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I have become accustomed to walking into a room and questioning if I belong. That was very much what I felt like on my first day of primary school, my first day of high school, and ultimately, my first day at college. Amongst the sea of faked tanned skin, my chocolate complexion dobbed me in as distinct from the rest. My thick curly South Indian hair made me different from my other blonde classmates. Put simply, I looked ‘different.’ But, it was more than that. Deep down inside, when I walk into a room, sometimes I have to acknowledge that my skin colour will dictate how people treat me, even in 2023.
I started to write this article because I wanted to showcase that being a woman of colour in modern day Australia still has its obstacles. We boast that Australia is not the place it used to be, that it has become a nation where all cultures are celebrated and admired. Yet, my experience navigating the world, the world of elitist institutions,’ as an 18 year old Indian girl is incredibly different to my white friends. Standing in the intersection of gender and race, I sit by and watch as women of colour are treated differently by society. Unfortunately, in 2023, being a brown person still holds some novelty in Australia, especially in elitist institutions.
Now you are probably thinking, “are you sure this is not all in your head? Surely it is not as bad as you are making it out to be!” I often have those ignorant comments hurled at me when I talk about my experience being a woman of colour. But my skin colour has given me a superpower – the superpower to be hyper-aware of the casual racism that often goes unnoticed by my white friends. It is overhearing college boys degrade you to the “brown one” when talking about you. It is listening to a guy at the Grose intimidate your friend’s Asian accent as a joke, but in reality, it is a facade for a deeply hurtful jab. It is being in situations where you realise that what you say is not truly heard, until it comes out of the mouth of your pretty blonde friend. Needless to say, casual racism has not magically vanished into thin air, as much as this country likes to believe it has.
My treatment as a person of colour has deeply affected my own relationship with my culture. When I was younger, I was incredibly proud of who I was. I would find any opportunity to wear a traditional piece of Indian clothing and felt so excited to showcase an intrinsic part of my identity. But, as I got older, my focus was on assimilating. I would hardly mention my background, for fear that people would harness something so important to me as a punchline for their jokes. The people I surrounded myself with evolved into a crowd that never understood my experiences as a woman of colour, telling me it was “something I had to deal with”. As I witnessed the degrading nicknames and inappropriate jokes, I suddenly became tired – tired of fighting, tired of trying to earn the respect of people, tired of being who I truly am. I recognised that assimilating was going to be my easiest option. I would ask myself – “if I had an accent, if I wore a bindi or if I was truly in touch with my culture, would I still be as accepted as I am now – a ‘white-washed Indian’ as my friends like to call me?” The answer would be a resounding no.
For brown girls like me, there is a need to overcompensate to be on the same playing field as our white girlfriends. We have to be exceptional. My friend put it perfectly when we ranted about being brown girls at college – “I feel like I have to be the smartest, wear the best clothes, be the nicest person so people will actually pay attention to me.” When we go out, we have had guys talk to us and say that they would “date us if we were blonde.” Although we come back to college and laugh about how ridiculous these comments are, it still has tremendous weight on what we think about ourselves. It is burdensome walking around, feeling like you are not inherently valued, merely due to the colour of your skin. It affects what you think of yourself, who you are and how you think other people perceive you. And that makes me upset – upset that in 2023, I, as an 18 year old girl, has experienced so much underlying racism that I question who I am as a person.
I acknowledge that not all people of colour feel this way. I have talked to plenty of women of colour who have never experienced what I have in my first year of uni. Some people may have experienced racist remarks as a kid, some people may experience it at college, some people might experience it in the workplace. But, it is important to acknowledge that just because you haven’t experienced or overheard racism yourself, does not mean it does not exist. It still pervades Australian culture, whether we like to admit it or not. It starts in high school and college, where you overhear casual racist remarks such as the ‘Brown One’ in social settings. It extends into the workplace, where a resounding 60% of women of colour have experienced discrimination.
It saddens me that my friends of colour and I have reached a stage where racism has become a rite of passage, something that we have braced ourselves for. I remember telling my friend “well, I was going to experience it at some point. I guess I am lucky that I am experiencing it at 18.” I now realise how ridiculous that statement was. I should not need to find the silver lining in an awful situation and feel gratitude. It is disgusting that people of colour, most pertinently, women of colour, are treated this way. It is wrong, but also, it is just not fair. Racism should never be something that we try to justify, put a veil over or learn to “put up with.” The more we diminish casual racism, the more it exists. There needs to be a line drawn in this country, where we call out this unacceptable behaviour. And the first step is by talking about it.
When I ask for advice from friends after experiencing a racist encounter, there are two responses. I have had friends who have been appalled. They have told me countless times that this behaviour is wrong and something I should not have to deal with. But, on the other hand, I have had some of my closest friends tell me that I should overcome racism by showing everyone that I am “more than the brown one.” I don’t think they realise that being brown is something I cannot hide! But, also, why would I? Why is being brown viewed as such a bad thing? I now wear the ‘Brown One’ as a badge of honour, not as the insult it was intended to be. I am so incredibly proud to be a woman of colour. I am proud that my ancestors have sacrificed for generations so that I can be in the position I am today. I am proud that my grandparents and parents fought against the South African apartheid system that was built on tearing them down, merely due to the colour of their skin. I am proud I am not like everyone else. My greatest hope is that we get to a place in this country where my daughter does not have to deal with what I have had at 18. And the first step is calling it out.