growing up black in australia

What It’s Really Like Being Black In White Spaces

One of the common threads coming to the surface during the outpouring of testimonies in the Black Lives Matter movement is how much a person’s experience of the world can be impacted by their race. Despite how multicultural and inclusive Australia would like to make itself seem in its beachy tourism ads, the lived experience in predominantly white spaces is very different for a lot of people. Australia’s colonial history and continual erasure of the country’s original (and current) Indigenous owners set the tone from the beginning: white identities take precedence over Black people, Indigenous people and people of colour.

It’s a mandate that has been fuelled by a startlingly narrow media landscape, in our lacking education curriculum and in sharp inequality across workplaces in pretty much every industry. As SBS reporter Nakari Thorpe explained, “White is seen as the norm. It is the standard voice. And that’s not just in Australia, it goes beyond that. Whiteness is not even seen as a race sometimes.” As many people begin to focus on anti-racism self-education, books, films, TV shows, podcasts and talks are being shared, read and watched perhaps more widely than ever before. As important as this work is, we also can’t forget to listen to each other on an individual level.

Beyond the horrific incidences of violence that Black people face, there are subtler ways that racism can eat away at a life. Sometimes it happens so subtly that years of internal damage is done before it’s confronted. Wintana Kidane (@w.innk) and Rahel Davies (@rahelephrem_) are two young Black women who’ve experienced that personally. Kidane and Davies are the co-hosts and driving force behind The Bittersweet Podcast, a platform dedicated to uplifting and inspiring people of colour in Australia. Navigating white spaces while Black is an invisible, full-time occupation, let alone as Black women, and they’ve their experiences with Syrup to shine a light on how exhausting it is.

If you’re a person of colour, so many elements of their stories will feel familiar to you. We hope everyone, regardless of your race, is reading, listening and learning.

Rahel’s story

My story begins at the age of two years old. I was adopted from Ethiopia by a white Australian family along with my older sister. I was introduced to my new home, a small country town with a population of just over a thousand people, two hours south of Melbourne. My family owned a farm about ten minutes out of town.

I only have fond memories of my childhood, I grew up in a very loving and supportive family with five brothers and sisters (my parents had four biological children before adopting my sister and I). I distinctly remember family holidays, BBQs, days at the beach, riding on the back of the ute with my dad and sister, rounding up sheep and cattle on my horse, playing on haystacks and going on long bushwalks. This really was one of the most idyllic ways for a young child to grow up!

I do not remember the specific age in which I began to really acknowledge the fact that I was different, but I think it was at about five or six years old. My sister and I were the only people of colour in our town so it really became something that was hard to ignore. And although my family would make it a point to make us both feel safe and accepted, it was impossible for me not to agonise over the fact that my skin tone made me different. One of my most distinct early memories was in prep or grade one: when playing with Barbie dolls one of my peers decided she “didn’t want the Black one.” I felt a ping in my body, a feeling of discomfort and sadness I didn’t yet understand.

Comments such as these continued in the following years; from being referred to as “vegemite”, “Black betty” or a “f***king n-word”, being told “sorry I’m not into Black girls”, or being followed by security and asked to leave a store. It was a consistent theme throughout my childhood, and although these instances may seem harmless to some, every single one of them reminded me that I was different in the most negative way possible. I remember sitting, staring at my white friends and thinking, “Wow I wish I could look like you,” from their long, straight and shiny hair to their white skin, I wished we could trade places for a day.

My day-to-day experiences were riddled with everyday racism. As a Black person, living, learning and working in a white space I began to grow accustomed to both subtle and explicit forms of discrimination. I learnt to follow the rules of a white-dominated space and pushed back against any feelings of discomfort or uneasiness. This response for me came from the simple fact that I was so outnumbered.

Growing up I was always conscious of my Blackness, well aware of the stigma and negative stereotypes associated with being Black. White friends would joke about the “ghetto” or “big-booty girls with apple bottom jeans”, they would talk about how “ratchet” some Black names were, how loud or aggressive Black women were, or how white I was for a Black person. Looking back, all of these comments conditioned me to reject my Blackness, I would strive to be the tolerable Black friend, treading very lightly; actively trying not to fill those stereotypes in fear of being stigmatised.

As I grew older I began to come to terms with my Blackness, and as the years went by my difference grew to be something I loved rather than rejected. Throughout the years I have managed to reclaim my space, by surrounding myself with other Black people, culture and art as well as white friends I consider my allies, I am at a point where I feel comfortable and protected. However, to this day there are many moments in which I find myself regressing back to that little girl who grew up afraid to express herself.

