Excerpt: 'What luck, what a fucking curse' by Ana Maria Gomides

On looking and being looked at in my light skin

 
 
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When I write from Narrm or Birraranga, also known as Melbourne, where sovereignty was never ceded, I do so as a settler. My own Blackness and Indigeneity does not change this fact. It is not my intention to homogenise the experiences of Indigenous peoples when I draw similarities between Brasil and so-called Australia. We are diverse in numbers, cultures, traditions and histories. I offer my respects to the elders of the Wurundjeri and Boon Wurrung people of the Kulin Nation, past, present and emerging—on whose unceded land this work was written—and to any other Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people encountering my work.


Our share house bathroom is long and narrow. The shower door opens directly onto a full-length mirror. Daily I stand in the small space between these two fixtures, examining my naked reflection. I watch the woman in the mirror towelling her naked body, wrapping up her wet hair, inspecting new blemishes on her face and poking at them with her pointy, polished nails. To my right is the exit, the place I sometimes rush towards. Looking at her can make me feel weary, anxious, claustrophobic. She herself is a small in-between space, cramped in the middle of whole worlds.

This in-betweenness is written on my face. I look everything like my mãe except for my skin, which is lighter, and my eyes, which are larger. “Olhos de jabuticaba,” my father would say, likening them to the bulbous, dark fruits that cling to the trunks of the tall trees indigenous to the state of Minas Gerais, like my family on my mãe’s side. My mouth is neither full nor thin, and there’s nothing special about it except that it gives nice kisses, or so I’m told. I am also told that I have a beautiful smile. I mimic happiness in the mirror so I can see for myself and the image is so fake that I genuinely laugh, and decide that joy does look good on me. It has little to do with my straightened teeth. The beauty, I think, is in my cheeks. They’re high and plump and when I smile they fill my entire face, shifting all my features upwards. Even my nose stretches a little. Suddenly, I frown. The woman in the mirror deflates.

As a child, a lighter-skinned, blonde, green-eyed cousin of mine would taunt me about my nose, telling me it looked like a piglet’s snout. She’d stretch its tip upwards with her thumb, press it in, replicate the animal’s sound and laugh right in my face. Mamãe convinced me that I could change the shape of my nose by pinching it every chance I got. She would repeat these instructions often, insisting that I follow them. Her mother had taught her to do the same so that her own nose would be less broad, less black. The habit was hammered into my brain so vigorously that even now, years later, I still catch myself squeezing my nostrils together. But my mãe is Black, and I am Black, and so is my nose, even if my light skin disguises the fact. I love my nose now, the way it stretches with the line of my upper lip when I smile, along with my cheeks and the rest of my face.

The woman in the mirror nods at me reassuringly.

Ever since I discovered my reflection, I have observed my body in this manner. I proudly witnessed it get stronger and taller for years, then scrutinised it closely as I made it smaller, thinner, weaker. I’ve watched the lines I etched into my upper thighs turn into scars; bites, pinches and hickeys from lovers turn into bruises. I’ve observed the effect that each new tattoo has, carefully chosen and positioned on my skin. My deceptively light skin. The thing that protects and betrays me.

This act that I have been performing since childhood, this small part of my daily routine, often functions as a reminder of the violence perpetrated onto the bodies of the women in my family. Black and Brown bodies that were abused, raped, beaten and split open by white men in order to wipe out entire races of people.

My lightness is a heavy burden to carry.

I am twenty-seven years old. I’m learning to love and respect my body, but I will never love that it represents their success.

Living in my skin is complicated. I know exactly who I am and who I came from. But as soon as I leave the safety of my home, my friends, my family, I become subject to other peoples' interpretations of me: some see a white person; some see a Brown person; a number of people become visibly uncomfortable by what I’m told is my ‘ambiguity’.

When I’m read as white—when white people clock me as one of them—I have to witness the kind of racism they share only among themselves. I feel like a spy. I’ve heard it all, from the casual use of deprecating stereotypes and slurs, to Pauline Hanson-level anti-immigration rants.

