"I thought I was one of you": Unpacking my brownness in white spaces

By Nela Abey

When I was eight years old, a boy in my class at school told me that the colour of my skin looked like dog shit.  A friend of mine, Kayla, clapped right back and told him his skin was the colour of seagull shit. It was the single greatest mic drop of my eight-year-old life. He then punched her in the face.

When I was 11, a girl at my after school care centre screamed across the room, “You bombed America”. I did not understand the gravity of such a sentiment at the time. I knew it was bad, but I did not perceive the hate behind it. Why would I?

I was a little brown girl from Sri Lanka who had grown up in Melbourne, surrounded by white peers, going to Little Athletics and piano lessons on the weekends and eating Vegemite and Tim Tams. You all came to my birthday parties. I bought you all back souvenirs when I went to Sri Lanka on holiday. I thought I was one of you.

But those incidents are just two of countless many that marred my childhood and adulthood. Some have been overt acts of racial vilification; others arose as institutionalised bias and discrimination. Most common, though, are the micro-aggressions that happen on a daily basis.  Like the checkout lady at Coles who would greet every customer she served – except me. She said hello to every customer before and after me, but she never said a word to me. Every. Single. Time.

These little things add up, time after time. They can grate away at you. Now imagine a lifetime of that.

As the years passed, I became acutely aware of the impact my skin had on others, the hatred it caused, and in turn, the hatred it made me feel for myself. Throughout my formative years I tried anything I could think of to lighten my skin, to appear more ‘assimilated’ in the way I dressed, the way I spoke.

Every aspect of my public life was curated so I could ‘fit in’ better, to dull the crushing blow of being overlooked, dismissed, hated, and feared for the colour of my skin.

What I didn’t understand at the time was my internalisation of these aggressions had become so great, that my entire existence was consumed by it.

When I was 22, fresh out of uni, I went to walk into a cafe with my best friend, Matt — a blue-eyed, blond haired, wonderful guy — and instantly felt uneasy. I hung back so he could enter first, as if the café customers needed to see him first to realise my presence there was valid.

It was then I realised there was a problem.

That day in the café, I realised I was uneasy in my own skin – to the point that it influenced the simple act of opening the door and walking in first. What I grew to understand was that I had grown dependant on needing Matt to validate me: A point had come where his presence, that of a middle-class successful white man, gave me a sense of belonging and acceptance from the wider community. My ‘otherness’ was somehow instantly validated through his acceptance and association with me; like I had already been vetted and endorsed to the masses.

As time went on, I felt like I needed Matt there when we went out; I felt my confidence slipping without him; and often, I again would find myself stepping back when walking into somewhere unfamiliar or new. I found myself letting him do the talking when we were out.

Somewhere along the way, I lost a piece of myself.

Fast forward to 25. I was living in New York and working at a major international NGO.  For the first time, I felt like I was surrounded by like-minded people, both personally and professionally; empowering, supportive women, in a city where for the first time my skin was appreciated and welcomed. There is no denying that America has its race problems, and a big and diverse city like New York is not representative of the rest of the country, but to me, in the New York bubble I felt free. Somewhere in between Melbourne and New York I learned self-acceptance and self-love.

Unpacking my brownness in white spaces and all that it entails, for me, has been a long and confronting journey. It may have taken me longer than my peers to reclaim my brown personhood and ownership of space, but I wholly believe in the importance of carving out one’s individual journey in reaching it. I was so tired of hating myself and hating parts of me I couldn’t change- and I finally reached a place where I celebrated and embraced my dark skin, my identity and voice.

I enjoyed that feeling for a while, but more and more my newfound acceptance has come under threat.

In the days after the 2016 Presidential Election, my then-partner’s mother texted him and told us to be careful when together in public, because even though he was a biracial man, he looked white, and he was with me. She was worried we would run into trouble for appearing like an interracial black and white couple.  She was genuinely concerned – and she had every right to be.

In the fresh waves of racism that followed the election, I’ve often struggled to explain to my non-POC friends just what myself and others like me are feeling at times like this: Times of social, political and moral unrest. It is messy, heartbreaking, devastating, infuriating, and frustrating at once. I increasingly find myself word vomiting my frustrations to my friends. And what I can tell you is:

It. Is. So. Exhausting.

It’s exhausting to exist concerned for your own safety, not only as a woman, but a woman of colour. To constantly have to legitimise your existence to other people; to not want validation but to need it; to survive, to get employed, to earn, to be accepted. It is exhausting having to monitor how you speak, how you act, how you dress, how educated you are, how educated you seem. Then there is the constant worry about the safety of family and friends, worrying about their lives.  Every single day.

I grew up believing that education or status or citizenship buys you safety, and security, but it really doesn’t.

At the end of the day, to some members of society you are just a shade of skin. That is all it takes for someone to decide how much your life is worth and if they will take it from you.  

Only, you’re not just a shade of skin to me. And if you matter to me, then you matter to your friends, allies and countless other people around the country and the world. I have learnt that even in times of despair, I am loved and supported by genuine people who care enough to engage, to be vocal, to take to the streets, to march, rally and have dialogues.

This is not a burden people of colour can bear alone. And there have been many times when it has felt like we have, when that resounding silence has meant violence for us. But, I have also been lucky enough to witness allies of all colour and creed, step up to weather the storm.

It will be a long one. And so, in the face of overwhelming adversity, I remain hopeful.

Nela Abey is a Melbourne-raised human rights & women’s rights advocate with a background in criminology.