- Visibly Different: Face, Place and Race in Australia
Autobiography as social science always enters a difficult space. Self-reflection has a noble history, and is a tried if not fully tested methodology. Verstehen enables us to place ourselves inside the life-world of the "other," but what if the "other" is ourself? Maureen Perkins from Western Australia's Curtin University has brought together a dozen Australians to write about their sense of being both Australian and "other," being something else than the blond and blue-eyed anodyne Christian (now typified by Kevin Rudd, the new Prime Minister). These people are "mixed," a mélange in parts of all the peoples who have an Australian homeland.
The authors are an impressive group, all women except for Glenn D'Cruz, an "Anglo-Indian" from Madras. One (Jan Kapetas) indeed is seen by others as not-White (referred to as a child, because of her facial features and slim legs, as "lubra lips," an epithet for an Aboriginal girl), even though all her family evidence is that she is directly descended from a Welsh immigrant of the 1850s. Later she adopts immigrant "roots" stories to defend herself from inquisitions as to her origins. Ien Ang, a leading international scholar of "race" who has a complex layered history—Indonesian, Chinese, Dutch, Australian—has written about not speaking Chinese, the disjuncture of not being able to perform the identity that others assign to her.
Perkins has two goals with this collection, which sits within a Peter Lang series about "mixed race" in the Asia Pacific. The first is to demonstrate the [End Page 308] diversity of Australian identities, and the sandpapery edges that racial contact and passing have produced in the social structure of the society, and in the lives of individuals labeled as "other." The second goal is to open up the telling of narratives of the self around a theme of "mix." She is worried about the use of the term "race," so she plots its contemporary politics, urging her authors to work at the contradictions they feel, the pressures they experience, and the choices they make, while recognizing the term's lack of scientific rigor.
A recurrent theme is that of "passing," the adoption of a stratagem, some would say subterfuge, that allows one to slip away from the socially-despised membership of the category of "oppressed other." We must remember here that this is a very self-conscious collectivity, mostly tertiary-educated in the humanities and social sciences, and often employed as academics. They are rather more aware than most (in the tradition of Franz Fanon) that the psyche often does things that the conscious mind barely recognizes, until caught by the neck and made to address it. Farida Tilbury (Brunei-born daughter of Indian and Euro-American parents with the surname of her Anglo-Australian husband) is brought to Australia when her Ba'hai father is sacked by the country's Muslim government just as Australia loosens up on racially-based immigration restrictions in the 1960s. Tilbury likes the idea that mélange is an advantageous resource, allowing a more "polyphonic voice" (after Trin Minh-Ha). I am reminded of that most British of hymns, "All things bright and beautiful."
The cruelest stories are of course those of Indigenous children torn from their communities and families and forced to pass as White. In this passing there is privilege but also great sorrow and grieving, a bottomless hurt that corrodes the heart. Jean Boladeras tells of her passionate desire to be free of the shame of being thought Aboriginal, so much so that she ignores her mother's greeting as their paths cross, dropping her head so as to avoid eye contact. Now in the later years of her life, Boladeras has sought out her Nyungar roots, reconstituting herself through a step-by-step recovery of names, relationships, stories, and memories. The suppression of memories, of faces, of touches, of voices, requires the most extensive excavations of the mind and...