ – I think there’s another level to that, for me. I agree with you that it can be used to imply that white people don’t have colour. And I hate that – the use of the word ‘ethnic’ to refer to anything other than white. ‘Ethnic food’ – wtf? That would just be food made by a person. But then there’s a dynamic that has been created, regardless of what the reality is. Not using ‘coloured’ is kind of like removing gendered language that might hide that society is sexist. Coloured has referred to non-white people. Some European ethnicities/individuals might get ‘umms’ and ‘ahhs’, and some would struggle deciding what certain ethnicities are – a Central Asian with very fair skin isn’t really ‘white’ because it’s not just about fair skin, but they don’t neatly fit into ‘coloured’ either. The world is full of white people who are the most privileged. They are differentiated from the rest of the world’s ethnicities and the most prominent characteristic that would differentiate these groups physically is skin colour. The world is divided up in a complex way, but there is a stark differentiation between white people and those who are not white. Coloured has come to be that term to collectively refer to people who are negatively affected by a white-dominant capitalist culture. I don’t disapprove of the term coloured because it groups me with others that struggle against this dynamic in the same way – and that is a real dynamic, that has a real white/non-white division. Kind of like the term ‘queer’ being adopted by gay communities, it collectively refers to sexualities that are not ‘heterosexual’, which, like whiteness, is the dominant ‘norm’ in Australia. Rather than serving a perceived supremacy of whiteness I feel that ‘coloured’ highlights how whiteness has impacted on other ethnicities.
My interpretation of the accepted use of ‘coloured’ is again based on context. I’d never accept a white person referring to me as coloured or as anything that referred to my skin colour at all – unless, maybe, in some unique situation, we were talking about each other’s ethnicities. But, again, I would only accept it if it were a question or if I had suggested that categorisation.
I do despise ‘mixed’ and ‘biracial’ though. Mixed, as you’ve said, implies a purity of whiteness and an incomplete entity – not one or the other. Biracial is similar in that it implies purity of one plus one, as if the ‘ones’ aren’t made up of other ethnicities too. These terms don’t group people together politically and socially like ‘coloured’ does. That people are commonly referred to as ‘white’ or ‘coloured’ – that colour being yellow, brown, black or whatever – is a narrative of wider social dynamics that have shaped our positions. I adopt it with some bitterness, but we can only communicate these ideas to each other in the language of the oppressors!
That magazine for Indigenous and ethnic women confuses me. Ethnicity is the term for people who group (or are grouped) together based on a shared culture, ancestry, nation or social experience. It’s a hazy term, but the way they are using seems to be in the more common American (and now often Australian) usage – where ethnic is just ‘not white’ or ‘not Australian’. I know that is one way the term is understood more commonly, but it isn’t the correct usage. Like ‘ethnic food’, that magazine title says to me it is for Indigenous and all women. That’s exactly where I favour the term ‘coloured’, because it is too difficult to list all the different colours that aren’t white. But the shared experience that that magazine would be referring to is one of non-whiteness. Ethnic, though, is the wrong term to use.
But yes – after all that writing – I’m saying that I agree with you on labels. We should be expanding labels, not doing away with them. But we should also be cautiously checking if those labels are correct – not labelling before knowing.
Thanks for sharing that video – that is a FANTASTIC channel and site that I’m going to definitely be paying attention to. I didn’t have a twitter account but have signed up now and followed you and cecile emeke.
Would you mind if I used our discussion in my PhD thesis? I’m actually writing about postcolonial identity in Seychelles, specifically about grigri, a local ‘black magic’, for lack of a better term. But for part of my thesis development I discuss identities of the African Diaspora and my experience of identity in Australia. Your story would fit perfectly in my discussion, and you’ve articulated it all so well – I’d love to use it! Let me know if that is ok with you and, if so, how you’d like me to credit/reference you (if you’d also like that). I’ll let you know how I use the material and will send you a copy of the relevant sections (or all, if you’d like) before it is submitted and/or published.
Thanks for the chat! Sorry for the length!
This discusses some related issues:
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