Hybrid by Robert Wood
Robert Wood grew up in a multicultural household in Perth. He holds degrees from the Australian National University and the University of Pennsylvania, where he was a National Undergraduate Scholar and a Benjamin Franklin Fellow respectively. He has edited for Margaret River Press, Wild Dingo Press and Overland, and volunteered for the Small Press Network, Philadelphia Fringe Festival and Books through Bars. He has published work in literary journals such as Southerly, Plumwood Mountain and Counterpunch and a academic journals including Foucault Studies, JASAL and Journal of Poetics Research. He currently hosts a reading and conversation series at The School of Life and is a regular contributor to Cultural Weekly. His next book, heart-teeth, is due out from Electio Editions later this year.
What is the hybrid to do?
I have passed as a white man for most of my life. I have a name – Robert Wood – that is invisible in the hegemonic Anglo society of suburban Australia. I have a body that if a little tanned, a little hook nosed, a little ‘Latin’ or ‘Mediterranean’, is nevertheless unthreateningly, benignly unnoticeable. I present in dress and language, in what Pierre Bourdieu called habitus, as white. But I am also a person of colour. My mother is brown. She is Malayalee from Kerala in South India. Although there are degrees of complexity and complexion in the vales and folds of family history, through her I participate in a network of colouredness. Colouredness means both the aesthetic reality of the body itself, how we look, and the political meaning of bodies, how we are represented. In other words my mother’s skin is literally not ‘white’ (or for that matter ‘pink’, ‘yellow’ or ‘black’) and we have a shared history of colonial oppression that is racially based, which involves the British, the Portugese and northern India.
When I was young my mother’s parents, in sari and tracksuit pants, migrated to Australia. They had come to die where their children had come to live. My grandparents were from adjoining fishing villages ‘close’ to what is now Thiruvananthapuram. They grew up in an era before Indian independence and had markedly divergent political attitudes towards colonialism. My grandfather, Winifred, dark as the ace of spades, was an Anglophile. When I went back to his village in 2012, people said I looked just like him, ‘except he was an African’. These old people – my distant relations and my grandfather’s friends – laughed about who my grandfather was: how he would wear white linen suits, how he listened to classical music, how he drank gin and tonics. He was attracted in part to my grandmother, Gertrude, because her skin was so fair. She meanwhile was an Indian nationalist, a passionate supporter of unions, a radical opposed to the British occupation. I don’t know enough to understand what bound them together but there must have been something to allow those paradoxes of body, of ideology to be united.
Their children – my mother and my aunts – had come to Australia when the White Australia Policy ended in 1974. Some of them were early international students at universities; others came and began work straight away. Their story over the last forty years resonates with the known narrative of migration – hard work, education, opportunity – and they have, in their own definition, been successful. But their story also has its particular idiosyncrasies and challenges. Before Australia my Uncle Eddie, for example, had moved to Singapore and was Lee Kwan Yu’s bodyguard for a number of years. A committed socialist, his contribution to a newly independent nation was to keep the leader safe. He read what Lee Kwan Yu read; he ate what Lee Kwan Yu ate; he slept on a cot at the foot of Lee Kwan Yu’s bedroom door. When he came to Australia, the only job he could get was at Midland Brickworks. The racism from other workers there was a long way from the multicultural, red left utopia he thought he was helping to build in South East Asia. These are the personal takes on a story, increasingly told, about what it is to migrate to Australia.
I knew I was not quite white from very early on. My mother’s family, from midnight to caramel to café au lait, was a chocolate box of brownness. There were gingers and blondes and brunettes in my father’s family, but Mum’s made me realise that diversity is skin deep. It was home to me. It still is. In other societies and times I would not be allowed to exist; the brown would be far away from the white. When my family went to South Africa in 2001 we often found we were the only mixed race, the only ‘coloured’ family in various bourgeois restaurants. Class was now doing the role of race. There was a palpable sense of unease at our presence. We were in a sea of tense, paranoid, leftover apartheid beneficiaries, many of whom have subsequently made sunny Perth their putative home.
But it did not take a trip to South Africa to realise I was not white and that being non-white was different. We knew this when our grandparents dropped us at school, when we opened our lunchboxes, when we went to friend’s family homes with their saccharine smell sans spice. This is not to say I had white friends only but that we were not people like them. But it was a source of strength for the most part. This is not to say there are not structural forms of racism that one experiences personally, but that one’s identity is formed partly by familial recognition, solidarity and validation.
