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Autonomy  •  19 October 2021  •  Non-Fiction

Existing as Colonialism Itself

By Melodie Grafton
Content Warning: Racism, trauma, colonisation

As a child‭, ‬I had no sense or understanding of my racial identity‭, ‬and what this meant‭. ‬I knew I was Filipino‭, ‬by way of my mother and the Tagalog and Visayas-speaking ladies she’d keep for company‭. ‬I knew that somehow‭, ‬funnily‭, ‬my mother and I were sometimes mistaken for a nanny and her employer’s child at the local Walmart‭. ‬And I knew that I was born and raised Canadian‭; ‬an identity I would carry with me through my various moves between Canada and Australia growing up‭. ‬But race and identification were never on my mind‭; ‬this may have been a privilege‭, ‬to have my innocence and experiences of overt racism confined to what I observed through my mother‭.‬

I was raised privileged‭. ‬In my Canadian hometown‭, ‬I took up figure skating‭, ‬went to school‭, ‬and played in the snow when winter came around‭. ‬Then‭, ‬we moved to the airy Sydney that we all know‭. ‬All I knew was the little life I had with Mum and Dad‭, ‬the Filipina aunties and the relatives we saw around Christmas time‭. ‬

One of the earliest memories I have of feeling‭ ‬‘different’‭ ‬due to my racial identity and family‭, ‬was at the ice-skating rink‭, ‬where my mum and siblings‭ (‬who were still toddlers at the time‭) ‬came by to speak to my father‭ (‬my coach‭) ‬and I briefly‭. ‬Nothing out of the ordinary‭; ‬just a chat‭. ‬Afterwards‭, ‬one of the girls I ice-skated with‭, ‬who I had noticed was gawking at my entire family during the interaction‭, ‬asked me‭, ‬“Is that really your mum‭?‬”‭ ‬

“Yes‭,‬”‭ ‬I replied‭. ‬“Of course‭?‬”

My feelings of fractured identity have only grown since then‭, ‬and exponentially since leaving high school‭. ‬During the HSC‭, ‬my community was in the Blacktown LGA of Western Sydney‭, ‬slightly on the edge of the Hills District‭, ‬where I surrounded myself with what I’d call the‭ ‬‘Good Catholic Asian Girl’‭ ‬friend group‭. ‬My friends‭, ‬more often than not‭, ‬were also Asian‭. ‬One other girl also had an Asian mother and a white father‭. ‬Never‭, ‬throughout any of my high school experiences‭, ‬do I recall my Asian-ness ever being a question or even anything anybody cared about‭. ‬Most of my peers were multiculturally diverse as well‭; ‬we were all immersed in the non-white cultural identity of kids‭ ‬with migrant backgrounds‭: ‬Sikh kids‭, ‬Filipino‭, ‬Indian‭, ‬and other Asian and non-white backgrounds‭. ‬Our diversity was nothing to pay attention to‮…‬‭ ‬or perhaps we were just kids‭. ‬

Flash cut to university‭. ‬Higher education is another privilege‭, ‬one I’m lucky to receive as I write this‭. ‬But I’m not sure what happened‭; ‬maybe it was the innocence of adolescence and‭ ‬‘growing up’‭ ‬that hid the active thought and criticism of my cultural identity from my consciousness‭ ‬—‭ ‬now I feel stuck there‭. ‬I’m constantly contemplating the validity of my identity as a Person of Colour‭ (‬PoC‭), ‬and my authority to be such a leader‭, ‬for an‭ ‬autonomous social and political group of People of Colour on campus‭.‬

The realisation that you don’t truly understand what you look like‭, ‬is one that I’ve made slowly since my emergence in political spaces‭, ‬including mostly in university student activism‭. ‬The feeling of being stuck between two halves of a whole‭ ‬—‭ ‬a body that’s simultaneously an‭ ‬‘other’‭ ‬in mainstream Australian‭ (‬and Canadian‭) ‬monoculture‭, ‬but perhaps also not‭ ‬‘other’‭ ‬enough for an identity and community that would naturally be my refuge‭. ‬But the feeling of being two halves of a self‭ ‬—‭ ‬in which I was both and yet neither of‭ ‬—‭ ‬has grown to be a familiar feeling‭, ‬and one that has only intensified since that day on the ice rink‭. ‬

Is my identity‭, ‬and its worth‭, ‬contingent on how others view me‭? ‬Will they see me as an‭ ‬‘other’‭, ‬a‭ ‬‘not enough‭,‬’‭ ‬or an‭ ‬‘I don’t know‭?‬’‭ ‬But that’s just it‭: ‬who owns my identity‭, ‬if not myself‭? ‬How can I own something that isn’t mine to hold‭?‬

