GEORGE KANJERE: A Square Peg
I first met George a number of years ago at a friend's birthday party, after meeting his partner Anastasia. I was immediately drawn into an intense conversation with the two ranging from African hair styling, politics and family. Since then, our conversations haven't changed; they're always intense, in-depth and open.
George is a complex person but not in a complicated way. He is very aware of his identity as an African-Australian male, but also as a black man in a society where historically being black has never been considered a boon. Sitting with George and Anastasia in their family home to further these topics for The Pin was an exercise in trust and delivered some surprising, heartfelt moments.
THE PIN. Can you describe your childhood?
GEORGE KANJERE. I was born in Zimbabwe, my dad is black Zimbabwean and my mum is white Australian. I have a brother who is three and a half years younger than I am, he was also born there. We spent various times back in Zimbabwe and in Australia. We were there till I was five years old then we came here and I did most of primary school here and most of high school there and sort of the inverse for my brother because of the age difference.
Was race and culture a topic that your parents discussed with you?
G. Not really, I knew that I had parents of two different races but it didn’t feel like something to be avoided, it was just knowledge. Race was never talked about, which in retrospect was a problem really. At the time a lot of my mum and dad’s friends were also mixed race couples and so it felt like, at least in our circles, that it was totally normal. I remember this one time when I was maybe seven or eight, we were at home and I was singing eeny meeny miney moe, catch a n*gger by the toe, not knowing what it meant and mum was like’ George, never say that! N*gger is a bad word’. I didn’t actually think ‘I’m a black person or a brown person talking about n*ggers and that’s weird’. It was just mum had some words she never wanted me to say and that was one of those words.
Do you recall when you became aware of race and culture?
G. It was a gradual growing awareness. During primary school in Australia I went to a mainly white school. I had a few experiences that were overtly racist. I remember this one time there was a student telling a teacher jokes about starving Somalis and they were both laughing. It was crazy, I knew that was not right but I was sort of disassociated from it. I didn’t factor myself into that I just knew that it wasn’t right. Then we went to Zimbabwe and that was where race first really became apparent to me. In Zimbabwe people that are mixed race, like my brother and I, are called 'coloured'. I originally identified as coloured and if I’m in Zimbabwe I still identify as a coloured person. It sounds bad but it doesn’t have the same connotations as here, it is not necessarily a derogatory term. Then we came back here and I still identified as coloured for a long time and it took me a while to admit, or come to terms with the racial dynamic here. In Australia I am black. There are obviously different experiences for people of different colours but by and large I am black and someone with two African parents is also black.
We’ve spoken with people who’ve said that their parents provided them with encouragement or gave them advice when growing up. Was that something that happened?
G. No, that never happened. I cannot remember my mum or dad ever saying anything regarding race to us. That just didn’t happen. The first time that I’ve really spoken to my dad about race was just three months ago. It’s a difficult subject to talk about.
Do you think your perception of your identity and the identity that others have given you, and do you think your brother feels like he has the same identity as what you have?
G. I’ve talked to my brother about this recently and I think we do. We have a similar perspective in that I don’t think we feel very at home, like at home in sense which I imagine people feel when they are just the same colour as everybody else around them.
Moving into more relationships, do you think it’s possible to be completely colour blind in a relationship, for want of a better term, do you think it is possible to have that?
G. No, I don’t. I think if you are, then that’s going to lead to problems. If you’re talking about a white person in a relationship with someone who isn’t white, in a country like Australia, that’s probably going to lead to the white person not really appreciating the difficulties of the person of colour in the relationship. I think it’s important to try and understand the experiences of the other person, including race.
Were there any surprise reactions from your family to your relationship?
G. No, none at all.
What about friends and strangers?
G. None from my friends either really. With strangers, I think that throughout my life I’ve sort of built up this kind of filter or barrier and I actually don’t really register a lot of things because it makes stuff too difficult. I’m not trying to engage because I feel I’m trying to walk around doing my daily business.
