I had a pretty overwhelming response to my article about growing up in Sydney as a woman of colour. I was astounded by the number of people, close friends, that commented saying they had no idea that we lived in a country where such attitudes are still so prevalent. It was baffling to me. Are people really unaware of the racial inequality that exists, or is it just more comfortable to pretend it's not happening?
Whatever it may be, I thought I would share a few more things about my experience to paint a broader picture of the world as I see it.
I Don't Know My Medical History
When I was about 31, I was diagnosed with Rheumatoid Arthritis. Two things happened after that diagnosis; my family and I were in a great deal of shock and we had to inform the rest of our extended family that we have RA in our genes. This is how it works when you have a non-existent medical history. You are making it up as you go along. You are continuously finding out about all the different diseases that may one day kill you. It's a fun adventure.
You see, my parents grew up across the road from one another in a tiny Egyptian village called Menouf. It is not a bustling metropolis with access to health care providers and hospitals. If you get sick in Menouf, a healer will make you a tea and the elders will pray for you. That's the extent of it.
So whenever I see a doctor and they ask about my medical history, I shrug at them. I have no idea what ailments my family suffered from. And that's on both sides of my family. It's something we're discovering now with the current generation. People seem to find this strange when I tell them. The reality is, loads of first-generation migrants in this country are in the exact same position. Their parents migrated to Australia from poorer countries that don't have access to health care, and consequentially means, they have no idea what their medical history is.
Having visited Egypt many times in my childhood, I am so incredibly grateful for all that we have in this country. To have free access to one of the best health care systems in the world is an extraordinary privilege that many of us take for granted.
Please Don't Touch My Hair
For the love of all that's holy, please don't ask to touch my hair. You may think you're being complimentary. "I love your hair" "It's so curly" "How do you get it so big?"
I take no issue with any of those statements. In fact, one of the greatest things someone said to me was, "Your hair should have its own Instagram page". I get it, I have big hair. It took me exactly 33 years and a baby girl to come to terms with that hair and embrace it. I was brought up to believe that my natural hair was dirty, woggy, ugly, and made me lesser than.
This is such a common experience and one that has been pretty well documented. The natural hair movement is about women reclaiming their natural looks and embracing the beauty that comes as a part of that. This movement has shifted the ideals of how we perceive beauty and challenge the idea that white features equal beautiful.
So when someone asks me if they can touch my hair, it takes me straight back to that position of other, lesser than. I'm not a puppy, I'm not an art installation, just a woman with some wild hair that absolutely can not be touched.
Growing up, my parents refused to speak English in our household. Contrary to popular belief, it's not because they didn't know how to, it's because they wanted my brother and me to grow up with another language.
It infuriated me no end as a kid. Why would they persist on flat out ignoring me unless I spoke to them in Arabic? I hated them at the time. It's so difficult to speak a language that isn't your native tongue. But their persistence paid off in the end. I am now bilingual. I fluently speak and understand Arabic, the official language of 26 countries, spoken by millions of people across the world. Not a bad skill to have.
I remember going to Egypt in my early twenties. As Arabic isn't my first language, I have a pretty wicked accent and sound like a child with learning difficulties. So my Egyptian relatives assumed that I was in fact, an idiot, and proceeded to speak to me like one.
The lesson here, if you come across anyone with an accent, it means English is their second (maybe third or fourth) language. Already, it makes that person pretty smart, so don't be so quick to write them off.
We Take our Food Very Seriously
I know it may sound weird, but I didn't know my family was different from other families for a very long time. I assumed all the kids at school had these absurd banquets for every meal. I didn't know what a healthy portion was until I was a grown-ass adult. Egypt (and a bunch of other countries around the world) has built its entire culture on food. Honestly, all the major milestones in the life of an Egyptian revolve around an outrageous amount of food.
Weddings, funerals, graduations, whatever it may be, is an excuse to cook for three days and serve up a feast. I'll never forget the first time my sweet Kiwi husband met my parents. It was a big deal. My beloved, understandably nervous, sat next to me at the table, leaned in and whispered, "Who else is coming?" I replied that it was just the four of us. It took him a moment to comprehend that all the food on the table was for four adult humans. It was the first of many feasts to come and a wonderful introduction to the world of Egyptian custom.
If someone is sad, you cook for them, to celebrate someone, you cook for them, if someone is sick, you cook for them, you see where I'm going with this. It may make you sick, but try and eat as much you can if an Egyptian cooks for you, they expect you to eat and will take it personally if you don't.
My fondest memories as a child were formed in the kitchen cooking with my mum. We cook with passion and absolutely love our food. Probably why we cook so much of it.
Where Am I Really From
This will always be my favourite game to play with people that refuse to accept that I'm Australian. It goes a little something like this:
Person - Where are you from?
Me - Australia.
Person - Sure, but where are you actually from.
Me - Oh, sorry, I'm from New South Wales
Person (getting slightly more agitated) - No, where were you born?
Me (smile getting bigger) - Sydney
Person (borderline raging) - What does it say on your birth certificate?
Me (positively joyous) - How silly of me for misunderstanding the question. It states on my birth certificate that Crown Street Women's Hospital in Surry Hills, Sydney was the exact place of my birth.
By this point, the person I'm talking to no longer has any interest in me. Which is a shame, because I would love to play that game right back. Unless you're Indigenous, this idea of ownership to being Australian is absurd to me. Even then, no mob will tell you that they own the land. Doesn't work like that. Yet, here we are, justifying our place of birth like it makes any difference at all.
Frankly, I don't give a shit what hospital, barn, living room anyone was born in. It's the attitude that you bring to your existence after birth that matters to me.
This question, along with any other questions, remarks or assertions that put me in a position of justifying my right to be in this country, is a large part of my experience as a woman of colour.
Like that one time I was reminded by a remarkably ignorant person that "When you live in this country, you have to take on our traditions". That comment was made to me when I said I didn't want to take on my husband's name after marriage. She made that idiot comment on the assumption that it goes against my real culture to change my maiden name. On the contrary, it is unheard of for an Egyptian woman to keep her maiden name. What enraged me even more, was that she assumed my white, blue-eyed husband is Australian. The man can't legally vote in this country, has never made any attempt to be a citizen and has NEVER been questioned around his refusal to do so.
Yet I am constantly having to prove my Australianess, purely because of the skin I am in.
This is a simple, humble account of some of the things I have seen, experienced and lived through as a strong, brown woman. Many attempts have been made to knock me down, feel inferior or apologise for who I am. It has taken decades for me to find my voice. The older I get, the louder it becomes. My experience growing up in an ethnic household hasn't been all doom and gloom. I am so proud of my heritage and equally proud of the country I identify as home. They are exclusive concepts. You don't have to give up where you're from to be proud of who you are. Assimilation is boring and would mean that Australia would never know what hummus is. What a terrifying thought that is.
The hashtag BLM will soon stop trending, the protests will subside and the news cycle will move on. What matters now, is what we do with the building momentum. How much will the psyche of every day Australians change to become more inclusive? How prepared are we to sit in our discomfort to see how the world looks for everyone that calls this land home.
I'll Leave You With Stan
It's no secret that I am such a huge fan of Stan Grant. A journalist, author, presenter and a leader of social activism, he has given many lectures, speeches and produced incredible documentaries that give insight to the ongoing plight of Indigenous Australians.
During the IQ2 Racism Debate at the Ethics Centre, he beautifully concludes his speech with this sentiment:
"... and one day I want to stand here, and say as proudly and sing as loudly as anyone else in this room - Australians ALL let us rejoice"