I don’t think that any of you will find this to be new information when I tell you that growing up as a person of colour is…tricky. It comes with complications that I myself have only really started to fully understand as I have gotten older. I remember vividly as a child when one of my mother’s white friends told me that I was, “so lucky that I would never have to spray tan.” And at the time, I did feel lucky. At the time, the colour of my skin to me was purely aesthetic, something that added to my appearance and hadn’t become something that I viewed as important to my identity yet.
It wasn’t until I got a bit older that I realised the implications of what these women were saying to me. If I was just the, “perfect shade of brown,” did that mean that if I was any darker my skin would no longer be desirable? Were there brown girls out there with skin that wasn’t perfect because they were just a little too dark?
Now I feel it’s integral to the story I’m about to tell you that I give you some context about myself. The past four generations of my family have all been immigrants, and because of this, my ethnic identity is confusing and complicated and, honestly, a lot. ‘Mixed as hell,’ is probably the easiest way I can describe it to you. And on top of that, I’m the daughter of two Brits who have been living in Australia since well before my time. Because of this history of mine, which don’t get me wrong is so cool, I get the dreaded question, “where are you from?” CONSTANTLY. Of course, the easy answer to the question, given I was born and raised here, is Australia. But I’ve been greeted with that “but, where are you really from?” my whole life — so how am I supposed to feel at home in a country that cannot fathom the idea that I’m from here?
So it’s safe to say I’ve always had an interesting relationship with ethnicity, race and culture. Whilst most mixed kids are stuck between two worlds, it feels like I’m floating outside of, like, 15, never quite connecting with any of them. And unfortunately, me being brown isn’t something I can exactly hide from people until I figure out exactly how I feel about it. Contrastingly, when I realised I was queer it was different — I was able to hold that information purely for myself for however long I wanted to before releasing it to others; I could decide how I wanted the conversation to go. I can’t do that with the colour of my skin. I was forced to engage in uncomfortable conversations with strangers about my ethnicity before I’d figured out what it meant to me first.
Now fast forward to June of 2020 and the world is engaging in a massive dialogue about race. Following the murder of George Floyd — systemic racism, police brutality and everyday microaggressions were inescapable topics, and rightly so. These conversations needed to be had, and they needed to be had urgently to cease the ongoing racist violence happening across the globe. But what that meant for me specifically was that, as the only person of colour in my very white, very rich, very privileged class at school, I was suddenly the spokesperson for anything to do with race. When my year level sat down and had a conversation about the BLM movement, I had to listen to my white classmates justify police having ‘off days’, and that rioting ‘just isn’t okay,’ and the protests ‘should have been peaceful’. Let me tell you — having to sit there whilst a piece of your identity is politicised and debated is exhausting.
But where did I fit into this conversation? I am by no means Black, I have never been scared for my life because of the colour of my skin (definitely have for being a woman though, just not my skin colour, which is a whole other conversation to be had at a later date), and I felt like a fraud when I tried to speak on my experiences in this conversation. But on the other hand, I had definitely experienced racism, definitely had male family members have corrupt encounters with police and definitely experienced fetishisation (shout-out to my high school boyfriend who told me he liked that I was a ‘cr*zy Sri Lankan woman.’ He’s the worst). So, I definitely had some authority to be able to speak on certain aspects of the overall conversation on race we were having, right?
If you’re reading this hoping that this is now going to be the part when I reveal my big epiphany and tell you all the answers to any questions you have…I hate to disappoint, but you should lower your expectations now. I still have an evolving relationship with my ethnicity and the colour of my skin as a part of my identity. I doubt my validity in conversations on race constantly — even now as I’m writing this. I’m doubting whether or not I’m exploiting my identity for content or just speaking on something I know. At the same time, I’ve also never felt more comfortable embracing my own complicated, confusing ethnic identity before. These dialogues that we all have with ourselves about who we are take time and aren’t easy processes.
Identity is an ever-changing dialogue with yourself, one that I don’t think that I have the ability to articulate to you in this piece. I’m learning every day that just because I may not be Black, or just brown, or just white, doesn’t make my experiences with race any less valid. And I know that when I was growing up, being mixed wasn’t something I came across people really talking about. So, to conclude this journey of self-discovery we’ve all been on together, I just want all my mixed girls out there to know that you don’t have to be just one part of who you are. The merging of two worlds is a beautiful thing and your identity as a mixed girl is enough, and your experiences as such are just as valid as anyone else’s.
Tierney Khan has always been passionate about using words to express her opinions and to stand up for what she believes in. She has been recognised as both an individual and team public speaker at multiple competitions, and in 2020 she became the VCAA Plain English Speaking Award Victorian State Champion with a speech titled ‘Not another speech about feminism’. Her commitment to social justice has seen her work with local communities in Thailand and Timor Leste. Coming from a multi-ethnic background, Tierney has personally experienced many of the issues faced by young female Australians of colour, and she channels those experiences to help drive her actions.