COLIN PETERS: Figuring it out
Colin Peters is a second-generation Australian and writer figuring out what it means to be Australian.
Peters grew up in a time shadowed by the dismantling of the White Australia Policy, and when questions about cultural identity and allegiance were at a high.
Now as a husband and proud father-of-three he is navigating these questions from a new perspective.
THE PIN. Where did you grow up, and what's your family story?
COLIN PETERS. I was born and raised in Melbourne, and grew up in the Melbourne suburbs. My parents migrated from India in 1972 – a year before the dismantling of the White Australia Policy. By the time I was going to school, the legacy of the White Australia Policy was still yet to dissipate. I was very much in the heat of a particular time in Australian history. People hadn’t necessarily embraced immigration and people of colour, or the complexity of multiculturalism.
Was your family aware of Australia's racial history prior to moving - and the tense nature of what that could mean for a person of colour?
CP. My parents might have known what they were coming into to some degree, but adding to that complexity is their cultural identity which is Anglo-Indian. I think they identified more strongly with the Commonwealth than they did with being Indian.
I think they thought they were going somewhere where they’d feel a sense of kinship and belonging – with Australia being a Commonwealth country. To then raise kids in Australia who experienced racial tension and an incongruity with ‘Australian’ culture was something they struggled to comprehend. Their advice to us was just fit in. Do everything you can to fit in, and if anybody asks – you’re Australian.
I think there was probably a tension in their minds of ‘Haven’t we done everything we need to do?’
I still live with that complexity and tension.
That idea and reality your parents tried to instill in you of being Australian, was that something that was adopted into your family household?
CP. Anglo-Indian culture is hard to define because I didn’t grow up any other way - that’s what I understood as normal. To objectively define what that is, is difficult.
In our own home there was drive to assimilate. We had things around the house and on the walls that were remnants of my parents’ link to their family history, but it wasn’t prominent or immersive. I didn’t really grow up knowing where my parents grew up, the language, culture – or Indian Vedic texts. What I did grow up with were sort of romanticised, sweeping tales from the British Raj. It was an Anglo-Indian narrative – which internalises and centres British colonialism. It isn’t something we grew up discussing in our house – as kids, we weren’t taught or encouraged to challenge that narrative.
In an article you wrote about being told to go back to where you came from, you write about interactions and say ‘the amount of emotional labour that goes into something as simple as ordering chicken fillets is unnerving’. Can you explain what that means?
CP. It comes from a lifetime of observing patterns – patterns of behaviour and indicators you unconsciously clock when you move into a space that makes you tense. It could be a predominantly white space, and in this instance it was the deli at my local supermarket, and the staff behind the counter. You anticipate every possible permutation of an event, because you know you are the ‘other.’
That sits with you, and after a lifetime of lived experience of this harm, you unconsciously start doing work and anticipating how you are going to make everyone else feel comfortable when something relating to race is about to unfold. The classic example is ‘Where are you from?’ I bristle when I hear it, because I question the answer they want to hear – the one that is accurate, or the one based on their assumptions of what I look like.
...what I feel is tricky about that question is I can’t truly express how I feel about it. I feel debilitated in my ability to truthfully pull people up. Similarly, microaggressions in the workplace raise the same issue. How do you generally deal with those situations?
CP. It depends on the situation and what your instincts are telling you about the person asking. There are safe places and times to say it’s not okay - but they’re not that often. The last thing you want to do is to tell someone to back off with a line of questioning and they find your response offensive and become offended by you being offended. It becomes more important to make sure they’re comfortable with their question about race than my feeling about race. You get caught.
You write about race a lot, is writing for racists part of your goal?
CP. When I started writing I wasn’t sure who I was writing for. One of the things I struggled to articulate is how I experienced racism and why I think certain things are racist. I’ve been in stand up arguments with people I’ve known for ten years on my experience of racism and they have flat out refused to believe me.
To some extent, me writing about this is about me being able to put my thoughts into a coherent narrative for people like that. Through this, I’m also writing for people who have experienced racism and giving them the language I didn’t have to explain it. I’m providing tools for them to understand their experience and navigate their way through it.
How are you navigating through racism with your kids?
CP. My wife and I talk about this a lot. It’s interesting – my wife talks about feminist frameworks and perspectives – and her lived experience of misogyny – I talk about my lived experience of racism and we’ve found that many of the power structures are common. But I am a man and my wife is white, so we’re both learning how to talk about this with each other, and we’re doing that in front of our kids.
Our kids are growing up in a household where they’re going to have the language to express all of this. They are mixed race – and may not experience racism in the same way - but they will certainly be aware of it because they see the way people look at us when we’re in the shops or down the street. I was holding my daughter’s hand at the deli that day in the article I wrote, which you mentioned earlier. The reason I was compelled to write about it is because my daughter was standing next to me and she saw the look of utter incredulity on that lady’s face when I spoke – and then my daughter looked up at me. How do you make sense of that for a kid?
My wife and I are still learning ourselves how to make sense of this, but we’re also learning how to talk to our kids about it. It’s on ongoing project and it’s not something I’ve resolved, or we’ve resolved as a family. We’ve had conversations with friends who are white who talk about teaching their kids not to see race. That’s not right – you’ve just diminished someone's race and completely white washed them.
...the challenge with that, is when you teach someone to not see race, you’re probably coming from a platform of whiteness as well. Similarly, when people use the word diversity in the workplace, they’re coming from a platform of whiteness...
CP. Absolutely. It’s that frame of whiteness. Absolutely.
Do you think we’re far off from a point where people of colour stop feeling grateful to white people in Australia?
CP. We’re at a critical juncture in history right now; a critical pivot and there will be people who will find themselves on the wrong side of history. I don’t quite know when that point of history will be, but I feel like it’s coming. When you see articles and the lived experience of people of colour being articulated in a way I’ve not seen before, that makes me think we’re moving forward towards that time.
THE PIN. If you could give your younger self one piece of advice about being in the skin you’re in, what would it be?
COLIN PETERS. Trust your instincts. People tried to persuade me that I was wrong about my own experience of race. I’ve got to a point in my life where I can call it out, I can explain why, and I can provide evidence. The studies have been done, the data is out. More and more people are talking about this.
If I were to talk to my younger self I’d say, ‘You’re right, and don’t let anyone tell you that you’re wrong about that feeling. Don’t let them gaslight you. That feeling – your experience of racism – is real and that stuff is happening.’