Colour of Hyphens

Colour of Hyphens

My daughter asked me if she is white.

As her brother tried to answer the question, looking at his colouring pencils and bringing his own arm closer to hers, my mind drifted to my first Australian experience that made me ask the same question.

I took my daughter to the child nurse who commented during the check-up on her “olive” skin. Already freaked out by motherhood, panic bells about my daughter’s medically diagnosed green complexion started ringing in my head (along with tastebuds tingling in my mouth of green olive brine that I grew up sniffing twice a day from our Beirut corner grocer). The nurse explained that the comment was a “compliment”, and friends later explained that “olive skin” is a term that describes the skin of Mediterranean Australians. A term for Mediterranean Australians, Mediterranean-Australians who will never be unhyphenated (in borrowing from Audre Lorde) Australians. Australians such as myself and my daughter, and my son.

And the terms rolled in. I found out that not only did I have “olive skin”, but was also a “wog” and a “lebo”. My accent in English is quirky, my approach with people is blunt and my life experiences are sad stories and lived (not died) experiences. I am Australian while being Lebanese, Arab and Muslim, and my heritage and my background and my culture are reduced to a set of vocabulary and overused adjectives.

“Thank you for the hummus and the belly dancing, please try to assimilate and we have the special goggles to find you and point you out.”

I lived in a second language that was not only the English of books, but also the English of streets that hyphenates people. As I sifted through cultural subtitles to match them to the experiences that I was having and the conversations that I was misunderstanding, I myself was being subtitled. But it was always the one subtitle. Lebanese, Arab and Muslim.

What does it actually change that I am Lebanese, Arab and Muslim? It must change something. Why else would I have a second language and a subtitle. I cannot make mistakes. When I make a mistake it actually is not a mistake, it is a manifestation of an underlying nature that makes mistakes. I cannot look suspicious. If I am high or drunk on a street corner I am not just high or drunk on a street corner, I am high or drunk on a street corner and about to commit something terrible not because I am high or drunk, but because committing something terrible is a manifestation of an underlying nature that commits something terrible.

I am in Australia on indefinite probation.

Colours of pandemic

The pandemic was an Australia-wide panic-bell chorus ringing to trigger all the probations. The probation of the hyphenated Australians who celebrated the Eid whatever that was but was not a game of rugby. The probation of the hyphenated Australians who did not understand the instructions of the pamphlets of the authorities that spent all of five minutes copying them into Google translate and pasting the result as whatever language that was but was not English. The probation of the hyphenated Australians who were diseased by the pandemic and did not stay home much like other Australians who were not hyphenated and did not stay home but then they do not have the hyphen and can make the mistake and will never look suspicious and are not on probation, anyway.

There is not one pandemic in Australia. There is a pandemic of sourdough and home ground coffee beans and driveway violin and Zoom yoga and Netflix and Menulog. There is also a pandemic of racialised isolation and incessant praying that home is vacuum packed till the pandemic is “defeated” and sobbing with family and false promises that “the borders will open soon mama I have heard”. And the pandemic of being made to feel responsible for the pandemic and reminded of the no mistake no suspicion probation period.

My daughter wanted an answer. I could have told her that white is not a colour. I could have told her that the only question is whether she is white or not white. I know that the streets will make sure not only that she realises that she is “not white” but also that she understands all that “not white” means. I picked up the beige pencil. “I think your skin is this colour.”

Note: In response to COVID-19, Australia has introduced international border restrictions that have denied residents the ability to leave the country since mid-2020.

Sherine Al Shallah is an economist and law student with a deep interest in human rights to life, liberty and freedom of expression. Sherine volunteers with National Justice Project, Kaldor Centre for International Refugee Law, Asylum Seeker Centre, Asylum Seeker Resource Centre and Story Factory, and studies and tutors at UNSW. Sherine has published with demos journalKings Artist-RunInstitute for Postcolonial Studies, Civil Liberties AustraliaKaldor Centre, UNSW Law Journal and Kohl (forthcoming). Sherine lives on unceded lands of the Tharawal people and has never left Beirut. You can follow Sherine on Twitter @amiranu2ta.

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