In thinking through identity though, in thinking through what I am, I am first led towards clichés. The phrase that seems to be deployed most often is ‘walking in two worlds’. In Australia this is used particularly often for Indigenous people, but one can discern it in post-colonial conversations as well. I have a mata mata brother-in-law who is half Ngarluma (Aboriginal) and half white (mongrel Irish, French, English). Although people no longer use this phrase, he, like me on a different axis, is a ‘half-caste’. We could be forgiven for thinking that ‘we walk in two worlds’. In a more intellectual iteration, this might be ‘hybrid’. But hybrid unifies the duality of the two worlds phrase, it seeks to bring together the ‘double consciousness’ that half-halfs seem to have and so it is distinct. Hybridity too, in the literary theory of Homi Bhabha, seems to represent a process over time rather than a state of being. We are apparently creating a new mode of interaction that is neither here nor there. This may account for the either/or discussion that happens, whereby one says I am proud of my heritage or I am in conflict. But people feel various points at various times and I often think of myself ‘homonymically’.
A homonym is one of a group of words that share the same spelling and the same pronunciation but have different meanings. It is about unity (of sound and spelling) and multiplicity (of meaning). It is then not about two autonomous histories coming together in one body, about my parents as individuals who come from separate, independent places, but about how they have always been linked dialogically and materially. There has always been a little bit of curry in Scotland, always a little bit of whiskey in Kerala. Water connects us all.
Passing, of course, has a long and complicated global history including for African American communities, for Anglo-Indian people, for Indigenous Stolen Generations. Colouredness used to be a secret to keep hidden because there were material advantages to presenting as white. That has most certainly changed due in part to the end of White Australia, Civil Rights, Land Rights, ‘black is beautiful’, United Colours of Bennetton as well as the material opportunities afforded to Othered subjects by a whole host of cultural, economic and political changes. Now there is cultural capital to be gained from identifying as a person of colour, even as we should think of it as a heuristic and imperfect category. In the Australian conversation, the myth we have of being white, of being a European or American society has been discredited, but it lingers in television, in corporate boardrooms, in advertising, in cricket, in mining. It is not only about placing people of colour in the conversation but about changing the frame of representation to begin with. We don’t need to assimilate to it; it needs to accommodate us.
Indians now have recently outpaced English people as the source of new migrants in Australia. This is only surprising to me in that English people had clung on for so long. Of course I knew there were whites arriving here, aiming for a slice of the good-Home-and-Away-sunny-side-of-the-street-hot-pie-cold-beer-roses-out-front-green-lawn-out-back-red-brick-own-your-own-home-life, but I had not believed they were still the source of so many new arrivals. That the biggest group of ‘illegals’ in Australia are backpackers from the United Kingdom who overstay their visa is a fact worth highlighting publicly, if only to reinforce the claim that Australia is structurally racist. Why one rule for someone fleeing persecution who happens to be brown as opposed to someone larking about on the beach who happens to be white? Australia still seems to be a paradise for the white working man.
I though in other conditions, conditions of my own making, see myself as a white man. It is not without some hesitation that I identify as such, if only because being a white man now means, in certain circles, prostrating for one’s historical sins. And well they/we should. What white men fail to see, what are invisible, are their forms of group solidarity, their shared experiences of the body, their political ideation as collective rather than as individual subjects. If us people of colour have historically been stereotyped and viewed as a group lacking individual identification, white men have rejoiced in the opposite. I do though reflect on my father’s position and heritage. I drink whiskey and think of the fatherland, I read Robbie Burns and think of the fatherland, I get angry at the fatherland as an interested and invested party.
I was living in New Delhi at the time of all the ‘curry bashing’ in Melbourne, 2009. Front page after front page in India was filled with commentary about racist Australia. It was shaming but it corroborated personal experiences. I remember visiting my teenage cousin in hospital when I was a child because a football team had beaten him up in a racially motivated attack on the streets of Cottesloe. In 2009 though, Indian newspapers showed Indians in Australia protesting and mass rallies against violence. As heartening to see this pushback, it was to my mind only the opening of a possible conversation about anti-violence has not yet been taken up in a lasting way. That initial energy has not coalesced into meaningful institutional and cohesive forms of anti-racism. That is surely the task now: To not only take these disparate experiences into the cultural conversation but then to politicise what it means to be coloured in Australia in a way that has lasting material impacts.
By virtue of shared experience and bodily aesthetics there are bridges to build between people of Indian origin and other communities too. When I visited Broome I was assailed by long lost family members from my mind. Who were all these South Indians I thought looking at the faces of local Indigenous people? That people of colour may translate well to certain Indigenous communities is important for allowing us to consider possibilities for addressing the ills of modern Australia. In my interactions in the Pilbara, locals respond very differently by virtue of skin. There is solidarity between brown bodies there that needs exploring.
For years I have been reluctant to identify myself as a person of colour. This is because I want to be recognised on my own terms, as an individual rather than as a set of histories or a position in the world. I have, in other words, wanted to be white where my identity is all but invisible and I can proclaim my universality without consideration or conscience. But the body returns, heritage returns. There is opportunity to think through what it means to be neither/nor, either/or, two worlds, hybrid, homonymic, dialogic, multiple. And in a style that breaks down the assumption that people can only be one thing, that identity is fixed and personal rather than mutating and structural.