why is it so hard to talk about the biracial experience?
The Pin is a story telling project that wants you to stop asking, "Where are you from?"
Image courtesy of the The Pin.
Lucie Cutting and Nkechi Anele grew up in very different areas of Australia, but when they met in their 20s they felt immediately connected. Both Nigerian Australians, the space that once separated them did little to blur their shared experiences. Those experiences would form the spine of their friendship and, eventually, their site The Pin.
The project began as a way to take a more nuanced look at the biracial experience: through essays, interviews and articles, diverse stories knit together to reveal one narrative. Reading the site, certain themes are quick to emerge. The microaggressions around race we fling at each other everyday, our suspicion of those different from us, and — overwhelmingly — the sense of otherness that link these accounts.
i-D called up Lucie to chat about the project and how personal stories can speak to so many different people.
Reading through the articles on The Pin, the incredible diversity of the biracial experience is striking. How did you even begin to bring something like this together?
Nkechi and I are both Nigerian Australian. When we met, we realised we had never met anyone else — aside from our siblings — like us. It's become the basis of our friendship. It's quite rare to meet people who are of mixed heritage, and when you do, you always end up having the same issues with your Australian identity. We realised there were no resources available for Australians who were asking these questions.
Reading the site, the term "otherness" comes up a lot. How do you explain that feeling?
It's really difficult to define, when I talk about it personally I guess it's those moments where you realise you're a bit different. Say your friends are talking about hair and you just can't connect on that topic because yours is really, really curly. Or people are talking about being sunburnt all the time—I've been sunburnt maybe twice in my life. They're superficial things, but there's also deeper cultural differences that I had in my household when I was growing up. Like, my friends never had the kind of food we had or understood the comfort we found in sitting down on the floor and eating with our hands as opposed to sitting at the table with a knife and fork — I still am hopeless at using a knife and fork.
It's interesting when we talk about our culture because a lot of the time we're really talking about belonging to a community. I was thinking about the idea of being biracial, being part of two cultures and two communities, and wondered if you ever feel lost between spaces?
Absolutely. That's something that's come up in a couple of our interviews. A few people who have been born overseas and moved to Australia talked about how they don't fit into mainstream Australian culture but when they go back to where they were born they don't fit in there either. I guess you have different communities when you're biracial; I almost have this little community with my siblings and a lot of the people that we've met through the project. We've become really great friends because you sit down with them and chat and realise you've experienced these similar things throughout life. You work out your communities as you go.
So you're linked by experience rather than country.
Yeah definitely, I think that's almost the basis of this project because it's something that definitely keeps coming up. When we interviewed Nadiah Idris, who is South African-Malaysian-Australian, we learned we were really connected. We don't have similarities from a heritage perspective, but that we're both considered black people and share all these other little things that people don't see on the surface.
It feels like Australia is slowly beginning to engage in public conversations about non-white experiences; but, from the outside at least, it seems biracial identity is still missed. Or when people do begin to address it, the dialog stalls. Do you ever wonder why that is?
That's an interesting question. I guess people get antsy about terminology, and this is something that doesn't really have a definite terminology. People say mixed-race, biracial, bicultural; in some countries people are called coloured. That's actually one of the questions I tend to ask people on the project: what terms do you actually find offensive? It's a tricky conversation to have in the public sphere when there's no kind of set terms that are seen as socially acceptable. You don't want to be offending someone by using terms that they find offensive because that will isolate them from the conversation again.
It never occurred to me how limited we are by lack of appropriate language. On the topic of language —there is this tendency to fetishise individuals, thinking you're being complimentary.
Yeah absolutely, it's something I quite often comes across. I work in retail on the side, my current position is beauty focussed, we sell moisturisers and things like that. People often comment on my skin colour and I've had a few say like, "Oh your caramel skin, do you even need to moisturise?" It happens a lot in dating as well. People start saying how they admire your skin so much, and it can get a little bit creepy. We've published an article by the mother of a biracial child; it's called The Conversation. She talks about that conversation when people comment on her daughter's skin. They'll ask questions about her cultural heritage, people will say, "Oh, her skin is so lovely. Is she mixed race?" or "Where is her dad from?"
And then there's "Where did you grow up?" and "Where are your parents from?"
Exactly, it's working towards finding out a particular thing. The parents we've talked to in this project often mention they don't like the conversation about "How did you meet?" because that's their way of saying like "How did you find this person of colour?"
Personally when someone is asking you, "Where are you from?" What are you hearing in that moment?
Why are you brown? Why are you the colour you are? And, why are you in Australia? But it also depends on how they ask it and when they ask it.
So that's where the "otherness" really becomes apparent, it's asking, "Why are you different to me?"
Obviously the site is about giving people a voice exploring different ideas. But is there an overreaching message or expectation you've set out to dislodge?
For me personally, it was that whole "Where are you from?" conversation. I moved to Tasmania last year and I've never been asked that question more in my life. It's the idea that just because you're brown, you're from somewhere else and you're not Australian. A theme running through the site is that any face can be Australian, and that culturally diversity is very much a makeup of who we are.
Text Wendy Syfret
Image via The Pin