I was born light, with wisps of blonde hair. They sent my uncle a photograph. He proudly called me the English rose of the family. The term has stuck. We have no English ancestry: I just fit this white ideal of beauty.
There’s a photograph of my uncle and me from the last time I went to visit, perhaps 1994, perhaps 1995. In the photograph, I am wearing a dress with pink and white stripes. My blonde hair is in perfect little curls. They say I’m the image of Shirley Temple, and I’ve learned to dislike what she represents already, this reference point they can understand here and in America where she comes from and back in Australia. My uncle, dark brown hair, warm skin, is hugging me in the photo. He looks delighted, I look like confectionary. I cannot look at this photograph and see people; I see cultural processes. I can barely look at this photograph.
Back in Australia. Back in preschool, we played at Goldilocks and the Three Bears. I always wanted to be a little brown bear. Everyone insisted that I be Goldilocks. I turned up to a cultural celebration in which we adopt costumes as Little Bo Peep, in pink and white stripes. I’ve lived my whole life in the costuming and characters of someone else’s culture.
In 1998, I moved to a primary school with a white majority. One day, I was on the playground with my new friends. We were talking about our hair colours, and one of the girls called me a brunette. ‘No, I’m not, I’m blonde.’ The other girls agreed that I was definitely a brunette. Twelve years later, I still have trouble determining the colour of my own hair. Calling myself a brunette is a betrayal of my culture’s perceptions, but calling myself a blonde moves me further from the norms of our ethnicity. How I perceive the colour changes even as I stare in the mirror.
Perceptions of colour vary so much across contexts and cultures. Perceptions of just about everything do, really. I’ve never been able to escape white reference points, wherever I’ve been.