When I was little, I wanted to have ‘normal’ skin. I would often pull up my sleeves and look at my forearms, showing them off to the kids at school – the kids who weren’t really my friends. My arms were the part of my body that could pass as ‘normal’. If I were to wear a mask and long pants and just bare my forearms, I could pretend I didn’t have ichthyosis. The skin on my forearms is, for most of the time, smooth and pale, although it does get red when I’m sore. Strangers often tell me, ignorantly, that ichthyosis doesn’t seem to affect my arms.
I used to ask the kids at school whether I would be white or black or brown if I didn’t have red skin. ‘White!’ they would say, nodding their heads furiously. White, the desired, socially acceptable shade. Were they trying to tell me that if I had a chance at being normal, I wouldn’t want to stick out again in my small, white bread Lutheran town in country Australia with – gasp – dark skin?
My mum has dark skin. She’s South African – classed as a coloured in apartheid terms. Her skin is like brown sugar, chocolate milk, iced coffee. Mum was one of the few black people in Walla Walla – there were a few exchange students at the private high school, but as far as I knew, she was the only black person to settle in Walla Walla in the 14 or so years that we lived there. My father has white skin. But my skin tone isn’t midway: it’s red. It’s so far from the ‘exotic’ complexion I could have had. I don’t feel black. I don’t feel white. How does being those skin colours feel, anyway?
It took me a long time to identify as ‘Carly with the red skin’. It was so often associated with rude nicknames, and, of course, I just wanted to be ‘normal’. But how else would you describe my face? Red is a fair and factual descriptor. Not an insult. Not derogatory. Just a fact.
I fear I am a fraud to claim blackness when I haven’t lived my mother’s black culture and I haven’t experienced the racism she did under apartheid
I’ve been thinking about my culture. I didn’t grow up learning Afrikaans or listening to rap as my South African friends did, although South African curries were a staple meal, and I learnt about Steve Biko and Nelson Mandela, just as I called my parents’ close friends Uncle and Aunty, even though they weren’t relatives. My dad’s English accent rubbed off on me, and I knew a lot about the Liverpool Football Club. But I just felt Australian. Aussie pop culture and barbecues and running through the sprinkler in the summer. Just before I started school, my parents insisted I get one of my Australian aunties to teach me the national anthem so I could sing it at school.
I fear I am a fraud to claim blackness when I haven’t lived my mother’s black culture and I haven’t experienced the racism she did under apartheid. But in recent years, I’ve been called a woman of colour by other people – because of my redness, and by people who know my black heritage. If they see me that way, I give myself permission to see myself that way too. I’ve been saying I’ve got black heritage more and more. I’m talking to and reading more from black women, and the more I read and hear, the more I want to learn. I also relate to some of their experiences because of my experiences with disability and discrimination, but I know that it might be false equivalence. I don’t want to presume to understand what it’s really like. Whiteness and blackness are more than skin colour – they’re about levels of privilege.
I worry that the furore over Rachel Dolezal – and others who ‘pass’ as belonging to a minority for some kind of personal gain – has made it hard for people like me to talk about race. Rachel Dolezal is an ethnically white American woman who claimed to be black for years before she was exposed in 2015, and who still identifies as ‘culturally black’. She wears her hair in dreadlocks and has darkened her face, but her background is not black. Of course, I’m not making any false claims, but is racism my issue to take on, when I don’t identify as either black or white? Online discussions around race make me quite uncertain of when to speak up or butt out. But if there’s a place at the table for me, I’ll listen.
Mum’s experience was different from mine. She hasn’t considered her colour as part of her identity. Her colour has never bothered her. For her, it just is. But like me, she does believe it’s up to others to accept our differences – rather than us changing to fit in. Mum’s skin is ageless. A bit like my skin – though for different genetic reasons. The smell of Oil of Olay is long gone from Mum’s dresser. She doesn’t rely on beauty products to keep herself looking youthful.
I have felt discriminated against because of my skin colour – perhaps in ways both similar to and different from my black family and friends.
A few years ago, while sitting in the Emergency Department – I had cut my thumb severely – I told Mum that I thought her neck needed a bit of moisturiser. She was nearing 60. She pulled at her neck and said, ‘No. I’ve always had great skin. It’s never been a problem.’
‘Thanks for passing it on to me,’ I chided. We both burst out laughing, which encouraged those patients who overheard us to laugh too.
I’ve asked others with ichthyosis how they see themselves, especially if they are red (there are many types of ichthyosis, and it presents in different ways – sometimes noticeable and sometimes not). Some who are red like me see themselves as white, because that’s their ethnicity. A couple recognised their colour – red – said it was a fact, as I do. Some didn’t want to see their colour, and that’s often to do with other people’s reactions – they were called derogatory names, or told they ruin school photos, or accused of being sunburnt or dirty. Some were very defensive and wouldn’t answer.
I don’t generally talk about race as a factor in the ableism and discrimination I face. Culturally, I feel like a middle-class white woman. I live in inner Melbourne. I listen to Aussie rock music. I earn a decent wage. I’m married and have travelled internationally. But I have felt discriminated against because of my skin colour – perhaps in ways both similar to and different from my black family and friends. And I also see my skin as my identity, finally.
I look at my family now: a blend of South African and English, and my husband is Malaysian-Australian. And those ichthyosis genes have created a uniqueness and bond that only a few others in the world understand.
‘This is an extract from Say Hello by Carly Findlay, published by HarperCollins Australia and now available in all good bookstores and online.’
Photo by Kristoffer Paulsen