Living in Colour, Writing with Skin.
- Cath Moore
To paraphrase the wonderful India Arie, I am not my hair. Or my colour for that matter. I am my father’s daughter but his motherland is not my home. Being biracial often adds a complexity to how a sense of self is articulated, [re]constructed and embraced. Looking from the inside out this has been both self-imposed and a societal encumbrance. Growing up with my mother’s white family, and having had no contact with my absent black father from the age of 18 months, identity was as polarised as the values attributed to race. In this case, my angelic blond haired blue-eyed mother was the epitome of virtuosity and martyrdom.
Being black and the abstracted concept of blackness itself, was shrouded in mystery, suspicion and shame. But it had to be. As a child, the incomprehensible nature of a traumatic and punitive world could only be understood through simplistic absolutes. I was bound to my mother through an unspoken alliance that made thoughts of establishing a relationship with my father nothing less than a betrayal. But time finally provides you with personal agency and enough distance from the emotive, fragile ego to renegotiate relationships [most significantly with oneself] and adult-appropriate terms of engagement.
For a while it feels a little like Alice’s encounter with the Red Queen; running just to stay in the same spot. But I am moving closer to my skin, to a sense of knowing what being of colour means to me, and how I choose to articulate this. I suspect that being in touch with skin is a process rather than an end point. What I do know is that my Guyanese birth-right did not include endless anecdotes on impoverishment and in-opportunity as befitting a small, underprivileged country. My factual history, being brought up by a white single mother in suburban, middle class Canberra is often dissatisfying - it’s not where people have situated me, nor is it a story that ‘fits.’ But the ordinariness of my mother’s Anglo-Irish heritage raised less questions and provided a counter point to an otherwise problematic heritage. ‘Ghana? Isn’t that in Africa?’ ‘No - Guyana. A whole other continent.’
Stepping into unknown territories be they cultural, religious, political or personal, my own writing practice has become a critical mechanism to challenge personal prejudices. Yet I’m acutely aware of the ethical terrain and tension my own cultural diversity brings to the table. Expressing narratives informed by intersectionality is one thing, but finding platforms primarily as a screenwriter, has been difficult.
The Australian film industry for example, continues to deify masculinised whiteness above all else. There’s nothing ‘groundbreaking’ about Screen Australia’s diversity study confirming the lack of variability on screen or that content infused with notions of diversity is often viewed as ‘worthy’ programming [subtext: limited profitability]. That’s a very troubling premise as is the lack of diverse women writers behind the screen. Funding agencies need to move beyond self-congratulatory reports and steering committees. Inevitably these exercises deliver little real world traction, simply perpetuating the binary that ‘we’ need to do something about ‘them’.
But it’s the imposition of a singular narrative that women writers with diverse lived experiences must often try and counter through their work. Just how much, when and why it informs creative practice varies markedly from person to person. And yes, we still need to talk about [or rather through] Lionel Shriver’s ethically fuelled edict at the 2016 Brisbane Writers’ Festival that appropriation should be a writer’s prerogative. That fire is likely to burn for as long as diversity is spoken about from a distance that cannot be traversed through research alone.
I thought someone with a limited capacity to comprehend the politics of identity from the inside out wasn’t worth an emotive response. Her righteousness felt like the worst kind of colonialistic entitlement where hunting, catching and de-feathering an exoticised denominator is seen as some kind of literary sport. Requesting guidance, validation and critique that appropriate consultation provides seems like a gift rather than a burden. The lives of the ‘othered’ can’t be framed as voyeuristic novelty. Seeking access through accepted modes of best practise can however, deliver meaningful human transactions where shared knowledge and legacy become experiential currency. This is of course subject to devaluation by writers whose desire for novelistic nirvana demands a higher rate of return than their lack of respect is worth.
I’d strongly argue that the same rules do not apply when writing from an anglo-centric perspective because that is the normative experience we all watch, read and listen through as if life were singularly defined by what I call waiting-room-whiteness. Pick up any trashy mag while waiting for a medical appointment and the cover will undoubtedly speak to our obsession with predominantly young, pretty white celebrities glowing with vitality and more importantly a socially sanctioned visibility. We gain access to the world at large through a very exclusive prism.
But beneath this righteousness of my own is an unsettling fear that I just can’t outsource. The fear that I’ve been appropriating myself. Though I’m now full of heritage pride, for a long time I was what is known [rather disparagingly] as an Oreo; black on the outside, white on the inside. Transitioning into my coloured skin has often left me feeling fraudulent. I’ve certainly written about the marginalising experiences I see as a connection point between skins of colour. But are my reflections on the racist encounters I’ve experienced disingenuous because I used to see myself as more white than black? And did this very fact let ‘team colour’ down? Was I self-hating, self-denying or confused about a place and history I had no access to?
Race is often seen as a social construct; shaped to serve various political, socio-cultural and economic agendas. Aligning with one half of your heritage and denying the other is about reconstructing the self. My Afro-Caribbean father was strangely abstracted into a figure dark in colour and soul. I often felt betrayed by the conspicuous colouring he’d given me. But I didn’t just fear him; I was petrified by all black men and their collective conspiratorial gaze that said ‘I am your father.’ I lived by an emotionally charged colour code, Orwellian in simplicity: white women good, black men bad. This created a complex, intensely pervasive guilt that I’m still trying to navigate, but I understand the psychology behind this childish self-preservation.
As sole carer, my mother’s whiteness seemed like a shield from the injustices of the world. Whiteness was a Barbie kind of beauty. I would sit for hours brushing her hair, knowing I could never do the same with my own. Being white seemed effortless. You glided through life unrestrained. Chose when to stand out or blend in. I craved anonymity more than anything else. Though I’ve not encountered overt racism for many years, I still see through my child eyes; unable to hold a stranger’s glance in case a derisive glare stares back.
I’ve been an enduring apologist for the manufactured senses of self I’ve constructed but in the here and now I’m re-imagining with more kindness and less fear of reprisal. I’m a curious bystander watching as shameful skin is shed and I undergo an intensely personal [and sometimes painful] revision. To this end I’m eternally grateful to other women writers of colour who have demonstrated how visibility, voice and validation can emerge from the inside out. For many women looking through the prism of diversity it’s an ongoing w[rite] of passage with an ellipsis on the last page rather than a full stop…