Amongst the chaos of a happy home I settled in for a frank conversation with Anastasia Kanjere about race, identity and culture. As a white mother to a mixed race child, Kanjere is grappling with issues faced by her growing daughter that her husband George, of Zimbabwean and Anglo-Australian heritage, faces as an adult. It’s an intense conversation full of laughter and at times, sadness...
MEET ANASTASIA KANJERE
THE PIN. Can you describe your childhood?
ANASTASIA. I grew up in Warrandyte, which is a very bushy outer suburb of Melbourne. It was a very white suburb, sort of middle class but not upper middle class, or it wasn’t then, during my childhood. I had two parents who were together and a little brother.
Was race and culture something you discussed with your family?
A. Very occasionally. It’s always that funny thing where race only comes up in relation to people of colour. We had two friends of the family who were Zambian. I remember my parents talking about how to navigate race in relation to those friends.
Do you recall when you became aware of it outside of the family home?
A. That was really, really late in life. I did capoeira starting from 12 years old. It has a very strong framework and philosophy about confronting racism, not perhaps explicitly as in the word racism, but talking about histories of slavery and black consciousness or black empowerment. That was probably when I started to realise.
How did you meet your husband, George?
A. George was doing capoeira as well. People at the capoeira school were generally in their late twenties, early thirties. We were quite a lot younger so we naturally became friends through that.
Were there any surprise reactions from either side of your family when you started a relationship together?
A. Not from George’s side, I think George’s side were pretty open to the fact that George was probably likely to end up with a white girlfriend or partner.
The [older generations] were the best. I only had two living grandparents by the time George and I got together. They were both so awesome, better than the generation of my parents.
Expanding on that question, friends and strangers?
A. I had to sort of reel them into line a bit. I have lost friends over it; not that people have been like “oh, you have a black partner, I don’t want to be friends with you anymore’but in that I have been like, “you’re being a douchebag, I don’t want to be friends with you anymore”.
In Melbourne I’ve never really felt at all worried about walking down the street or anything like that. Through reading stuff on the internet, I’ve realised this is a privilege in an interracial relationship. When we travelled around Australia, that was heavy. I was really unprepared for how heavy that was. George and I drove all the way around Australia for about seven months. By the end of that trip I had become extremely wary of white people. I did not expect it to be so scary and full on.
What have you learnt from your relationship?
A. It’s extremely difficult to understand racism until you see what it looks like in a person, I was so naïve about it, the idea that it wouldn’t feel safe to walk into a party full of white people. I don’t think it crossed my mind, the relentlessness. Learning, for example, how exhausting and dispiriting being asked where you are from is. I don’t know how white people who aren’t in interracial relationships come to those realisations. It’s so hard to understand until you experience it. It’s just all the time, you know? I still don’t think I realise how all the time it is but I have a bit of an insight into it.
You’ve travelled to Zimbabwe, where George’s father lives, were there cultural differences that stood out in contrast to Australian culture?
A. Yeah, definitely. Zimbabweans seem sort of more socially awkward or something. I just found people in general really nice but… different to what I’m used to. I guess maybe there is just a certain cultural way of being smooth in Australia that wasn’t there. And social stuff is more formal, people drink a lot less and there is more formality around food, like you eat with your hands so everyone has to wash their hands before a meal and that’s kind of a ritual that makes things feel more serious. It’s hard to describe the difference.
This isn’t really a cultural thing I would say but race issues are so much more powerful there than here. People were very weirded out by an interracial relationship. I do remember starting to get exhausted by being watched all the time.
What have you learnt from becoming a mother, specifically to a biracial and bicultural child?
A. I’ve learnt yet again how pervasive racism is. I won’t always necessarily know what my child is going through. Gendered experience is so racialized in how it manifests. My experience of womanhood will not always be adequate for Otti.
The other thing I’ve learnt is just how lovely it is to meet other parents who are also in interracial relationships. The area we live in is really good for that and the childcare centre where Otti goes, honestly I’d say like a third or half of them are mixed race. It doesn’t feel like this kind of sea of whiteness where Otti is the only person who is different. That’s really welcome.
Is it important to you that Otti embraces her cultural heritage?
A. Absolutely, that’s one reason I changed my name to George’s surname. I really wanted Otti to have a Zimbabwean surname because I feel like in so many ways we’re not going to give her strong connections to that heritage because we live in Australia. I wanted her to at least have that surname and her middle name is Zimbabwean as well. That’s very important to me, that she have that. People shouldn’t ask where are you from but they do, so I want her to at least feel like she has some connection to the answer to that question which really is a question of ‘why are you not white?’.
In your THINK piece, you refer to something you call ‘The Conversation’. Can you tell us a bit about this?
A. This is a thing I started to experience when Otti was around six weeks old, this thing where people would ask me these questions were they would always trail off.,”is her dad…, ‘“is she…”they do this, then they pause and look at me and I’m supposed to fill in the blank and the blank is, “is she not white, is her dad not white?”, and you know, ‘“can you explain a little about that please”. The second part of the conversation is where people go “oh she’s so gorgeous, such a gorgeous combination” as if Otti is a milkshake or something, then “oh her skin is so lovely.” They’ll do this sort of performance and I interpret that as being a performance of them approving of her being mixed race. Which I don’t feel very welcoming of. That happens a lot. A lot.
Is there a particular piece of advice or encouragement you want to give to Otti as she gets older?
A. Yeah. This actually is going to make me cry. I think George will do this more than me, but I guess the reason why it makes me feel upset is because I do sometimes feel the weight of what she is up against and feel grief about that. Of course it’s getting a lot better and stuff, but I still do feel the weight of what she is up against sometimes.
From being with George and talking to him about it, the thing I think that has helped him most in navigating racism has been his engagement with anti-racist politics. You can feel like it’s just you and that feels very alienating and much more humiliating but when you understand that there are other people who are like you and they experience the same things, I think that really helps. It’s not for me to force this down her throat or anything, but I will be really glad if she engages with those politics to make sense of her experience, to make sense of this “where are you from” question. That’s what I really hope that she does.
THE PIN. If you could give your younger self one piece of advice about being in the skin you’re in, what would be it?
ANASTASIA KANJERE. To try to understand how many doors are open for me, how many things are made easier for me. It’s a very difficult thing to entirely comprehend but I do wish that I had tried more and earlier to realise that.
- This interview has been edited and condensed