Words by Sachini, 22 ACT
“Jamie said you were a Brownie,” said my friend Katie.
I remember looking down at my arms, feeling a stab of defensiveness shoot through my stomach.
“I don’t care,” I had said.
In that moment, 8-years-old, with my pink Big-W backpack – I really didn’t care. I was hurt because someone had called me a name, but I did not understand the years of loaded history behind the comment. I did not understand why it was bad, in someone’s eyes, to have brown skin.
This marked the first time I had thought about my skin as more than just a part of me. The first time it had clicked that I was different.
My parents are Sri Lankan, they immigrated to Newman in the 70s and moved down to Perth soon after. I grew up in the suburbs and as far as I was concerned, I was an Aussie girl with brown skin.
But my relationship with brown-ness only grew more complicated as I got older.
As a pre-teen, I’d thought white people were beautiful. I watched pale girls win Dolly magazine’s yearly model search. I idolised Delta Goodrem and Emma Watson. So it was not a stretch for me to connect the dots when the boy I had a crush on, passed me up for my (caucasian) best friend. The feeling of inadequacy could easily be attributed to the lack of ethnic diversity I was seeing in media and books. My idea of ‘desirable’ had become warped and twisted to contain only what was shown to me – whiteness.
In 2002, culturally diverse actors born overseas landed only 3% of roles on Australian screens, despite making up 14% of the population according to the report, Broadcast in Colour.
This statistic is now 20 years old, and although it has been updated, it aligns with my childhood and accurately reflects my exposure to the amount of culturally diverse people I was exposed to in the media. Additionally, the coloured characters that I was seeing and reading about were not looked at by others as beautiful. They were often framed as intelligent, but they were not considered desirable. Once I understood this, my own frustration that I was also apparently ‘not beautiful’ was not surprising given it had been fed to me by the media all my life.
As a teenager, I grew out of this mindset and into myself.
I met real people, people of colour, who were every bit as beautiful and successful as I wanted to be. I wrote my own stories where the protagonist kicked arse, while being brown and desirable. I started to own my skin because it seemed that someone had to.
Now I am suddenly living in a society where my brown skin has become a trendy accessory. My university takes pictures of me to appeal to their global market; I stare at boxes in job applications that ask me to self-identify as culturally diverse.
I am a hot commodity.
While my cursor hovers over this box I feel strange. Is it okay for me to take advantage of my skin-colour when I consider it just a part of me? Yes, my brownness has influenced my lived experience, but it hasn’t affected my intelligence, communication skills or ability to work. I think about what it means to be a ‘diversity hire.’
You see, I am not just the daughter of Sri Lankan immigrants. I am a person who was raised by a woman conscious of what Australian society values. A woman who moved to a mining town in her late teenage years with English barely in her vocabulary. She saw the challenges of assimilating into Australian culture before I had to and she raised me with the ability to fit in.
Along with pushing my brother and I to excel academically, my mother enrolled us in speech, drama and music lessons. She relented – after a little persuasion – to letting us have part-time jobs during school. She kept us socialised and well-spoken because she knew we were growing up in a society that would value that.
I am not just a second-generation Sri Lankan immigrant; I am a brown person raised to have the qualities that Australian universities and businesses value. Now that we, as a society, are making steps to reclaim diversity, it feels wrong to rely on my Sri Lankan identity for privilege when I am so distanced from it.
From the outside I am brown. A child of immigrants, an outsider. From the inside I am a girl, a mish-mashed amalgamation of Australia and Sri Lanka. And I am stuck between knowing that people like myself have not been valued in the past; to now being exoticised because of my skin, and not feeling like I deserve it.
My relationship with my skin is nuanced. It is complicated. But I have evolved so much since that day when I was labelled ‘a Brownie’. Now I am changing my answer. To that kid from school, Jamie, I say, I do care that I am a ‘Brownie’. How can I not? It is a part of me. And no matter how many times the world around me changes its mind, I will always respect it. It is not just the colour of my skin. It is my heritage, my uniqueness and my beauty.