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A Curly Conundrum: Ethnic and National Identity in Australia

Histrionic and routine comments dispel authenticity. Despite physical closeness — several fingers in my hair — I feel an imposed distance. You are so unlike me. This is what I am truly being notified of. Again.

Aïsha Trambas

A stranger’s fingers twirl through your locks, unfamiliar hands pet your head. You squirm uncomfortably and smile stiffly. For a moment, you feel inanimate. Is this what it is like to be an object — say, an oddly misshapen and garish vase — handled with undeniable fascination, but little respect?

I will be bold enough to extrapolate that if you are a brown person with tightly curled hair, living in a country such as Australia, you have most likely been subjected to scenarios such as this. You have perhaps felt that same feeling, that penetrative and degrading sense of objectification that, for one split second, makes you doubt whether you are sentient at all. The regularity with which I experience these interactions is steady, at least several times a week. No matter the frequency, triviality or brevity of such encounters, it is an immutable shock to me that anyone should place their own curiosity above another person’s due personal space, comfort or consent. I am recurrently stunned into an ornamental silence, after which comes a complex but equally noiseless indignation. On some level, I am conscious of my interlocutor’s often complimentary intentions. There is kindness alongside condescension, lively enthusiasm paired with blunt degradation. I know there is no malice intended, but no amount of innocuous and smiling ignorance can neuter the rampant Othering that positions me in fascinating opposition to an Anglo-European norm.

Your hair is so exotic! Would you call that an afro? I love people with hair like yours.

Do you?

Histrionic and routine comments dispel authenticity. Despite physical closeness — several fingers in my hair — I feel an imposed distance. You are so unlike me. This is what I am truly being notified of. Again.

It is not strictly the commentary on my physical appearance that so profoundly bothers me, though this behaviour in its own right deserves analysis and consideration. I am conscious that any such comment or observation, focused so heavily on the uninvited appraisal of female physicality, only ingratiates the notion that a woman’s value derives primarily from her appearance. Moreover, it would be wilfully ignorant not to acknowledge that the comments which seem to cling to my hair, regardless of the particular speaker, emanate from an undying fount of ageist, ableist, Western, white, heteronormative, male beauty standards. I am acutely aware that my natural features transgress certain aspects of these norms, whilst reinforcing others, resulting in a physicality that is different without being threatening, exotic but not yet unattractive.

Nonetheless, reading comments regarding my hair, or even skin tone, specifically through the lens of such pervasive physical paradigms, however valuable, does not accurately uncover the source of my discomfort or anger. Taking the second-wave rallying cry, ’The Personal is Political’, to be self-evident, I sought to uncover the cultural and political significances nestled within the plethora of brief and unpleasant conversations about my hair; its maintenance, its ‘wildness’, its size, and most importantly, its perceived difference.

One is launched into a complex, contradictory and inevitably political territory when exploring academic and creative reflections on the connotations of Black hair. One does not have to look far, merely making a microscopic scratch in the available discourse, to realise that hair politics has become a widely debated and substantially researched subject of its own. From academics such as Angela Davis, Noliwe Rooks, Obiagele Lake, bell hooks and Ingrid Banks, to writers, bloggers and artists such as Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Milisuthando Bongela, Selina Thompson and Emma Dabiri — resources abound. One blog post, one trip to the library, and suddenly I am embroiled in analysing the (often conflicting) cultural codes behind the straightening and pressing of African hair, the social functions of the hair salon, and natural Black hair as a political tool of resistance against white, Anglo-European hegemony. Riveting and relevant. Still, nothing seemed to articulate, or even comment on, the particular trajectory that hair-talk with strangers takes for me in everyday life. Whilst there is a strong cultural and political continuity — some may even speak of a transnational Black culture — amongst many branches of the African diaspora, I realised there was an Australia-sized lacuna in my reading that I could only illuminate through personal experience.

It is overdue that I should introduce the inevitable secondary blow, the cornerstone of almost every unwelcome conversation about my hair, the wince-inducing and endlessly frustrating:

“Where Are You From?”

The political significances that can be carried by or imposed upon Black hair shift from one setting to another, meaning that whilst still relevant, the primarily African-American context of my research did not accurately capture my own daily experience. Oppression, White hegemony, structural violence and internalised racism were some of the principal concerns raised and read through Black hair in African-American works, whereas for me in Australia, it seems to be the pressing question of ethnic and national identity that is raised by my own hair day-to-day. In most of the American literature I could get my hands on, ethnicity ceased to be a focal point when discussing the politics of Black hair, beyond the delineation of American people with African heritage, and those without it. The notorious issue of ‘good hair’ (European, straight, and silky) versus ‘bad hair’ (black, kinky, ‘untameable’)? Yes. Fetishisation? Yes. Imposed, Anglo-European beauty standards, assimilation and resistance? Naturally.  But nowhere (except in outwardly separatist or Black Nationalist literature) could I find any substantial sense of African American hair and appearance as a raging antithesis to American nationality or citizenship. This was the elusive significance I sought to identify within my own circumstances, the gap that so far has not been adequately filled by any external sources. This is daily how I experience my hair and my physicality, at least as mediated through the eyes and thoughts of others: as a barrier to my own Australian-ness, as a negation of my very upbringing and citizenship. My focus, then, became the ethno-national mythology of Australian identity, and how it shapes the way other Australian inhabitants interact with my hair.

