What is the hybrid to do?
I have passed as a white man for most of my life. I have a name – Robert Wood – that is invisible in the mainstream society of suburban Australia. I have a body that if a little tanned, a little hook nosed, a little ‘Mediterranean’, is unthreatening. I present in dress, language and habit as white. But, I am also a person of colour. My mother is Malayalee from Kerala in South India. Although there are degrees of complexity in the vales and folds of family history, through her I participate in a network of colouredness. Colouredness means both the look of bodies and the political meaning of those bodies, how we are represented. In other words my mother’s skin is literally not ‘white’ (or for that matter ‘pink’, ‘yellow’ or ‘black’) and we also have a shared history of colonial oppression that is racially based, which involves the British, the Portugese and the Dutch.
When I was young, my mother’s parents, in sari and mundut, migrated to Australia. They had come to grow old where their children had come to raise children. My grandparents were from adjoining fishing villages close to what is now Thiruvananthapuram. They grew up in an era before Indian independence and had markedly divergent political attitudes towards colonialism. My grandfather, Winifred, dark with white hair, was an Anglophile. When I went back to his village in 2012, people said I looked just like him, ‘except he was an African’. These old people – my distant relations and my grandfather’s friends – laughed about who my grandfather was: how he would wear white linen suits, how he listened to classical music, how he drank gin and tonics. But all this 'coming from one so black'. He was attracted in part to my grandmother, Gertrude, because her skin was so fair. She meanwhile was an Indian nationalist, a passionate supporter of unions, a radical opposed to the British occupation. I don’t know enough to understand what bound them together but there must have been something to allow those paradoxes of body, of ideology, to be united.
Their children – my mother and my aunts – came to Australia when the White Australia Policy ended in 1974. Some of them were early international students at universities; others began work straight away. Their story over the last forty years resonates with the known narrative of migration – hard work, education, opportunity – and they have, in their own definition, been successful. But their story also has its particular idiosyncrasies and challenges. For example, before Australia, my Uncle Eddie had moved to Singapore and was Lee Kwan Yu’s bodyguard for a number of years. A committed socialist, his contribution to a newly independent nation was to keep the leader safe. He read what Lee Kwan Yu read; he ate what Lee Kwan Yu ate; he slept on a cot at the foot of Lee Kwan Yu’s bedroom door. When he came to Australia, the only job he could get was at Midland Brickworks. The racism from other workers there was a long way from the multicultural, red, left utopia he thought he was helping to build in South East Asia. These are the personal takes on a story, increasingly told, about what it is to migrate to Australia.
I knew I was not quite white from very early on. My mother’s family was a chocolate box of brownness from midnight to caramel to café au lait,. There were gingers and blondes and brunettes in my father’s family, but mum’s made me realise that diversity is skin deep. It was home to me. It still is. In other societies and times I would not be allowed to exist; the brown would be far away from the white. When my family went to South Africa in 2001 we often found we were the only mixed race, the only ‘coloured’, family in various restaurants. There was a palpable sense of unease at our presence.
But it did not take a trip to South Africa to realise I was not white and that being non-white was different. We knew this when our grandparents dropped us at school, when we opened our lunchboxes, when we went to friend’s family homes that did not smell of turmeric, coconut oil, sandalwood. I had white friends but that we were not people like them. We learned that this was a source of strength for the most part. Of course, there were structural forms of racism that one experienced personally, but one’s identity was also formed by family recognition, solidarity and commumity.
In thinking through identity though, in thinking through what I am, I am first led towards clichés. The phrase that seems to be deployed most often is ‘walking in two worlds’. In Australia this is used particularly often for Indigenous people, but one can discern it in post-colonial conversations as well. I have a mata mata brother-in-law who is half Ngarluma (Aboriginal) and half white (Irish, French, English). Although people no longer use this phrase, he, like me on a different axis, is a ‘half-caste’. We could be forgiven for thinking that ‘we walk in two worlds’. In a more intellectual iteration, this might be ‘hybrid’. But hybrid unifies the duality of the two worlds phrase, it seeks to bring together the ‘double consciousness’ that half-halfs seem to have and so it is distinct. We are used creating a new mode of interaction that is neither here nor there, building bridges between people in our very bodies. It is about two autonomous histories coming together in one body, about my parents as individuals who come from separate, independent places, to make me who I am today. There has always been a little bit of curry in Scotland, always a little bit of whiskey in Kerala. Water connects us all.
Colouredness used to be a secret to keep hidden because there were material advantages to presenting as white. Passing, of course, has a long and complicated global history including for African American communities, for Indigenous Stolen Generations, for Anglo-Indian people like myself. That has most certainly changed due in part to the end of White Australia, Civil Rights, Land Rights, ‘black is beautiful’, United Colours of Bennetton as well as the every increasing opportunities afforded to Othered people. In the Australian conversation, the national myth we have of being white is being eroded, even as there is still work to do in television, in corporate boardrooms, in advertising, in cricket, in politics and in poetry. It is not only about placing people of colour in the conversation but about changing the frame of representation to begin with. We don’t need to assimilate to it. We need to make the place better all together.
In other conditions, conditions of my own making, I see myself as a white man with privilege that cannot be undone. Speaking from the inside, what many white men fail to see, what remains invisible, are their forms of group solidarity, their shared experiences of the body, their political capital as a collective that often means they exploit power unconsciously . This means taking responsibility, being an ally even to the Indian half that lives inside. And, I can do that reflecting on my father’s position and heritage. I can drink whiskey and think of the fatherland, I can read Robbie Burns and think of the fatherland, I can get angry at the fatherland as an interested and invested party. And all without sacrificing who I am as a person of colour.
For years, I have been reluctant to identify myself as a person of colour. This is because I want to be recognised on my own terms, as an individual rather than as a set of histories or a position in the world. I have, in other words, wanted to be invisible where I can speak of my universality without the consideration of history. But the body returns, heritage returns, place matters. There is an opportunity to think through what it means to be both, to find a way forward, not only as a poetics and a politics but as a person in the world.