Who’s a normal white Australian anyway?
“I will try to be at the edge of my fear...on the edge of my skin, listening, asking what new things will I hear, will I see, will I let myself feel... I try to say to myself: To acknowledge the complexity of another’s existence is not to deny my own.”
-Minnie Bruce Pratt
I have white skin, blue eyes, blond hair and an Australian passport; the perfect Australian—except that I grew up in Nepal.
There’s an age as a child when you aren’t defined by skin colour or limited by language. You do not know your place. So I made mine the beehive alleys of Kathmandu, wandering with a bicycle, or by foot. Climbing walls, peeking into courtyards where women washed their long black hair, drying it in the sun amongst the glinting green silk of their saris. Women sat together, running hands through one another’s hair, laughing, yawning, watching me watch them. Come, they beckoned, then blond hair was in brown fingers. Tea was brought, spicy sweetened milk, sipped from a glass too hot to touch. I climbed narrow wooden stairs of traditional Nepali homes, up, to the third, fourth, or fifth storey where pigeons roosted in rafters and Kathmandu clattered below with its hawkers and horns and cantering stray dogs.
I did not realise Nepal was sketching itself into my neurones. Clustering in ganglions, webbing out axons, gripping and colonising this white girl. Love and connection crossed boundaries I did not know I was supposed to have.
That is until I came back to Australia and my insides no longer matched my outsides. You’re a [white] Australian girl they told me, with every look that expected my sameness but marked my difference. I looked the part, which was the most significant thing, here in a country where one must not stand out.
My older brother led the way, the perfect chameleon. He dropped all the Nepali words that had joined our family’s vocabulary, lost his accent, never mentioned Nepal. Australia isn’t a country that cares for diversity in anything except the most token way. It’s fine that we have Vietnamese, Chinese and Indian kids at school, so long as they do their bit to act ‘white’. Even in 2018, Queensland insisted all shopfronts have signs in English first, because heaven forbid a single sign privilege the language of the writer who wrote it or reader who reads it. In Aboriginal communities, kids speak another first language, but their schools battle on teaching only in English. Sana Nakata writes that the presence of Aboriginal people unsettles our country’s imaginary White Australia. 'It was never possible and never will be,' Nakata writes.
That doesn’t stop the Australian narrative that assumes everyone speaks English and aspires to a successful consumer life: ownership, wealth, prestige.
So I was ten years old and technically a white Australian girl, but when I stood in our neighbours suburban home for the first time, its opulent space disoriented me. How did all those white tiles stay so clean and shiny? I tried to remember to flush the toilet, even if I’d only peed because one doesn’t need to save the water here and its filthy not to. Most of all I tried to bite my tongue, not comment on all the wealth around me, not compare it to the homes of friends in Kathmandu. Be okay with it, don’t make anyone feel uncomfortable. Heat rolled through my body; I turned pink with the effort of being white.
As a teenager I had migraines. Then Chronic Fatigue Syndrome. I used to leave my house at dusk and catch the train into the city. I’d get off as the suited crowd pressed forward. I liked to walk the city as it emptied. I don’t know why. In hindsight, I think I was treading the grey sadness I carried inside of me into the pavement. Three stone kangaroos stood frozen by a painted stream in the Perth Court gardens. This city is Nyoongar country paved over with the structures of colonial capitalism. It is a site of unacknowledged mourning. A Chinese man used to bring his violin, stand in the centre of the Hay Street mall, and play to its emptiness.
I was chatting with a German friend recently. She had come to Australia as an adult. Her first job was in Melbourne, and she was hardpressed at her workplace there to find a native English speaker. Then she moved to Perth and took a job in a university school made up entirely of upper-middle-class white women, all born and raised in Perth. She said she could never quite figure it out; there seemed to be a disconnect between her and them, as though somehow, without knowing exactly what, she was always doing something wrong. As though she were tuned into a different frequency to everyone else. It was her first experience of othering. Its subtlety was confusing, like walking through a cobweb. You can’t see it, but you’re left feeling sticky.
I experienced it as a child, telling stories about Kathmandu, but tripping over myself trying to explain references lost on my Perth audience: Why my playground was a building site and an old Rana palace; how the child I played with had been sold into slavery; what a Rana palace was anyway. Listeners grew bored, couldn’t relate, or disapproved of what I had to say. My words failed to connect with the listener; my world was not understood. I found that I was inwardly repeating, ‘I am not making this up, I am not exaggerating,’ which is really just a different way of saying, ‘I am not lying.’ Over the years I realised what I really meant was, ‘I am not a lie. I am real. I am here.’
I think it comes down to an assumption of sameness, and then a lack of genuine interest in engaging with difference. We approach difference like a threat to peace and unity. Something to silence, to minimise, rather than approaching it with curiosity. Rather than assuming someone’s divergent viewpoint might be helpful, interesting, add colour or depth to the world we know. That it might even be better. Or perhaps we’re simply too afraid of causing offence, or revealing what we don’t know when faced with the unknown.
In denying difference, in failing to draw out the stories, how many other Australians are quietly repeating to themselves. ‘I am not a lie. I am real. I am here.’?
In my mind, my older brother still exemplifies the Australian dream. He and his wife chose their house in the suburbs—with its eighties style, brown brick exterior, new kitchen and landscaped backyard—for the excellent school within walking distance. But even this suburban paradise isn’t as monoculture as the cliché would suggest. My brother grew up in Nepal just like me. My sister-in-law is a Romanian refugee. Not to mention the fact that my brother is blind and has spent several years being a stay-at-home-dad.
Australians are diverse for all sorts of reasons: ethnicity, lived experience, sexuality, gender, disability... Which is why we all stand to gain from a culture that welcomes and explores difference. A culture that draws out the complex stories of our varied lives; that practices sitting with discomfort, listening and asking questions; that seeks to understand perspectives different from our own.
The 'white' Australia of our cultural narrative no longer exists. In fact, it never did. It's time for the rest of the story.