What have you learnt from becoming a father, specifically to a biracial and bicultural child, given you are yourself a biracial and bicultural child.
G. Just becoming a father is a lot of learning and yeah, she’s also a biracial child but she’s also different to me, she’s not as noticeably not white, some people might not know this that she’s not white.
I think it’s all mixed up for me as well because she is a little girl and I am trying as much as possible to be aware that she’s a little girl and that she has all of this gender stuff coming at her. So I think that’s where, particularly gender and race, mix up and that’s sort of something which I don’t actually understand. I get a black male thing but it’s different to what she’s going to receive. I don’t know about what I’ve learnt, it’s more just what I’ve realised I have to try and negotiate as her parent.
Is it important to you that your daughter embraces some of her Zimbabwean cultural heritage alongside her Australian cultural heritage?
G. I feel sad that I don’t have a lot of Zimbabwean to pass onto her. It’s going to be hard for her because she’s not going to have that connection very strongly and she’ll have to try and find a place in Australia, which doesn’t have a place for people who aren’t white. Walking down the street probably won’t be a whistling, toe tapping experience for her. I think that’s something she’s going to have to work out for herself. I guess positively and also sadly. I’ll try and give her as much stuff as I have, but I worry that I don’t have a lot.
Are you often asked where you are from?
G. I think I used to be asked more often. I am still asked in social situations but I guess I’m not in as many social situations with strangers as I used to be. I sometimes wonder if my demeanour somehow subconsciously tells them that they’re not to ask. It sometimes does happen and then after I answer I think, ‘oh that was good’ or ‘I’m disappointed with myself' or whatever. I review it afterwards.
Do you think your answer changes when the question is from someone who is mixed race themselves?
G. Yeah, definitely. It’s white people we get pissed off about [laughs]. You guys can’t ask, this person of colour over here can, but you can’t ask. Yeah, it definitely changes. It’s actually a nice thing between people who aren’t white because you’re all in the same boat with this sort of situation. I remember once when I worked at EB Games, I worked with these two Asian guys. The shop was always empty. One of the guys was like ‘oh, so where are you from’ and our co worker was like ‘dude, what are you asking him that for, he’s one of us’...kind of like ‘what the fuck are you doing’ and he was like ‘oh, I was asking where he lived’. It was interesting because we were racially different so there was still a little mix up and un-surety about what that question was but it was also nice because one of them was saying, 'woah, this isn’t the place to do that'. It was a nice experience, it was interesting as well.
Anastasia spoke about what she has termed 'The Conversation' and vowing to resist it. Is this something you have to deal with a lot as well when you’re out with Otti?
G. Mainly at childcare and I think that’s because that’s one of the only situations where I’m talking to people I don’t know very well…we have the common thing about the kids so it’s a bit nebulous. It’s usually the situation where you get asked where you’re from as well. For some reason race is the subject of the small talk.
It’s a weird thing. I just try and deal with it like other things, where I ignore it. I haven’t taken anyone to task about it because it’s too complicated. It’s a whole lecture or something.
If you could give your younger self one piece of advice about being in the skin you’re in, what would it be?
G. It’s a hard question, I guess it’s a good question because it’s something I’ll have to tell Otti when she can understand what I am saying. It’s not a very positive message I guess but it’s a good message in terms of building strength. For someone in my position, I’d have to say that you are racially and ethnically isolated, so you have to come to terms with being your own unit.
Don’t look for stuff hoping to find somewhere that you will be 'right because I don’t think you will find it in a pre-packaged, pre-existing sort of way. There is no established culture or place where you are going to be 'right'. You have to decide to be yourself and love yourself and then hopefully you’ll find other people who can relate to you, and that’s really wonderful. You’re not lost, because you’ll be lost everywhere, it’s about trying to become stronger in yourself. That was long winded [laughs].
-This interview has been edited and condensed
Photo credit: Shuttermain Photography