For someone who grew up in a Chinese family, I spent an inordinate amount of my childhood wishing I were white. In my mind, being white would mean I’d finally have access to all the stuff Anglo kids took for granted, like roast dinners and matching crockery, as well as forearm hair and eyelids.
I wasn’t the only one. Most non-Anglo kids raised in Australia — whether they’re Sri Lankan or Somalian, Greek or Japanese, Indian or Italian — will have probably resented their racial background at some stage. It manifests in different ways. Think back into your past. Did you ever hurl your dinner plate at your mother, disowning your native cuisine? Perhaps you’ve used bleaching creams on your dark skin, or waxed your hirsute European butt cheeks.
Don’t worry. Shame and resentment usually goes hand in hand with migrant families. But times have also changed, my friends. It’s hard to pin down when the shift exactly started, but I like to think of the 1992 basketball drama White Men Can’t Jump, starring Woody Harrelson and Wesley Snipes, as a significant turning point. Since then, “white” has become shorthand for everything from lame to awkward, to being badly dressed and shithouse at dancing. Being white, it seems, has lost some of its currency.
When I asked non-Anglo folks whether they thought there were any benefits to being an ethnic minority, the responses flooded in quickly. “Using henna and burning incense without feeling like a new-age wanker,” said one Indian-Australian girl. “Unpronounceable surnames add to your mystique,” said a Chinese-Australian guy. Some white people were offended by my question. “Way to shut us white people out, Ben,” one white friend said. “I’m just going to leave now, eat white bread and mashed potato, and watch The Waltons.”
Other white friends freely admitted to pining after ethnic cred. “Being ethnic in Australia allows you to more easily wear different types of clothes,” my friend Tristan observed. Tristan’s friend Jack — who is Malaysian-Chinese — once went through a phase of wearing his hair up in a sumo pony tail style, matching it with a large dress navy jacket. “On Mr. Malaysian this looks great,” Tristan said. “On me it would just look stupid.”
Non-Anglos almost have to feel sorry for these people, really — all these Johns and Marys, walking around in their beige clothes, growing up with food where potato was about as exotic as you got. Not since the horrors of colonialism has Anglo-Saxon culture seemed more unpopular. Notice how there are never any UK-themed restaurants? When was the last time you saw corned beef or spotted dick on the menu?
Meanwhile, if you’re ethnic, everyone wants a piece of you. You’re as collectible as Pokémon. Devin Friedman — a writer for GQ magazine — recently wrote an article about this called ‘Will You be my Black Friend?’ A white guy, Friedman realised that the last time he’d made a black friend was eight years ago. He posted an advertisement on Craigslist, asking for African-American pals, and wrote about the results.
For people who like to think of themselves as colour-blind (“I don’t see race!”), this might seem like a dodgy exercise. But personally, I don’t buy into the idea of colour-blindness. There’s a song from the interracial teen romance Save the Last Dance that goes: “We’re all the same color when you turn out the light.” It’s a sweet sentiment, but as my friend Bhakthi — a Tamil-Australian girl — quipped to me, people can’t actually function properly in the dark.
A life lacking in diversity and curiosity is a sad one, and we should seek out friends outside of our immediate circles. I’m proud to have friends who are white and Asian, European and Latin, gay and straight, young and old. Although I have some Indigenous acquaintances, I’m not ashamed to say that I wish I had more Indigenous friends, just as I’d like to have more friends under the age of 20, and over the age of 60. (If you know any elderly Torres Strait Islanders who need more homosexual Asian friends, tell them to get in touch.)
Yes, I know: this article is probably sort of racist. Race is still a sore spot in a country where Indigenous life expectancy falls below the national average, and where Indian folks are still targets for violence. If a white person wrote this, it would probably be howled down in a raging pit of fury, or published in Quadrant. But hey, I can get away with it. I’m Asian, remember?