I feel like I have inverted coconut syndrome; white on the outside, black on the inside, but ultimately hollow.
By
Michelle James*

10 Jan 2019 - 2:32 PM  UPDATED 25 Mar 2019 - 10:13 AM

I went to a bar recently to sulk about family drama, and a friend had a box of artisan chocolates. He told me to pick one and he would use my choice to determine my horoscope. I was sad and wanted sugar, so I chose the one that looked the sweetest — a white chocolate. He began his candy-coloured forecast with the word “coconut” and I shrieked.

With one word, this piece of chocolate encapsulated my anxiety.

In Pacific Islander culture, a coconut is a slur for somebody who’s black on the outside and white on the inside. This means that they embody the institutions designed to oppress them, like when former Rugby League player Sam Thaiday said if women “ain’t white, it ain’t right.”

With one word, this piece of chocolate encapsulated my anxiety.

My maternal grandmother was an Islander woman, born in Suva, Fiji. She died when I was young and my attempts to learn about her culture, her history and her identity politics tend to be skewered by contradicting stories from dysfunctional relatives. From what little I know, she probably thought she had too much class privilege to be classified as a woman of colour — though by Anglo-Australian standards, she certainly was.

Whether we like it or not, our identity is often prescribed by what people project onto us. People who identify as white often accrue person of colour status through migration, when confronted with a white(r) world order that sees any deviation from their slender white bodies as other.

Islander women typically have big hips, broad shoulders and tanned skin. I don’t look like that. I’ve always been skinny and pale, like my Caucasian-Australian father.

My sister, however, was bullied from a young age for being “fat”. For having those Islander hips and shoulders, while my slender white body just sailed through primary school unchallenged, with self-esteem in check.

Feminist and academic Peggy McIntosh defines white privilege as an “invisible package of unearned assets”.

My slender white body sailed through primary school unchallenged, self-esteem in check.

In my life, this has meant that I won’t be followed by security when shopping, or harassed by police. In my adolescent delinquency, it was I as an individual and not my community in its entirety that was held accountable for my actions.

In my (debatably) post-delinquent adult life, I work predominantly in film — my preferred method of disruption.

When I asked my mum what kind of movies she likes, she said “foreign films”. I laughed, because I knew why she said that. Back in the golden age of DVD and VHS rentals, anything made outside the Hollywood studio system was clustered under a single category entitled Foreign.

Interestingly, the French word for foreign is étranger and can be used interchangeably with stranger - someone with whom you have nothing in common. America, being outside our national borders, is technically foreign.

But we don’t consider ourselves strangers to their culture, as it doesn’t hold a marginal status in terms of access or viewership.

Whether we’re conscious of it or not, what we consider ‘local’ or ‘foreign’ is often synonymous with what we consider ‘normal’ and ‘not normal.’ An extension of this is the white against not right dichotomy.

Whenever I see Islanders I always smile, because it’s natural for me to associate them with my maternal home. But they don’t recognise me in the same way.

So, to quote blue collar scholar Shannon Noll, what about me? What about this foreign part of me? Whenever I see Islanders I always smile, because it’s natural for me to associate them with my maternal home. But they don’t recognise me in the same way, and often don’t believe me if we end up talking and I mention my grandma is from Suva.

Yet every now and then I’ll get a comment from a stranger alluding to the fact that I’m not quite white, that “there’s something ethnic” about me.

Recently, I made another attempt to ask my mum about my grandmother and was reminded of a graffiti I saw in Paris: "Most of the pain in the world is concentrated in places where people are dear to each other." She told me in this instance that silence was better than noise. I let her believe that I thought it was fair because I didn't want to make her upset. But I was furious — because who am I if not the accumulation of everyone that came before me?

I don’t want to whitewash my Fijian heritage, but that desire comes from a place of privilege. I’m the whitest generation of my grandmother’s lineage, and as a result no one has ever made me feel like I should be ashamed of where I’m from. I feel like I have an inverted coconut syndrome; white on the outside, black on the inside, but ultimately hollow. Because the knowledge that would constitute a caramel cultural identity just isn’t there.

Ironically, my mum does love the movie Forrest Gump. As the iconic line goes, “Mama always said life was like a box of chocolates. You never know what you’re gonna get.” Who would have thought that later that evening, a coconut-ty chocolate would be staring right back at me?

*The writer's name has been changed.

This article is part of a series by SBS Life supporting the work of emerging young Asian-Australian writers. Want to be involved? Get in touch with Candice on Twitter @candicechung_

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