‭ ‬

It feels like I’ve lost control over how others objectively perceive my appearance and the assumptions resulting from this‭. ‬Is it assumed that I‭ ‬carry whiteness alone‭, ‬with no other terms or conditions‭? ‬Am I burdened to face the intergenerational trauma of colonialism and‭ ‬my family’s history alone‭? ‬Have I become colonialism itself‭, ‬personified‭? ‬

Of course‭, ‬there must be acknowledgement and understanding of the ways in which my proximities to whiteness are a privilege‭: ‬my‭ ‬light skin‭, ‬for example‭. ‬My mixed white skin is capital in the Philippines and in traditional Filipino cultures‭, ‬a derivative of‭ ‬the Spanish and American colonisation of the nation dating back to 1521‭. ‬The idea that lighter skin is superior‭, ‬for its class‭ ‬and colonial values‭, ‬comes from this violent imperialism‭. ‬The term‭ ‬mestizo‭ ‬in the Philippine historical context was used to describe individuals mixed with native Philippine and Spanish colonial ancestry and was a class status for those who were‭. ‬Light-skinned Filipinos‭, ‬including the mestizo‭, ‬were also associated with the understanding that they‭ (‬light-skinned Filipinos‭) ‬were of upper-class status and therefore‭ ‬‘higher‭' ‬than the dark-skinned native Filipinos‭, ‬the working class‭, ‬who spent their labouring days under the hot tropical sun‭. ‬This proximity to the coloniser‭, ‬in this case‭, ‬the Spanish ruling class‭, ‬was an economic asset to have‭, ‬ensuring high status and social mobility‭.‬

Indeed‭, ‬these ideas still remain in Filipino culture‭: ‬there is a reason why skin-whitening products are so rampant and why the light-skinned‭, ‬usually bi-racial‭, ‬winners of Miss Universe Philippines go on to represent the nation at the global beauty pageant‭, ‬Miss Universe‭. ‬The Miss Universe 2015‭ ‬winner and representative of The Philippines‭, ‬Filipino-German beauty queen Pia Wurtzbach‭ ‬comes to mind‭, ‬as do famous Filipinas Liza Soberano‭ (‬actress‭) ‬and Catriona Gray‭ (‬Miss Universe 2018‭).‬

Whiteness also serves as a tool still‭, ‬for working-class Filipinas to access class mobility by way of marrying‭ ‬‘foreigner’‭ ‬men‭, ‬therefore gaining access to migration to European‭, ‬North American or Australian destinations‭, ‬and the employment opportunities that come with this‭.‬

This reconciliation between myself and my identity is ongoing‭ ‬—‭ ‬and maybe it always will be‭. ‬Should identity merely be described as blood quantum‭? ‬Or should identity be a feeling‭; ‬the complex‭ ‬mix of emotions‭, ‬the passion‭, ‬shame and love you hold‭? ‬The groundedness you feel in the dirt and ocean and humid air‭; ‬or the pride in my growth and journey‭... ‬If identity isn’t this‭, ‬then what is it‭?‬

I am reminded of something I heard a friend‭, ‬also bi-racial‭, ‬say about themselves‭: ‬both‭, ‬not half‭. ‬The duality of wholeness‭; ‬to‭ ‬balance opposites with compassion‭. ‬In psychotherapy‭, ‬I’ve learned‭, ‬there is the practice of the‭ ‬‘Wise Mind’‭: ‬to hold both emotional and rational thought in a Venn diagram‭, ‬the sliver of overlap highlights that there are multiple truths‭; ‬two sides of a complete understanding‭. ‬

Still‭, ‬I remember that I grew up with my mum on the phone with‭ ‬friends‭, ‬cousins‭, ‬and relatives‭, ‬speaking loudly in Tagalog and Visayas‭, ‬as a familiar ambience‭; ‬the pandesal and cassava cake as‭ ‬treats she’d try to make‭, ‬or bring home after a quick stop at the local Filipino shop‭; ‬parents’‭ ‬wedding and my infant baby photos in the backdrop of my mum’s lush volcanic island home‭, ‬with its deep‭ ‬green hues and family ties‭ ‬—‭ ‬and I remember‭, ‬this is who I am‭.‬

And next to this‭, ‬there is still room to equally balance my pride of having come from a family of activists‭; ‬from my grandmother‭, ‬an English migrant and artist‭, ‬involved with the Australian Green Bans movement‭, ‬co-founded the radical Darlinghurst Residents‭ ‬Action Group in 1973‭; ‬to the uncle who was expelled from school for protesting the Vietnam War‭. ‬This side is powerful‭, ‬too‭: ‬ambitious‭, ‬proud‭, ‬Grafton‭.‬

Perhaps‭, ‬instead of being‭ ‬‘other‭,‬’‭ ‬or‭ ‬‘either/or’‭, ‬I am the balance of both‭, ‬creating an equally valid whole‭.‬

And maybe the balance‭, ‬too‭, ‬is an identity I can hold‭.‬

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