I remember applying for and being accepted to a group job interview at the local council about a year ago. Walking into the waiting room all I could see were white faces staring back at me. As I shyly crept into the room the woman at the reception asked me if I was lost. “No,” I responded, “I’m here for the interview”, she looked shocked and embarrassed. I was the only person of colour in the group. Suddenly I was extremely self-conscious and uneasy, my confidence dropped and I felt completely out of place. I had my hair in thick blond braids and my makeup done—eyelashes, lipstick, it was a whole look. All I remember thinking was, these people already see me as that loud, obnoxious and ghetto Black girl. So again, I put on my white persona. For the entire interview, I was conscious of how I looked, how I spoke and how I was being perceived. This was an extremely jarring experience and something that I believe really broke my confidence at the time.

To this day I find myself switching between personas, not all situations are as extreme as my experience with this interview, but they can be just as taxing. Although I do understand that I don’t always need to be palpable to white people and that I have a right to the same levels of comfortability, this act of code-switching, or changing appearances or behaviour in order to fit in with white cultural norms, is the reality of all Black people. It is a constant theme as we grow up and something that continues into adulthood; it is the consequence of living and navigating predominantly white spaces.

The collective identity in Australia is white, we see this plastered all over mainstream news and media, and living our day to day lives; whiteness is the default with Blackness defined in opposition. My experiences as an African-Australian growing up in this country is an example of this. I do not stand alone, my story is a representative of every single one of my Black and brown peers. We must shake our complacency and acknowledge this fact in order to create welcoming spaces for black people and ignite real change in this country.

When it comes to changing the status quo, I think a good starting point is with proper education. It is a known fact that Australian institutions do not provide us with correct and relevant history. It is essential that we unpack our country’s history of systemic racism and discrimination and understand its influence on our society today. We need relevant history, we need black history! We need to start circulating information that is inclusive of Black people and includes Black authors, academics and creatives. We must also work to dismantle racist stereotypes; through conversation, independent learning and listening to Black people, Indigenous people and people of colour, their experiences and stories, we can work towards building a stable foundation for growth.

Include Black people in the conversation, denounce racism, educate yourself and speak up in a real way. Create opportunities for BIPOC, promote representation and seek feedback from Black employees or students. It is not enough to address us when holding seminars, workshops, culture days or specific units that speak on marginalised groups. We need to create meaningful change; real allyship as opposed to performative allyship. Don’t be afraid of the conversation, encourage a safe place for BIPOC to discuss race, trauma or racial bias. For too long have Black people been expected to prioritise the comfortability of white people over their own, this narrative needs to be put to bed. Practice real empathy and work towards creating comfortable spaces for your BIPOC friends, family, classmates, employees and co-workers.

Wintana’s story

“Wintana, you have to work two times harder to be seen as the same.” These words were the words my dad drilled into me growing up.

Navigating myself, a Black woman, in white spaces has become second nature. I know how to act, how to look and what to say. Whether you’re in the creative industry and you’re being tokenised as the ‘cool’ Black person or in the corporate world where you’ve been hired, not for your skills but to meet the company’s diversity and inclusivity prerequisite, there is an art to occupying these spaces.

In my own experience, being in white spaces is a combination of performing and staying true to my identity. Although occupying white spaces has become second nature to me, there’s a lot of mental preparation involved before I enter these spaces. For the most part, the prejudice behaviour I experience is quite obvious but at the same time very indirect. Before entering these spaces, I remind myself of why I’m going there, be it, for professional experience, networking or solely to make money and although it’s emotionally taxing, this process helps me realign my focus. As a result of this, the relationships I make working or existing in these spaces remain superficial.

I find myself in uncomfortable situations where ignorant comments about my hair being “interesting” or that I’m pretty “for a Black girl” are loosely thrown around. Or when I’m with work colleagues, they use African American Vernacular English (AAVE) phrases like “yasss queen” or “okaaay gurrl”, which doesn’t even make sense, because I’m Australian. And my personal pet peeve, is when they think we all look the same and say things like ‘oh sorry I meant the other one’.

Not only are we othered as Black people, but we’re also grouped as a collective and held to many stereotypical mannerisms that circulate pop culture. We’re seen as loud, ghetto, ratchet, overly opinionated, obsessed with hip hop and fried chicken, the list goes on.

The irony of coexisting in these spaces is having to discredit your lived experiences, your emotions and your opinions.

Why?

Because I know that if I tell a white person that I found their comment about my hair offensive or if I start educating them on why they can’t say certain things, I’m met with defensiveness, I risk putting a white person in an uncomfortable position or worse, I’m coming off as intimidating. Not only is it exhausting, but it’s also infuriating.

I’m naturally an outspoken person. When I’m in familiar and comfortable environment I’m actively engaging with the people around me, without thinking twice about my mannerisms or whether what I’m saying will be taken out of context. This type of confidence is different when I’m navigating myself in white spaces, I make sure to speak eloquently and use a lower tone of voice.

