All lives matter. Of course they do. But that’s not what Black Lives Matter is about.
One of the biggest problems with racism is that it has infected humanity through so many structures, policies, institutions, debates, ideologies and cultural norms. There are layers too. Within a community of people of colour, the colour debate continues, from those who are darker skinned to the privilege of being light skinned, and the anger and resentment that this causes in so many.
Privilege is not something you are or aren’t. That is the wrong way to think of it. Privilege simply is. And it is probably more helpful to ask yourself what privilege you have.
As an Australian I have western privilege, I do not know the suffering of being in a war-torn nation, starving for months on end, nor do I know what it’s like to be hired help because of the colour of my skin.
I was born in Sydney in 1982. A bustling world city of cultural diversity that I didn’t fully understand until life started to progress for me.
I was born to a strong Mauritian woman and a Pakeha Kiwi bloke. My understanding of my own racial diversity began early. My sister was a natural blonde with fair skin and people would often express bewilderment that I was darker than her, when they met us. If my mum announced that my sister was her daughter, the hairdresser would ask about her father’s hair, almost to justify how this golden creature could have sprung from my mother’s womb.
But my mum’s family were the ones who taught me to revere white skin, marvelling over my sister’s blonde hair and doting over her. This was a strange sight. My uncles both had darker skin. To me one looked Philippino and the other Aboriginal. They each had white wives. Our closest aunty was a stunning woman. Immaculately dressed, beautifully olive skin, thick luscious black hair and frequently accompanied by the family friend, an elderly white gentleman with a quick wit and refined taste in the arts. My Godmother resembled a more modest version of our closest aunt and my other aunt was a very dark woman. She looked almost Indian, married to an aloof Canadian man with very fair skin. It became apparent that they were the poor cousins, yet by far the warmest and kindest. I looked forward to family Christmas gatherings for two things. Christmas turkey and seeing my cousins.
At the head of it all was Nanna. Nanna was a strong woman. Both physically and mentally. She was incredible. A strange woman, but a happy one. My mum’s past is lost to me. There was never a grandfather in my life. My mum’s dad was so rarely spoken of that he may as well never have existed. My dad’s parents were more familiar to me but separated by the ditch which divides Australia and New Zealand. Mum was a private woman. Secrets. So many secrets. If I asked questions, she would give me one word answers or deflect immediately. I got used to answers like ‘I can’t remember’ or ‘why do you want to know?’
I didn’t even have a firm concept of Mauritius until I was much older. If I asked about it, I was told it was a tiny, little island, almost a dot on the map. I was told that people spoke a kind of French there.
According to my mum I would often repeat French Crèole words I overheard as a child when my mum spoke to nanna on the phone. But my mum refused to teach it to me. Strangely enough, my aunts and uncles all spoke English to each other. My mum was convinced that if she spoke French to me, that I would struggle to learn English properly. I now know that meant something very different. What she was thinking was that she wanted me to pass as Australian and nothing else.
My New Zealand grandmother was named ‘blonde nanna’ by mum. This was the second time I heard the obsession with golden locks. She was a ‘lovely woman’, my mum would marvel. But my New Zealand grandfather was ridiculed for his ‘wog nose’ by my mum. My idealised sister also copped criticism for her appearance. My mum would often comment that my sister shouldn’t look angry at it made her eyes look ‘Chinese’. This subtle language which positioned blonde as beautiful and anything else as ugly. And so much emphasis on the physical.
“Stay out of the sun Andrew” my mother would shout, “You’ll become black like a Zulu!”
It’s easy to call my mum racist. It’s harder to understand that she was also a victim of racism
My dad once explained to me that back in Mauritius, mum would be classed as half-cast. I remember mum telling me a story that she and her sisters were once told they couldn’t play somewhere because they were not white enough. My mum also stressed my privilege to me at a very young age. When I would say I was bored she would scoff at me.
“How can someone with a bicycle, Sega Mega Drive and basketball be bored?” She said.
She had a point. She told me strange stories how back in Mauritius she would put a rock in a tin and shake it to make music. She described a particular poverty in Mauritius that I had never known growing up in Sydney. So the next part confused me.
My mum had a maid. In Australia maids and butlers are hired by affluent people, so you can imagine my surprise when I learned of it. Mauritian life was not a life of tropical beaches and drinking coconut from a straw either. That’s what western privilege affords you at a Flight Centre counter. My mum told me about how the Indian maid would come in and say “You must be the one with the big #$%¥” referring to her lady bits. My mum said that if the maid had said that in front of her father, her father would have been beaten the hell out of the maid. I thought nothing of it.
I tell you that story so you understand the complexity of racial tension. Mum was both outcasted because she was not as white as my sister and yet she had hired help from someone who was much darker. The world would have been a confusing place for her, and she grew up learning implicitly that darker skin made you the lowest in society, and lighter skin elevated you in society.
