“What was Sri Lanka called before it was Sri Lanka, Little Miss India?" Mrs Wilson* squinted her beady eyes at me as a lump caught in my throat. I felt as if my entire Year 9 class at my Perth high school turned sideways to look in my direction as I failed to make desperate eye contact with Mala*, my only other Indian-Australian classmate.
“Well?” Mrs Wilson asked pointedly.
“Uhh… Mala is Indian too,” I said, pushing the lump in my throat down while heat spread across my face.
Mrs Wilson scrunched her blackhead-infested nose at me, which from my seat looked like it had a greeny tinge. “Ceylon,” she sighed.
Ceylon. Of course I knew the answer. By the time I was seven I had a sound understanding of British imperialist names for South Asia. So why did Mrs Wilson’s beady eyes and pink skin intimidate me? Maybe because I was being called out for being Indian in front of my own class. Or maybe, because at 14, I didn’t have the vocabulary to describe casual racism.
In his personal essay “We Picked the Wrong Side”, bestselling author Neel Patel writes, “We have come to view white people, even colleagues, as authoritative figures. We defer to their opinions. We don’t make waves.” Of course, as a teacher, Mrs Wilson was an authoritative figure and as her student I felt she could not be corrected by someone like me. As a minority individual, a subconscious inferiority complex developed through encountering microaggressions and more overt forms of racism throughout my life. This incident wasn’t the first or final taunt I had received about my Indian heritage, but I remember it vividly as a reminder that us non-white people, no matter how close to whiteness we may feel or be, will always be perceived as other. This is particularly true in Perth, where four out of the five most common ethnicities are white or white-passing.
As a result of being made to feel inferior to my white peers, I spent a lot of my high school years focusing on my Indianness, rather than my queerness.
As a result of being made to feel inferior to my white peers, I spent a lot of my high school years focusing on my Indianness, rather than my queerness. I hid my sexuality like a secret. In Year 11, sitting on a limestone divider outside the cafeteria, a friend who was interested in me, asked if I’d ever want a boyfriend. I’d replied, “Not now, but yeah maybe in the future.” I remember his bulging blue eyes when he asked me if was gay. I automatically replied no, as the same lump and heat I’d developed in Mrs Wilson’s class reappeared.
Kimberlé Crenshaw, a professor at Columbia Law School, coined the term ‘intersectionality’ in 1989 to describe how race, class, gender, sexuality and other identities intersect and overlap with one another. Discovering the term only when I went to university, I realised that although I tried to ignore my sexuality in my teen years, I could never undo what I am at every point of my existence - a queer Indian woman. Even in some spaces I exist in today, I still have to grapple with being not just the only queer woman I know, but the only queer South Asian woman I know.
Throughout my late teens and early 20s, the first response I usually got when I came out to people was, ‘What does your family think?’ If anything, this response cemented my Indian heritage more so than my queerness. This would likely never be the first thought to cross people’s minds when in conversation with white queer people. In this way, I was not seen as a valid lesbian in the eyes of my peers. This was one of my many experiences of feeling unheard and unsafe in the majority-white queer community, which does not traverse beyond the stifling boundaries of Sydney’s inner west. Only later in my 20s would I develop bonded relationships with queer people of colour, and together we would build our own community.
If anything, this response cemented my Indian heritage more so than my queerness.
One of the clearest moments of when my race, gender and sexuality collided simultaneously was at Mardi Gras Fair Day one year. I had pulled out my wallet to put my dollar coin donation in the entry bucket. Upon entry, one of the male bucket holders peeled off a fair day sticker and slapped it on to the middle of my chest, laughing at his mates he said, “I can do that because I’m gay.” White people touching brown and black people without our consent - our clothes, our hair and our skin is white supremacy enacted. This particular incident was a direct example of different intersections — racism and misogyny. It begs us to consider how dangerous whiteness is when white people use their marginalised identities to enact harm on others with multiple marginalised identities. Whether from white men or women, in subtle or overt ways, whiteness has been used as a weapon for centuries.
Award-winning author Layla F. Saad breaks this down in her TIME magazine interview, stating that white supremacy upholds the belief that white people deserve to be dominant over people of other races. “That dominance shows up in various different ways. It showed up centuries ago with genocide and enslavement and colonization. But it still shows up today, in interpersonal relationships.”
Throughout my teens and early 20s, distancing myself from my Indianness, embracing it, normalising it and finally recognising the privileges it afforded me as a light-skinned Hindi-speaking Northerner, I grew to become more and more comfortable in my intersecting identities. Perhaps the final step to reaching this stage was engaging with more and more queer women and non-binary people of colour in my life - in my social circles, in the music I listened to, and the visual media I consumed.
In 2016, I saw Sydney-based musician OKENYO perform, a visibly queer Black woman. After her set, I headed up to the stage and asked if I could grab a photo with her. She obliged and we chatted about being creatives as queer women of colour in our 20s. When I think about that moment and who I was in high school, the gap in being what whiteness expected out of me and normalising myself as a queer Indian woman materialised after so many years. Yearning validation from whiteness is now an aversion.
*Names have been changed
This article has been published in partnership with Sweatshop: Western Sydney Literacy Movement.