I remember my first marketing internship at an ‘urban’ online publication, based on everything I knew and heard about this company I was super excited to join the team. When I first stepped foot into the office I automatically realised I was the only person of colour. This was strange considering a substantial amount of content produced by this company was centred around pop culture and ultimately people of colour, nonetheless it was something I lightly brushed off.

During my time at this company, I noticed the team would go on regular group coffee breaks and lunches however an invitation was never extended out to me nor was there an effort to get to know me. I quickly felt isolated and othered, I understood that in order to fit in this environment I had to play the part, entertaining unrelatable conversations to avoid exclusion. I also knew that being in a space that glorified pop culture, meant that anything I did, that slightly aligned with the stereotypical norms of Black person would automatically be amplified.

Knowing this I consciously monitored the way I spoke, dressed and acted. Although code-switching has become a force of habit, adjusting something as frivolous as my voice not only shifts my focus, making me less productive while working, it also leaves me feeling a sense invalidation as if being myself wasn’t good enough.

Unfortunately, through experiencing years of ignorance and blatant racism, I’ve built a high tolerance for it. The underlying issue here is how much of that racism I’ve internalised. I find myself brushing off inappropriate comments such as “so where are you really from?” or “you speak English really well!” and sometimes not even recognising racist remarks, until debriefing with a friend afterwards.

This is a result of racial gaslighting which is the political, social, economic and cultural process that perpetuates and normalises a white supremacist reality through pathologising those who resist. This process usually involves a non-person of colour dismissing prejudice behaviour by claiming that I’m “overthinking it” or “taking it the wrong way”, leaving me with a heavy sense of doubt and questioning my own sanity. Am I being dramatic? Did they mean it like that? Maybe I’m taking it too seriously? This type of systematic racism is a common experience among many Black people, not only are we forced to ignore the subtleties of racism we endure on a day to day basis, but we’re also put in a position of choosing our battles, making sure we don’t lose legitimacy fighting every fight. Again, this is an example of ignoring and brushing off lighter instances of racism.

So, how can we flip the script?

Well for starters, white people need to acknowledge the issue. You can’t combat something if you aren’t aware of its existence. Unlearn what you’ve been conditioned to know about Black people. It’s not enough to not be racist, you need to be anti-racist.

In order to create a welcoming environment, we need to start by educating the masses and breaking racial stereotypes. Discrimination and racist behaviour in schools and organisations should not be tolerated, PERIOD! Companies and schools need to be culturally sensitive and vigilant when addressing issues regarding race. Most Australians have a less developed understanding of racism and different forms in which it can take place. This lack of knowledge creates a society that’s very ignorant and careless, with a tendency to downplay things as not ‘truly racist’, which is mentally and emotionally taxing for people of colour. By acknowledging the history and current existence of racism in this country, we’re creating an inclusive space that recognises the flaws in our system and allows for open conversation around ways to combat the issue.

Stop gaslighting us. We should never be made to feel like our experiences are devalued or irrelevant. Drop the defensiveness and take the time to educate yourself. It’s important to approach situations with empathy to understand a perspective outside of your own. Use your privilege, especially in white spaces. When you recognise offensive behaviours don’t stand for it, call people out on their bullshit. Be an advocate for representation and do it regardless of there being a Black person in the room.

Representation and diversity are also key factors in dismantling white supremacy in these spaces, making inclusion a core value and offering people of colour a seat at the table creates a safe space for us and lets us know that our voices matter. This means providing opportunities in leadership roles, be it in the workplace, at school or community council positions. Visibility is vital. When I see people that look like my occupying a range of spaces it reaffirms my position in society, it also creates a shift in social consciousness by proving POC can successfully exist and excel in a range of positions outside of bias stereotypes.

Finally, holding leaders and governing bodies accountable is crucial. It’s easy to be a passive ally and claim that you’re not racist but it’s not enough. White people need to start using their privilege to actively advocate for people of colour, this involves calling out racism and prejudice behaviour when you see it, refraining from giving your money to racist organisations and actively pushing for representation and diversity. 

When my dad told me to work twice as hard, he said this because he knew I’d have to break negative stereotypes and develop a thick skin before even getting a chance to compete. This is what I know, this is what most Black people know.

Bittersweet is a podcast committed to empowering and inspiring people of colour in Australia. Wintana and Rahel saw a gap in representation in the media and decided to create their own space to engage with people through open dialogue. By candidly sharing their own experiences, the presenters deliver insight, guidance and support to their listeners. Topics at Bittersweet aim to provoke debate and raise awareness around relevant issues such as identity, race, culture and relationships.

Monisha is a writer with a background in publishing and digital media. A chronic Pisces, she’s into trying to be a better person and sparkling water.