Last Friday eve, Georgia slammed her fist on the table. She proclaimed that the only way we were ever going to “get shit done around ’ere” is if we were to burn our bras. She looked me square on; almost as if she was waiting for me to pull out a worn, hardcover edition of The Female Eunuch from my briefcase and then proceed to smack germane (or rather, Germaine) sense into the men who sat amongst us as they unassumingly sipped on their pints. I didn’t.
Kristie—a friend of hers—sniggered. They were the sort of women who hosted costume parties where ghouls, rabbits, and exaggerated interpretations of Woodstock attendees drank red wine under framed university degrees.
It was the first time I had met them both, and Kristie continued to offer me cigarettes my bank balance couldn’t refuse. We discussed undemocratic health care, the hyper-sexualization of women, and lastly, eating disorders—because of course we did.
“My mother suffers from an eating disorder,” I said. “It began when she was in her late teens.”
“What do you think brought it on?” Kristie asked.
With the confidence of somebody who has considered, time and time again, the nature of my mother’s mental demons—in psychologist’s offices, during pillow talk with lovers, over coffee, and even in animated debates with my grandmother—I didn’t think twice before responding in between puffs with, “Her whiteness.”
Sadhvi is my mother’s name. Gender: Girl. Origin: Tamil. My grandfather loves to dispute this, declaring instead that Sadhvi means “virtuous woman” in Sinhala. Regardless of which particular ethnic group the name originates from, it stems from Ceylon—a small country someplace south of India, otherwise known as Sri Lanka. But if you were to stumble upon my mother’s Facebook profile, you’d find—behind pixelated photographs of autumn leaves and the occasional lost dog poster—a white woman.
Kristie and Georgia were confused. They had read a sprinkling of academic journal articles exploring critical race theory, as well as impassioned Facebook statuses. They likely listened to “Paper Planes” (and, for all I know, even Kendrick Lamar) once or twice. They perhaps even laughed ironically at racist tabloid news investigations—not to mention their own whiteness. They knew that whiteness meant privilege.
Kristie and Georgia looked at each other with the sort of confusion I knew well—the type that gave white people permission to study every pore, shadow, and strand of pencil-thin hair on my mother’s body as if she were some disobedient Sri Lankan landmark they’d marked with an X on a map, a tourist destination with no reliable entry. “I’ve never heard of someone being insecure enough to develop an eating disorder from being . . . white,” Georgia sarcastically hurled into the mix. “That’s strange.”
In Toolangi, amongst peach-colored sunrises and flowering weeds in the 1970s, lived a brown family. Toolangi: a small, Australian country town with winding roads framed by protective gumtrees, and men with chapettes, red heelers, and obligatory .22LR guns. My grandmother—a Sri Lankan migrant—lived in Toolangi with her husband, a white man who performed country music in tired pubs, and their three children: Sadhvi, Vincent (affectionately known as “Cocoa” because of his Cadbury-colored skin), and Casey.
My grandfather often reflects tenderly on when he scooped up a snug, cocoa-colored child in the local hospital the day my mother was born; patting her nose with his finger. He imagined the sort of love notes she’d receive, the Sinhala young men who would beg her to perform like ancient scripture. How any given sari would collapse delightfully over her shoulder, almost as if she were born enveloped in silk. His whiteness allowed him to string together meaning, to make sense of his daughter as something exotic, a delightful spectacle, a caricature you’d find in an airport gift shop. He knew only to gently caress love into his wife’s skin, whereas she knew the texture of every cream (infused with mercury or otherwise) that worked to humiliate the melanin she detested.
“Sir, that’s not your baby. This is,” the nurse interrupted—handing him a tiny, screaming, salmon-pink child wearing a wet paper bracelet labelled “Sadhvi.”
He crassly wanted to shake the nurse and point at his sleeping wife (and importantly: her frizzy, black hair). He wanted to bellow that her womb was likely as humid and warm as Ceylon come July. How could it, then, assemble together a child as white as this?
He was the first of many, including Kristie and Georgia, to declare that Sadhvi—all red cheeks, chalky fingers, and an eager grip—isn’t, and never will be, dark enough.
In Georgia’s defense, I’d never heard of someone being insecure enough to develop an eating disorder from being white, either. But my mother isn’t “white” in the ways that Georgia is. She has never grimaced at the sight of a bay leaf in her eleven-dollar meal before. She has no idea what roller derby is. I mean, she doesn’t even have a recycling bin. My mother’s “whiteness” is disputed, by brown and white people alike, and treated as something to interrogate.
However, it would be audacious—and plainly wrong of me—to ignore the white privileges my mother has been accorded because of it. Koa Beck once wrote—whilst describing her “whiteness” as if it were another person, another woman—that, “with my invisibility has come her privilege.” Her cultural background is approximately one hundred exhales, confused gazes, and I never would’ve guessed claims. A piece of trivia, rather than an oppressive tool.
I was born with a curly mop of brown hair on my head and olive skin. It didn’t take long for my eyebrows to riotously merge as one, and for my eyelashes to grow and fatten.
As my mother—with focused determination—patted hot wax onto my face when I was twelve years old, I noticed the empty space above her eyes; how her albinism took her eyebrows and eyelashes hostage. How it poked fun at the unwritten laws of her genetics. How it forced her to materialize her ethnicity.
“You stole my features,” she laughed. And perhaps she was right. I had collected a handful of remarks over the years: from hairdressers, with envy on their tongues, commenting on the thickness of my hair; insecure pupils in unflattering one-pieces furiously applying mascara after obligatory swimming carnivals, remarking on how lucky I was; men, with eager eyes, pining for the olive shadows cast on my back, the consistent warmth of my skin. I was allowed to wear my cultural heritage like an embellishment.
Failing to make sense of my mother as a Sri Lankan woman—to see only cast binaries—is a privilege exercised in and of itself. To truly believe that race isn’t nuanced, that ethnicity is something that can be worn, that there is only one way to perform “brown,” is perhaps a more revealing indication of whiteness than my mother’s outward appearance.
It is no surprise, then, that a biracial woman who indignantly refuses herself food has likely never felt full of rich substance, cultural or otherwise.
It didn’t take long for Kristie and Georgia to change the subject. When it was time for me to go, Georgia unravelled the collar of her denim jacket, smiled, and said, “I’ll add you on Facebook. I’m having a house party next weekend. You should come. I think you’d get along with my friends.” Perhaps I would. Perhaps I’d bring cheap wine and hummus, go dressed as Dana Scully from The X-Files , and get locked in the bathroom with a graduate student, who would proceed to drunkenly tell me how life-changing studying abroad in Scandinavia was for six months, before denouncing capitalism.
I wouldn’t tell the student about my mother. About the family photos she denounced. The facial tattoos. The guilt and pleasure she feels when a telemarketer—who knows only her name—speaks slowly so she, a brown woman, can follow along. The way she cried when people snatched and seized her hair, like gold, on the streets in Colombo. The diet pills. The fact that her body failed her in more ways than one. Unless, of course, that person—with fair skin, and flaxen hair—had a brown mother, too. It’s just, I never would’ve guessed.