Close to the Surface.
Sometimes we don’t realise how much the experience of ‘being different’ has impacted upon our lives, at other times we are acutely aware.
Estelle Cutting is one person who has been made acutely aware of her ‘being different’ all too often. Australian born, Estelle has experienced racism in it’s many forms; from being singled out as the ‘special one’ at school, being asked if she is adopted from a very young age, being spat on in the street, racially abused while standing at a bus stop, called a nigg*r on a number of occasions, and told to go back to where she came from on nights out with the girls. She’s seen and heard it all.
Although Estelle has experienced more racism than this paragraph affords, or I would like to dwell upon, she remains ever optimistic of equal opportunity and acceptance for all.
MEET THE EVER OPTIMISTIC ESTELLE CUTTING
THE PIN. Can you describe your Australian childhood?
ESTELLE CUTTING. I grew up on a stunning farm in regional Victoria and most of my memories are of the outdoors. As kids, my brother, sister and I would have mud fights in the dam, play under the sprinklers in summer, go-cart down the long driveway and were kept entertained with many pet animals. Growing-up, the house was always very busy, my mum was a full-time foster-carer for children with disabilities and dad was a project manager for ‘Talkback Classroom’.
Do you remember when you became aware of race?
E. It was pretty early on. I remember I was on the playground and a kid called Bradley said to me, “Your mum is a dirty black woman”. It was probably the first time it hit me that my family and I were quite ‘different’.
I can also distinctly remember being singled out at a school event by a random woman whom I had never met before. After our teacher had left us sitting on the oval, a woman walked over, put a hand on my left shoulder, looked me straight in the eyes and said, ‘you’re special’. It was a very odd thing to have happened and one that I have chosen to interpret as positive but nonetheless I was still singled out from among my peers.
Do you think your siblings experienced a similar level of racism to you?
E. I think my brother did however, I don’t believe my sister has experienced as much racism.
I felt that I kind of had a spotlight hovering over me during my teenage years and early twenties. Now as an adult I can appreciate the complex nature of relationships between peers during that period of life. Although my skin colour and physical stature (tall and athletic) may have stood out and made me a target for bullying, on reflection I think a lot of that ‘bullying’ was due to others hidden insecurities and/or ignorance. I can appreciate that ‘bullying’ is a common experience during school years and remember others also being singled out for being ‘different’.
Did your parents ever give you advice or encouragement about being biracial and bicultural?
E. Not really, my parents are wonderful, dedicated and loving however, I can’t remember the topic ever coming-up in conversation. I think all good parents just see their kids as kids and don’t choose to see all the differences others might choose to.
With the benefit of hindsight, I think it would have been terrific to get some guidance from either my parents or school on how to handle racism. Perhaps, I need to take a little ownership as well because I never opened up about the issues I experienced.
Do you think the media properly represents you?
E. Not quite yet but I have certainly noticed a positive change over the past couple of years. I believe that corporations/media is now better trying to accurately represent the modern day Australia. For example, businesses are now aware of the need to represent our rapidly changing society and that modern day consumers/public desire to see people of different race, body shapes, sexuality and varying disabilities represented.
Do you have role models who helped establish your identity?
E. Funnily enough, my sister played a major role. Growing up in a small country town she was and still is my best friend. She has often had a way of dealing with challenges through humour.
Do you think it’s possible to belong to more than one culture?
E. Yes, I do and I think our mum is a good example of that. I think there will always be cultural differences that are difficult to grasp or accept, but Mum is well respected by people in our community and belongs to both Australia and Nigeria.
Are you often asked where you’re from?
E. Yes, I’m asked often, very often, very often, very…
How do you respond?
E. As I got into my teenage years the questions began to irritate me but I would generally answer the question by including my cultural background to appease the ‘confusion’.
As an adult I often respond to that particular question with, “I’m from Yea, Victoria.” This is often met with a puzzled look or a response such as, “No, where are you really from?” Sometimes I’ll turn the question around and I’ll ask people about their background. Generally people are surprised when I turn the question back around on them but it’s really no different even if they are ‘Aussie-looking’ they have probably got an interesting background also.
I prefer if people ask me what my heritage, background or ancestry is.
Are you comfortable with your biracial identity as an adult?
E. Yes, I am comfortable with who I am and my identity. I wouldn’t want to be anyone other than myself. When I was a younger people made me doubt myself but I wouldn’t change it for the world now.
THE PIN. If you could give your younger self one piece of advice about growing up in the skin you’re in, what would it be?
ESTELLE CUTTING. Be happy, kind, strong and confident.
- This interview has been edited and condensed.