As a writer of Greek-Cypriot descent, there's a question that keeps resurfacing in my career: Am I a Person of Colour (POC)?
I have spoken to people from different backgrounds about this, all in the hope of finding an answer. Do I have the right to write about this? Is this topic out of my lane? Should I worry about offending people? Maybe, it's only by unpacking these delicate issues together that we can pave the way for a more culturally diverse Australia.
The fact is that I don’t have a definitive answer when people ask me if I identify as POC. My friend of Spanish descent is adamant he is, while my Greek cousin swears she’s white. One thing I am certain of is I am not white, and if anyone calls me that, I get angry. Really angry.
The fact is that I don’t have a definitive answer when people ask me if I identify as POC. My friend of Spanish descent is adamant he is, while my Greek cousin swears she’s white.
Sometimes I feel white people call me “white” when it suits them; I am ethnic in the actor’s audition room but the whinging “white wog” at the dinner party. Have we already forgotten that southern Europeans who migrated to Australia in the early days were considered “white aliens” or “semi-coloured” and treated accordingly?
Clearly my skin is not brown, it’s olive. My dad’s is brown, though. But is calling yourself a “POC” even about skin tone? People of Asian descent are considered people of colour even though some Asian ethnicities don’t have brown skin; it’s the oppression they’ve endured that makes them POC.
On this, former Greek finance minister Yanis Varoufakis would probably agree. A strong advocate for refugees, in his student days at Essex University in the 1980s, Varoufakis, believe it or not, was elected president of the Black Student Union. Professor Monojit Chatterji, who supervised Varoufakis's doctorate, told the Telegraph: “[Varoufakis] said, ‘Black is a political term for anyone who has been discriminated against or a potential subject of discrimination on the grounds of ethnicity, and that’s me’…. they elected him…because he would take their case with huge vigour and forcefulness”.
Although the term ‘POC’ can be traced back to Martin Luther King Jr. when he used the term ‘Citizens of Colour’ in 1963 during the civil rights movement, its meaning has adapted over time. The term ‘Women of Colour’, for example, was born when a group of African-American women were not happy with the mere three pages allocated to minority women in a 200-page document produced for the National Women’s Conference in 1977. They put together ‘The Black Women’s Agenda’ as a plan of action, but other minority women wanted to be included and it was in those negotiations that the term ‘Women of Colour’ was born.
Loretta Ross, co-founder of Sister Song, Women of Colour Reproductive Justice Collective, explains: “They didn’t see it as a biological designation… it is a solidarity definition, a commitment to work in collaboration with other oppressed women of colour who have been minoritised. Now what’s happened in the 30 years then is that people see it as biology now… but why are you reducing a political designation to a biological destiny? That’s what white supremacy wants you to do. And I think it’s a setback when we disintegrate as POC around primitive ethnic claiming…when you choose to work with other people who are minoritised by oppression you have lifted yourself out of that basic identity into another political being”.
People of Asian descent are considered people of colour even though some Asian ethnicities don’t have brown skin; it’s the oppression they’ve endured that makes them POC.
And fighting white supremacy is what I’m all about. Diversity for me is shifting that power and making sure all groups are represented adequately. Take the diversity report produced by Screen Australia in 2016. The report states, “People from European backgrounds such as Greek or Italian, and from non-European backgrounds such as Asian, African or Middle Eastern, were significantly under-represented”. Likewise, if you look at the emergence of young diverse writers in the last few years which have been shortlisted for prizes, you will see Greeks, Italians, Spanish, Turkish and many other cultures missing. If we assume that the POC definition used excludes these ethnicities, then POC may be little more than a tick box readily ticked by decision-makers at the expense of other fringe ethnicities rather than at the expense of over-represented Anglos.
In my writing, when I fight politically for diversity in the arts, I have at times referred to myself as a 'Woman of Colour' as this is where my ethics lie. In response, the following are just some of the messages relayed to me either directly or indirectly, which, having fought my own cultural repression to actually speak my mind in public, feel kind of like bullying.
On my blog: ‘The Greeks have had their day, it’s time for POC now, move on.’
By a prominent comedian of colour on Twitter, retweeted and liked several hundred times: ‘Greeks and Italians are not POC. They got promoted to white a while ago. Forward this memo.’
The danger with labels
Author of The Hate Race, Maxine Beneba Clarke, has previously expressed her thoughts on the issue of the POC title to me as such: “The term people of colour is powerful in terms of a unifying banner and political consciousness or alignment. The danger is, though, that within the broad scope of the term, the more specific individual needs of various groups are diluted, or forgotten”.
So if people on the fringes feel forgotten, and people within the group can also feel forgotten, has the term 'POC' become redundant? Personally, I don’t really care if a person calls me a POC or not. I refer to myself as a person from a culturally and linguistically diverse background, mostly because I’d rather not get into the argument of if I am POC or I’m not.
All I know is what I believe in and what I am fighting for: an arts scene in Australia that is truly representative of the society we live in - and I don’t see that.
Boxes and tokens are what we are faced with. Diversity [is sometimes] paperwork and not about what is really important: art and telling stories about the country we live in. I want a unified movement to shift the dominance of Anglo art in our arts world. But unfortunately, I don’t see that.
Koraly Dimitriadis is a writer, poet, filmmaker, theatremaker and the author of Love and F**k Poems.
Face Up To Racism with SBS, through a season of stories and programs challenging preconceptions around race and prejudice. #FU2Racism | Face Up To Racism.
Three documentaries, Is Australia Racist; Date My Race; and The Truth About Racism; are all available to view now on SBS On Demand.