In these situations, I eventually come out as a Person of Colour. To make a point, to counter-argue, to get people to shut the fuck up. I’ve heard a variety of responses from white people to this coming out. All of them are fucking weird, to say the least. Some people think it’s a gag, and laugh. Sometimes I’m asked for ‘proof,' like I need to carry photos of my family with me 24/7. Strangest of all are those who get offended. Once the woman I’d been talking to gave me what she thought was a comforting look, squeezed my shoulder and said, “It’s okay honey, you’re white.” It felt like a slap on the face.

I am proud to be a Person of Colour. My passing is not active.

People’s inability to place me in a racial category makes them feel awkward because they don’t know what to do with me, how to act around me, what social codes to employ, what things they can and cannot say. I can tell someone is about to pose the question well before they do it; the confusion is written on their face. They tilt their head to one side, frown a little, squint their eyes and purse their lips, adding up my features as if solving a particularly difficult math equation. Some make small talk before asking, probably telling themselves it’s the polite thing to do. Others just blurt it out straight away.

Where are you from?”

“Where are you from?”

“Where are you from?”

My response is always to smile in a passive kind of way, no flashing of my straightened teeth, no cheeks moving my entire face upwards. When I answer that I’m from Brasil, people are seldom satisfied because it doesn’t quite answer the question they really want to ask: “What are you?”

The more insistent ones always have follow-up questions that usually expose a particular brand of ignorance.

“Aren’t Brazilian people white?”

“But isn’t everyone in Brazil black?”

“Aren’t you all mixed over there?”

Depending on who I’m talking to and what mood I’m in, I explain about Mamãe and her parents, about being Negra and Indígena. If I’m feeling up to it, I give them a flash history lesson on colonisation, miscegenation, the slave trade.

But I am growing tired of teaching.

***

I used to define myself by the things that I am not: ‘non-white', ‘non-heterosexual'. I’ve been told to call the lightness of my skin a privilege. I’ve been told not to make a big deal out of my race.

“It’s okay honey, you’re white.”

People who are more visibly of Colour than I am experience racism much more regularly and on a much larger scale than I do. My light skin protects me from the kinds of racial violence they’re forced to face daily. I’m not a constant target. This is a fact. I acknowledge this privilege. And yet, because of how and why my skin came to be this colour, this privilege can feel more bitter than sweet.

My lightness is the product of colonisation, miscegenation, rape, violence, racialised social and financial circumstances.

My lightness is their success.

Mamãe’s mãe, my avó, was raped because she was Negra and poor and a woman. She was forced to spend the rest of her life with her assailant. My father used to brag about how good he was for marrying my Black/Brown mãe, who was single and already had a son at the time. When people find out that she’s now married to a white Australian man, they make certain assumptions about the nature of their relationship. Mamãe gets followed around stores; shopkeepers ‘keep an eye' on her. Her intelligence is constantly undermined because of her broken English and the colour of her skin. My mãe had to work extremely hard for her psychology degree—literally went hungry for it. She was the first person in her family to go to university, but her degree is not recognised in this country, and the only work she can get is low-paying, in the domestic service industry.

The racism the women in my family have had to endure, and continue to endure, is far worse than anything I’ll ever have to experience. They’ve had to face terrible things for my skin to reach its lightness. I know this. I acknowledge this privilege.

Mamãe was born in Carangola, a small town in the southeast of Brasil. She recalls the way people tried to place each other by asking, “Who do you belong to?” You were supposed to answer the question with a surname like Gonçalves, Fernandes, Guimarães: the names of the big families who were proud to descend from colonisers. My mãe’s last name is Silva, the common name given to, or adopted by, those who did not have one. She says, “If you didn’t have a pedigree name, you were either poor, Black or both.” In fact, Mamãe isn’t even sure if her father’s last name was Silva—she’s never seen his birth certificate.