Growing up in Sydney, my experience of racism was less direct and more an observation of how certain people were preferentially treated. This is a challenging thing to articulate because if you try, you are soon accused of playing the victim or being too envious of others. I learned to bury these feelings deep down because they were inconvenient. I didn’t want to be perceived as being resentful of my own sister or blaming the world for my problems. There was also another emerging challenge. I was gay.
When I came out, my shame on my family was complete. I had already let my parents down in so many other ways. Ways that my sister had not. My mum often accused me of being envious of my sister. And I was. I was so envious it would make me sick to the stomach. I wanted to be whiter, I wanted to have her focus when I studied, and I wanted to be normal.
My sister is phenomenal. I have nothing but respect for her. She has achieved everything in her life through hard work and good decisions. But that is not how a teenage boy or young man thinks.
As I socialised into student activist circles, the writing on the wall became clearer. As I engaged in heated debates about human rights with both parents, I uncovered more clues to where I came from.
My dad told me that when my grandmother (my mum’s mum) came to this country, she encouraged her children to marry white people. Then it dawned on me. Every single one of my aunts and uncles had done that. Even the ones with failed marriages started with white spouses, despite being in as multicultural a city as Sydney.
I started to pick up on things that were said too. My dad would ask for more of my nanna’s delicious Mauritian pie and my mum would scold him, telling him not to call it Mauritian pie, that it was just pie. She would indicate how well Australians lived compared to other cultures, as though we should aspire to live in the same way.
“See the way the Australians eat?” She would say, “they don’t shove their food in their mouths like the Chinese.”
If you’ve read my other blogs you’ll know I love both parents but in particular I have a deep respect for my father. Dad and I rarely got along but we talked for hours about matters of the world.
He used to express how much the racism he observed distressed him. He commented how he would have to tolerate my aunty bitching about people of colour around her white friends. He also expressed how ridiculous she should’ve known she looked, doing so as a person of colour herself.
My dad told me that he was always attracted to darker women, particularly ‘island beauties’ as he described mum. But straight white men can’t escape who they are. He also told me that when he met my mum, he thought ‘I’d like to teach her a thing or two about the world.’ My stomach turned, but our parents aren’t loved by us because they are perfect at every turn. Often people in privileged positions are ignorant to their own position. If my dad was revered all his life (and he didn’t have an easy life) for being an attractive pakeha bloke, why would he know to treat himself any differently?
My dad had a nervous breakdown about 7-8 years ago. The way in which my mum and sister struggled to deal with it left a lasting impact on me. My mum was a strong, dutiful wife but like everything in her life this had to be kept a secret. This was the first time I saw my mum cry. She barely uttered the words that she ‘had it hard too in life’ before her heart closed back up, and she forged the necessary strength for her family. My mum knew I suffered depression. She wanted to protect me. She also knew that dad and I got into fights far too easily. She wanted to avoid that.
But this was the one time I was able to be the hero for my family. You see, vulnerability is a beautiful thing. My dad broke apart when he saw me, telling me how much he loved me and how sorry he was for ever making me feel weak or unmanly. I played table tennis with dad and gently socialised him back into normal life. Mental illness understands other mental illness. And in Mauritius, it simply didn’t get talked about.
Last year my grandmother passed away. I fell apart completely, sobbing uncontrollably. About 5 years ago, my grandmother started showing signs of dementia. This is where things got really hard for me. I wanted to help but my mum kept me away. This was now her mother and I didn’t have the same place to be involved as when it was my dad.
My sister repeatedly talked about how strange Nanna was acting and my mum denied that there was even a problem.
By the time my grandmother had become completely unwell, she was in a nursing home but mum avoided telling me where or taking me to see her. My mum said that she didn’t want me to get upset if nanna didn’t know me or acted aggressive.
So when my nanna slipped away from my life I was consumed by grief. I didn’t try hard enough to see her. I didn’t appreciate what she meant to me and I loved her so very much. I also had to accept that my Mauritian heritage had now all but slipped away from my awareness. My mum avoids talking about her past and I don’t have a strong enough relationship with my uncles and aunties.
A few weeks ago, a black man was murdered by a white police officer in USA. Then a debate for black lives matter evolves. Am I a person of colour, I ask myself? The people around me roll their eyes when I say it. Another white guy, taking the platform. So I take the position of ally. But then something deeply unsettles me. I’m pretending I’m white. I’m denying who I am. So who the fuck am I in all of this? I don’t even know, but the rage I feel is uncontrollable. The world has got to change.
All lives matter, sure. But just try to understand for a second that all lives can’t matter until you start to allow people of colour to have their voice. Black lives matter. Because if they don’t, you’re denying a very real imbalance in this world!
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#pheonixrising #qpoc #blacklivesmatter #poc #biracial #endracism #mauritius #culturalheritage