Am I Too Brown, or Not Brown Enough: Why We Have to Drop the Whitewashing Rhetoric

Featured Artwork: Manjit Thapp

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“So, you’ve really never watched any of the classic Bollywood movies?” asked a brown girl I had just met at a friend’s party. 

“Not even Kuch Kuch Hota Hai? Or Kal Ho Naa Ho?!

With a sheepish grin, I shook my head at each one. “Uh no, I’ve really only seen Bride and Prejudice.

Her wide-eyed expression turned to a horrified one, as if I had just told her I committed a murder. 

“Wow, you’re a bit of a coconut then,” she drily responded.

A coconut, aside from being one of my favourite fruits, is a disparaging term used to refer to someone who is black or brown on the outside and “white” on the inside. It’s widely known as a slur for a person of colour who is regarded as having adopted the attitudes, values, and behaviours thought to be characteristic of middle-class white society, at the expense of their ethnic and cultural heritage. 

Her response caught me off guard. It baffled me how she so quickly made the assumption that because I was brown-skinned but not a Bollywood buff, I was therefore “whitewashed” and had no knowledge and understanding of my culture. I didn’t stick around much longer to fill her in on a few important details she didn’t bother to ask me about before she drew her conclusions.

What she didn’t know was that I was born and raised in Australia. However, my parents are from Singapore and my grandparents are South Indian. I grew up with the challenging task of having to navigate not one, but three different identities — identities which felt worlds away from each other. 

In one of these worlds, I was just like any other kid growing up in Australia. My mornings before school consisted of eating the nation’s quintessential breakfast meal, Vegemite on toast, or if I wanted to shake things up, Weet-Bix. I was extremely fortunate to go to a great high school and attend a high-ranking university. I played, or attempted to play, all different kinds of sports, from soccer and hockey, to touch football. I went to your typical house parties, joined clubs and societies, and attended a few too many music festivals where I was barely tall enough to see the performing acts. This was my “Australian world”. 

In my “Indian world”, traditional foods were at the center of my upbringing. I swapped Vegemite and Weet-Bix in the mornings for idli, Goan fish curry and dhal at night. Every day my kitchen was engulfed by a new smell. Sometimes it was turmeric and curry leaves, others it was coconut rice and lentils. Alongside the food, traditional Indian dress was a particular favourite in this world of mine, one that only surfaced on special occasions. My older sister, cousins and I would all swoon over each other’s dazzling saris and lehengas at any event we had the chance to wear them to. 

While I didn’t grow up watching Bollywood movies or attending Garba events, these elements of Indian culture that were absent from my life were replaced by elements from my “Singapore world”. In this world, I trailed excitedly behind my parents into Hawker centresfast-paced food courts lined with stalls that reflect the country’s melting pot of cultures. It was only here, when I was away from my home country, where I grew up eating dishes such as Hainanese chicken rice, laksa, and char kway teow. Instead of Diwali, I would celebrate Thaipusam, a vibrant, energetic festival celebrated by the Tamil community. 

This world was trickier to navigate than my other worlds, given that Singapore is a multi-ethnic and multilingual country. When someone is Singaporean, they are typically of Chinese, Malay, Indian or European descent. Each of these are reflected in the architectural styles of buildings in several of its distinct ethnic neighbourhoods. Little India, Chinatown and Kampong Glam, which is a Malay-Muslim quarter, are all popular hotspots for locals and tourists. What amazes me about them is how they each feel like a different country with diverse languages, cuisines, clothes, customs, and climate — yet they are all less than a 15-minute train ride away from each other. 

So you see, there is no, and never will be, one straightforward, fundamental answer to the question, “where are you from?” Ask any person of colour this and their response is always a beautifully complicated one — one that is connected to memories, complex family ties, and their own personal sense of belonging.

For children of immigrants, there’s a constant duality in our hyphenated existence.

While we have the freedom to pick and choose from our cultures, identities, and communities, the isolating reminder that we don’t completely belong to any of them looms in our minds.

The problem with calling a person of colour “whitewashed” is that it heavily implies they are not meeting their ethnic stereotypes. People are products of their environment, so unless you are constantly surrounded by your cultural heritage growing up, you are far more likely to be a product of where you live and who you spend most of your time with.

By making statements that someone is “not Asian/Indian/Hispanic enough”, especially if you are also a person of colour, you are essentially saying they don’t represent your cookie-cutter idea of what the colour of their skin means. 

If a person of colour cannot speak their native language, has food preferences that aren’t in line with their culture, has friends and relationships with people outside of their ethnicity, or simply hasn’t watched any Bollywood films, they should never be ridiculed or belittled for their lifestyle — especially if you only know the surface of it.