From Father to Daughter
- George Kanjere
I have one daughter, and another who may have made her way into the world by the time this article is published. Otti, who is two, is a beautiful little toddler, with a very cheeky grin and nature. She has three white grandparents and one black grandparent, and so she is quite light skinned, although depending on the situation she seems to become darker or lighter, maybe in contrast to the racial makeup of those surrounding her. I must admit that when she was born I was pre-occupied with how I could produce such a light-skinned little person. Such is my preoccupation with issues of race and identity, and being bi-racial. I was scared that my Shona-ness, passed onto me through my Zimbabwean father and which is simultaneously built into my foundations, but which I also hold a tenuous grasp on, had evaporated in her. I was worried that I had given her a chalice, dark skin, but without the wine to go in it.
Despite this moment of fear, as a biracial person I have, over the years, largely come to terms with not wholly belonging to any particular culture, and not sharing the closeness, or maybe absence of a certain barrier that people who belong to a defined ethnic, racial and cultural group often experience. I expect some people would want to contest this, but maybe that is because what I am talking about is not only the presence of a connection based on shared race, identity and culture, but an absence of race-based barriers. I am not just talking about warm and fuzzy feelings towards family - I am talking about race being removed as an ever-present factor in any given situation (including, and maybe especially, close family relationships) by virtue of the fact that you all belong to the same race.
Being the child of a black Zimbabwean father and a white Australian mother, my experience of life differed significantly from both of my parents, as I am sure it does for children in multiracial families all over the world. This seems obvious enough, but the reality is that many parents of biracial children don’t seem to be aware of a lot of race-based issues that affect their children. I am not only talking about discrimination, which affects many people regardless of whether they are “mixed-race” or “mono-racial”, but about one’s feeling of belonging, and a sense of place in the cultures of their parents. In this sense I guess I am describing my experience of being a “third culture” kid. I am very conscious that in writing this it will seem that I blame my parents for these things, and to some extent, when I was younger and having a hard time, I did.
In the racially charged atmosphere of Australia, when your origin is uncertain people feel entitled to demand you account for it. Even those people whose heritage is relatively easy to identify get interrogated, but if you are unable to be placed, as is the case for many multiracial people, you invite particular scrutiny.
This demand to account for my race is often real, maybe sometimes imagined (how can I tell? But experience teaches me). White people being taken aback by my fluency and assertiveness in white spaces, demanding to know where I am really from (because Australia is for white people, remember that), or presuming to ask (or even to tell me) whether I am more Australian or more Zimbabwean. Others have told me I am illogical or wrong to feel upset by these incursions. It was, and is, wearing. Both white and black people have challenged my authenticity as a black person because of my accent and mannerisms. I sometimes feel a barrier with black people in whom I search for camaraderie, in whom I see my father, my family, and myself, but they do not see their kin in me. I cannot expect familiarity when I meet a fellow Zimbabwean because many of them struggle to see Shona heritage in this light-skinned man with an Australian accent with a very limited understanding of the language.
Through experience and hardening, I now have a well-practised and unconscious sizing up of strangers and in-conversation management of new and old acquaintances in order to avoid such interrogations. And those that try are increasingly likely to receive harsh words and rough rebuttals. Because, finally, I have planted my proverbial flag, and declared myself my own – and do not have to explain who I am to anyone anymore, including to myself. I have forgone quite a number of friendly interactions and potential relationships because of this, but that is the price not only of self-protection but of self-love.
Obviously my experience is more complicated than I have laid out here, and more nuanced than these broad strokes. Regardless of what I tell my daughters, I do wonder what I will miss, how things will be different for them. I can imagine that they will experience some of what I have experienced, but more intensely – I imagine that there will be many situations where people will simply not accept their heritage as Shona people because they are so light skinned. They may, due to their light skin, have the option (and luxury?) to decide whether that is an important part of their identity or not, however if they decide that is important, if they feel that they want to claim that and hold it, they will have a hard time doing that. Being girls and eventually women will present additional challenges and barriers of which I have no experience. I will have to listen to them as hard as I can, and be prepared to learn. But what else?
All I can offer is my story, my experience, and the promise that whatever doubts that they have now, are nothing more than doubts. One day they will plant their flags and declare their selfhood independent of others, and on this day I will be a very proud father!
Photo credit: Shuttermain Photography