I was recently enjoying a first date with a charming Indian-Australian man named Ramesh, when he leaned over conspiratorially and said, “you know, I’m actually a coconut.” Ramesh didn’t have a tenuous grip on reality, he didn’t think he was an actual coconut. He was using a shorthand that’s quite well known throughout brown communities, to make sure that I knew he wasn’t a typical brown guy. That he was more white than not. Brown on the outside, white on the inside. A coconut.
The word coconut (see also: oreo or banana) has most frequently been used derogatorily towards people of colour by other members of their community to accuse them of ‘acting too white’ and betraying their own culture. And yet ‘white on the inside’ is an idea that has resonated with many people of colour throughout their lives, including me. While I’ve never described myself as a coconut, I’ve felt firsthand that tempting pull towards whiteness.
The word coconut (see also: oreo or banana) has most frequently been used derogatorily towards people of colour by other members of their community to accuse them of ‘acting too white’ and betraying their own culture.
When you’re a ‘white and something’ mixed race kid in Australia, you quickly learn the white part of you is the side that should shine. You start to embrace the vegemite sandwiches and ditch the ethnic food in the lunchbox. You learn to jokingly refer to yourself as ‘basically white’. You make sure that you like the same things as your white friends and before you know it, that’s the foundation of your life. If you’re anything like me, you might end up in tears at a friend’s wedding because you looked around the room and clocked that out of your oldest and best friends in the world, you’re the only one that’s not white.
Before anyone says it, there’s nothing wrong with being white. There’s nothing wrong with having white friends. In fact, my friends are excellent. They are fierce and loyal, funny and interesting. They fight inequality, challenge racism and unpack their white privilege only a daily basis. It’s less about who my friends are and more about why I chose to associate almost exclusively with white people. It’s like being a woman and only having friends who are men. Or being gay and only having friends who are straight. There’s nothing wrong with it, but it was still important for me to figure out why had I'd surrounded myself with people who weren’t able to relate to some of my most fundamental experiences? Because, no matter how you look at it, not being white means our experiences are different, whether we want them to be or not.
Because, no matter how you look at it, not being white means our experiences are different, whether we want them to be or not.
White society loves to tell people of colour that we have more in common with white people than things that are different. It follows up that idea with the lie that if we don’t feel like one big happy family, then that’s a problem with us. The issue with that lie is that society doesn’t treat people of colour the same as their white mates. When I was younger, it never occurred to me that no one asked my white friends ‘where are you REALLY from?’ or tried to guess their ethnicity or made jokes about their dad being a terrorist. And so, I thought the problem was me. I bought into the blatant lie that brown was something to be denied while white was something to be embraced, and decided that I was ‘white on the inside’.
It’s only been in recent years that I’ve been able to unpack these complicated thoughts and feelings and see them for what they are – internalised racism. It was internalised racism that convinced me that I would only have things in common with white people, as though non-white people all share the same thoughts, feelings and interests. It was internalised racism that dictated the choices I made in my formative years –the sports I played, the music I listened to, the people I befriended. It was internalised racism, as unconscious as it was, that pushed me to prioritise whiteness and shaped my life forever.
A few years ago, I went to a party that was almost exclusively people of colour. It was my first time in a room without whiteness at its centre and as I spoke with people about everything from relationships to changed names to new music, I realised I wasn’t censoring myself. I wasn’t filtering my words, my tone or my delivery. Shockingly, until that moment, I hadn’t even realised that I was even living with a filter. This stifled version of myself had somehow become my norm. As I unfolded into the feelings of calm, safety and comfort at the party, it occurred to me that this might be how white people feel most of the time.
In the months that followed, I began the messy journey of unpacking my internalised racism.
In the months that followed, I began the messy journey of unpacking my internalised racism. The joy of discovering my new, unfiltered self quickly turned to confusion when I realised I didn’t know who I was without that white lens. Do I really like that (show/music/sport/activity) or is it just an attempt to fit in? Do I really dislike that (food/hobby/book/movie) or have I just actively been trying to distance myself from anything different from the norm?
And then came the anger. Anger at a society that demands people of colour fit into their white ideals. Anger at myself for buying into the system and denying my identity. Anger at all the white people in my life who told me that none of this mattered.
Reckoning with my own internalised racism has been a lot of work, but with so much reward. Alongside the rawness, confusion and pain has been an invaluable reconnection with all the parts of me that I’d buried. For every white friend who’s jumped at the opportunity to tell me that I’m "mostly white anyway", there have been countless others who’ve supported me unconditionally through the anger, tears and confusion. Over time I’ve forgiven younger me for the decisions she made and am slowly learning how to make choices that work for who I am now, even if it means not being seen as one of the white folks. I know that we’ll never be completely free of the influence of white society, but if we continue to notice it, understand it and make informed choices about when to fight it then maybe my dates will start feeling as though they can describe themselves as humans instead of food.
Sarah Mohammed is a freelance writer. You can follow Sarah on Twitter @sezmohammed.