These are the stories told to me throughout childhood, by my mum. Raised in New South Wales, Australia by a tall, dignified indigenous man from the Bundjalung tribe and a graceful Indo-Pak/English mother, my mum spent her earliest years unaware that there was anything unique or defining about the shades of skin tone that existed in her family.
Until the family moved to a town where most of the people were white.
Thank you for bravely telling me these stories again this week mum, and for permitting me to share them on your behalf.
“When I was twelve years old, we would take a bus to and from school. One morning, my Dad took the same bus. One of the other school kids exclaimed loudly, “there’s a black man.”
And that is when it hit me; when I first became aware that we were different.
I was frozen in shock. I had never seen dad as different from anyone else. It hit me in the middle of my chest, and all these years later the memory of that one moment takes me back and gives me that same sinking feeling.
There was a new awareness that people with dark skin were looked down on. I suddenly felt exposed and fragile, different, and self-conscious.
It had a deep effect on me as a young impressionable girl. I started wearing a long-sleeved jacket all the time so people could not see my arms. It was green cardigan that mum knitted for me – I wore it everywhere, regardless of the weather. People would ask me if I was hot, and I always claimed that I was not hot at all. Deep down inside me I had decided that there was no way that I would take off that jacket and let people see my dark arms. Eventually that green cardigan started to wear thin at the elbows – I shortened the sleeves and continued to wear it.
Gradually I outgrew that phase and people would tell me I had nice skin. Yet while I no longer wore my favourite green cardigan, the impact of that one comment had forever got under that nice skin.
I vividly remember being told that I was not allowed to wear the colour red. We were always told that if a girl wore red, she would be thought of as a “black gin” a derogatory term. At one point we had a mannequin parade so we went to a dress shop in a nearby town and were fitted with outfits. On the day we were dressed and paraded the outfits on stage. I wore a stunning red dress that went beautifully with the colour of my hair. It was this event that helped me confront my shame about wearing the colour red.
Eventually I got a bright red jumper when I was about 15 – it was my favourite.
This all happened about seventy years ago, yet the retelling of these stories brings back the memories and I am left with that familiar fragile feeling.
While I have developed the habit of telling myself that I am safe and secure, in myself and in my faith, it does not stop intrusive thoughts from raising their heads from time to time. I still feel the occasional impact. If somebody looks at me, I wonder what they are thinking.
Recently, with COVID-19 sweeping the world I felt that deep sense of uncertainty once again. While at the shop the other day another shopper was responsibly keeping her distance from nearby people. She looked at me when I walked past. I felt exposed and my first thought was that she was had an issue with my darker skin.
Due to the recent death of another unarmed black man in America we are yet again confronted by the issues faced by people of colour. I admire the people I see around the world that are speaking out and willing to be counted right now. I am also aware that for some people, these events may bring up difficult memories. I have found it confronting. We need to be aware of each other. I believe we have the right to question these matters, to be angry about these things even, but I am certain that violent retaliation is not the answer.
It is my hope that by telling these stories, then others will speak out also.”
Thanks mum. Just as these experiences shaped and influenced the life of my darker-skinned mother, the retelling of these same stories informed my own beliefs and values as a fairer-skinned daughter. I have learnt that strength is found within family, friendship, and community. To tell and retell stories and share experiences without shame, or fear of judgement helps create a sense of security and connection in uncertain times.
Cherylynn Sellick, mentor, coach and founder of Realign My Life calls Australia home and has always believed in the power of story.