Unfortunately but unsurprisingly, our most popular conception of Australian identity is dominated by the possession of, or assimilation towards a starkly white, Anglo-Celtic ethnicity and worldview. Positively neocolonial, our predominant measure of Australian-ness is how seamlessly one fits within the hegemonic narrative of English — or at least European — settlement and heritage that is revered as the foundation of the Australian nation. (I must acknowledge here that the Australian state at its most fundamental level has been directly forged through ongoing violence against this land’s First Peoples and rightful owners, against their country, autonomy and sovereignty, none of which have been ceded). The mythologised rendering of an archetypal Australian, able to hark back to their colonial lineage, is not only toxic, but a mould in which my hair simply does not fit. My hair is the focus of strangers’ touches and comments because it seems Other, exotic. I am asked where I am from because, by extension, I am perceived this way too.

I am asked where I am from because it does not occur to others that the answer could be: here.

The “here” in my response to this ceaseless question is complicated. Having been born here, having lived here all my life so far, having no other definitive cultural space to belong to, I see this answer as quite literal and direct. Yet at the same time, I know that what people truly mean, and what eventually comes out, is “What’s your background?” or “What’s your ethnicity?” “Where are your parents or grandparents from?”. And this is, quite frankly, the most perplexing thing; my ethnicity and my familial origins as a non-white Australian are always of interest, are always a mitigating factor in judging my Australian-ness. Because of my existence outside of the Anglo-European schema, I am perceived as being from somewhere else, regardless of how far back or how indirectly one gets to this mysterious place of supposed origin. The implication is that white Australians are somehow from “here”, by virtue of their colonial history. They are not asked to trace their ethnic ancestry, which is misunderstood and falsely postulated as default, blank, even devoid of ethnicity completely, whilst non-Indigenous PoC must make sure to account for their Otherness by expressing extraterritorial allegiances or roots. For an English person to simply be “from Australia” seems to be acceptable, the most acceptable narrative in fact, but a second or third generation non-white person of Australian birth would invalidate the mythology of Australian Anglicism by claiming to be “from Australia” too. For such a person, there must always be a disclaimer.

The best-rehearsed and most dryly delivered line of my childhood was my own ethno-national disclaimer, “I was born here, but my Mum is half Greek, and my Dad is African.” Note that even from a young age I understood that the other half of my Mum didn’t need an ethnic or national descriptor, in fact without one, that half would be assumed to be of English descent. This quite plainly yet poignantly evidences the efficacy of the rhetoric regarding Anglo-European identity. As a child, I don’t remember identifying as Australian. I don’t think it was something that occurred to me, seeing as I always used this explanatory prescription when people inquired — and they did so often, about my hair, and my descent — and this disclaimer seemed to appease them greatly. No one expected me to identify as Australian, to answer, “Here”, to the question of where I was from. I was and still am most often expected to perpetuate the Otherness imposed upon me, to define myself with a certain amount of distance from an accepted ethno-national norm, but I will not be doing this anymore. I will call myself ‘Australian’ because that is an important part of whom I now understand myself to be.

My point here is not to suggest that we erase or deny our cultural complexity or diversity, but quite the opposite. There can be no use in combatting one ethno-nationalist narrative (the idea of fair dinkum Aussies being those of Anglo-European cultural heritage) with a competing form of the same limited logic (for example, that all people born in Australia should identify solely and equally as ‘Australian’, renouncing any other cultural distinction). What, instead, I am positing a need for, is an acknowledgement that all people born in this country who are not of Aboriginal heritage, have rather recently (historically speaking) come from somewhere else. It is not mystical or Other to hail in some way from elsewhere, because all Australian settlers do. Due to the way this land was stolen, settled, and constructed as the nation it is presently, this is the reality of our ethnic composition.

Instead of perpetuating the falsely propagated idea of Anglo-Celtic Australians as ethnic tabula rasae, and the notion of Whiteness as a default qualifier for Australian identity, I want to subvert the identification ‘Australian’ to contain, not contrast with, my hybrid ethnicity. I use and mould the term ‘Australian’, not because there is anything essential within this term that I find significant, but because it should necessarily be capable of saying “I am from here”, and “I came from over there” simultaneously,  and regardless of whether one’s origins are British, Vietnamese, Ethiopian or Iranian. When I speak, I only attempt to do so from within my own subjectivity. I do not speak for any other “mixed-ethnicity” or non-white, settler Australians, and I recognise that everyone has a specific way of identifying themselves and their heritage that is significant. Nevertheless, it is my particular truth that I simply did not, and probably could not have come into the world in any other place than Australia. I was born here, with my ancestral lines criss-crossing around me, no clear trail of ethno-national origins to be followed. Like all people, my identity is composite and intersectional in limitless ways, and though it may seem counterintuitive, defending my Australian-ness is not about homogenising or reducing myself down to fit into a preconceived category. On the contrary, it is about stretching that category, complicating the way we construct settler Australian identity as it pertains to ethnicity and nationality.

Hair is political. Hair is subversive. I don’t so much mobilise my hair as a political tool as I let it carry me with it as it journeys through Australia. Though at times I feel inanimate, as if nothing but my curly keratin strands exist of me in the world, I am here and I will speak in response to the next pair of hands stroking me, the next voice telling me how unusual, how fascinating, how ‘ethnic’ I am. Instead of shying away from these uncomfortable conversations, I will attempt to embrace them and to see my hair as an opportunity for the smallest of political and cultural stirrings. The next time someone says something akin to,

“But you can’t be from Australia! What about your hair!”

I will reply,

“Yes, my hair. I grew it, and I was grown here.”


Words and images by Aïsha Trambas

1 Direct quote from a conversation with a stranger in Federation Square, less than a month ago.