“Who do you belong to?” they’d ask her, and she would answer, “Nobody.”

When I was a young child still in Brasil, I questioned Mamãe about our genealogy for a school project. She shrugged and told me to ask my father. Over the crackling line of the long-distance phone call, he declared, in his booming preacher’s voice, that our family could be traced all the way back to Portugal. I can picture him now, puffing up his chest, standing tall and proud, as if he’d been waiting for that very moment.

I’ve since been told that he harboured an obsession with his ancestry, actively seeking evidence of his whiteness in historical archives. This was well before the Internet, so the task would’ve been particularly laborious, but he was persistent. My father was many things to other people, admirable things. A popular Methodist minister, a dedicated pro bono lawyer. To my family, however, he was an abusive figure, someone who stunted our growth. I refuse to refer to him by the Portuguese word for father; he was no such thing to me. He died alone in a favela shack, surrounded by documents that proved his supposed nobility. All that information died with him, and I have no interest in pursuing it.

***

My skin is light because it has been violently, intentionally and systematically whitewashed since 1500, when the conquistadores first invaded Brasil. In Portuguese, the word ‘consquistar’ means ‘to conquer’. It’s also used to describe ‘winning’ another’s heart romantically. This romanticisation of colonisation, the way language has turned it into poetry, sickens me. Interracial relationships between my ancestors had nothing to do with love.

Colonisation in Brasil began almost three hundred years prior to that of so-called Australia. As Portuguese settlements were established, povos originários—or pessoas Indígenas—were captured and enslaved into labour, if not slaughtered outright. My avô’s mãe was said to be Indígena and Afro-Brasileira. When I look up the Purí people—the umbrella term for the people I would’ve belonged to—I regularly come across the word “extinct”; the same term used to describe non-human animals. The majority of the povos originários in Brasil were murdered in organised massacres conducted by Portuguese invaders, or subject to cultural genocide and enforced miscegenation, much of it through the raping of mulheres Indígenas by white men. When I use big words like ‘genocide’ and ‘miscegenation’ without offering details, I do so because it is my prerogative. I’m not obliged to educate the reader on subjects that are historical to them, but painful and personal to me.

I am growing tired of teaching.

It is estimated that between four and five million pessoas Indígenas inhabited the country pre-colonisation. According to the 2010 census, the Indigenous population of Brasil now amounts to less than 900 000, in a country of 194.9 million people.

My country has inherited the structures that colonisation erected. The mentalities and cultural bigotries that allowed genocide and slavery to happen in the first place still remain today. Brasil brought in more African slaves than any other country during the Atlantic slave trade, and was the last place to officially abolish slavery in 1888. Today, it has the largest population of people of African descent, second only to Nigeria, with Negrxs constituting the majority of the country’s population. The UN alerts that Afro-Brasileirxs are subject to the highest rate of socio-economic inequality and violence in the country, too.

Listing statistics doesn’t come naturally to me. It feels wrong, like a betrayal, like I’m using the colonisers’ tools of quantifying and categorising us in order to define who we are. But when I picture my audience, when I think of the white reader, I feel pressure to provide proof. They won’t believe me unless I include these statistics, percentages, fractions.

People like to do that, measure me up by dividing me into portions and pieces.

“You’re a quarter this, a quarter that.”

“You’re only half.”

“Aren’t you all mixed over there?”

I am a whole person.




This above is an excerpt from a piece originally published in Issue #43 of The Lifted Brow. To read it in full, get your copy here.

First and foremost, Ana Maria Gomides is a proud Woman of Colour. She is an Afro-Brasileira goddess, a chronically ill warrior princess, a queer icon, and a low key bruxa, so watch yourself. She was blessed by the ancestors with the gi! of storytelling, as well as the perfect booty, but was once described as “dancing like a Brown girl who grew up with no friends." Moral of the story being, you can't have it all.

Nadia Ingrid (aka Makan Moon) is a freelance illustrator and graphic designer currently based in Melbourne.