My face doesn’t tell the full story of who I am. Ideas of cultural identity, race, and ethnicity have run through my bloodline for close to 600 years. I’ve been called culturally confused; my Macedonian surname from marriage doesn’t help. I’m from Sri Lanka. But I don’t feel connected to the Australian perception of Sri Lanka.
My family are Burghers, a Eurasian community with European and British ancestry who once made up 1% of the population in Sri Lanka. Racism and colourism have always been an undercurrent in my life. I’ve learned firsthand how societies can internalise behaviours over time, how culturally normative attitudes can produce actions that cause great harm.
Like many migrants and people with mixed heritage, my story is complex. To understand who I am, I need to start before I was born.
The early days
The political changes from Sri Lanka’s independence in 1948 saw the displacement of Burghers from their 600 year settlement in Sri Lanka. They aspired to find more suitable opportunities to secure a sound future.
In 1970 my parents attended an Australian immigration screening interview. The White Australia policy was still in place. Clutching their stamboeks (family or clan books) from the Dutch Burgher Union, my parents held on to the hope that their European ancestry, appearance, upbringing and outlook would grant them passage to Australia.
But my dad wasn’t white enough and neither was I. The Australian authorities had already judged me for the colour of my skin at 4 months old. My parents requested a review of the application, and it was eventually successful.
Growing up ‘different’
My family settled in suburban Melbourne at a time when criticism and exclusion of non-white groups was common. At Irish Catholic-filled St Paul’s Primary School, my cultural diversity was not acknowledged, catered for or celebrated. I remember being reprimanded for a self-portrait in an art class because I painted my face a nude skin tone. The teacher told me to look in the mirror and draw what colour I saw. She pointed to the container of black paint. In the end, my art was not displayed, and my distaste for my physical appearance grew deeper.
English is my mother tongue, yet I was forced to study English as a second language at school purely because I was Sri Lankan. My teachers assumed I spoke a different language, ignorant of the cultural background that helped my family migrate to Australia.
With my chicken curry sandwiches and unmistakable difference I learnt to become small.
Hiding at school, hiding at home
School was not the only place I experienced discrimination over the colour of my skin. Like all good Burgher homes, colourism was alive and well. The Burgher community observes beauty ideals that fail its members of darker complexions. My dark skin meant my home was a space of judgement and my school was a place of exclusion, so I decided to hide.
At the age of 10, I tried to scrub off my skin. One night in the bath I scrubbed at my skin, scraping away at the ancestral shame of my colour. In my mind, I just knew it was dirt and that in the morning I would be white like everyone else. I woke up red raw, but still the same shade of brown.
Over the years I grew accustomed to the curiosity of many a baffled, racist Aussie. But it wasn’t just racist, colourist remarks that left me feeling that my darker skin tone was a handicap. I was a dark-skinned Sri Lankan girl who had been brought up in a Western society by faux-Westernised parents. I didn’t know how to be Sri Lankan and certainly didn’t know how to be Australian. I faced discrimination based on the colour of my skin, feeling deep shame for a feature I had no control over.
As hard as I tried, I could not change my skin colour, so the best thing I could do was to control how dark I got.
On holidays we drove to Merimbula and Moama. I loved the water but retreated from the sun in fear, covering my body from top to toe in beach towels and a big wide-brim hat. I tricked myself into believing avoiding the sun would bring me the acceptance I longed for when I returned to school ready for my class photo.
If I had too much fun in the sun, my mother would screech 'You have gone and got dark again!'. My clothing was also governed by how light it made me look. My grandmother lovingly advised me 'Don't wear dark colours darling, it makes you look too dark, wear pinks for your complexion!' This advice was echoed years later by my mother in law: 'Wear white, it makes you look lighter!'
Loving the skin I live in
I’ve often felt the need to justify my ethnicity. I‘m not completely comfortable with being labelled Sri Lankan. I don’t speak Sinhalese or Tamil; I don’t know how to wear a sari. I never knew how to be Sri Lankan and my parents couldn’t teach me. My parents integrated well into Australian society because they were English-speaking Catholics who shared a common Western outlook on life. But the nuances of their everyday actions reminded me again of my difference. As an Aussie kid all I wanted was to belong. So, I honed in on the little things that Aussie families did that made them quintessentially Australian.
I begged my mum to make sticky toffees with hundreds and thousands on top, wrapped up in floral patty cases. I longed to eat vegemite sandwiches, made with white bread, cut into quarters and wrapped in brown paper. I hoped to boast of a Sunday night roasted leg of lamb with minted peas and gravy. But instead, I ate weird things like curries, hoppers, pan rolls and patties.
My search for belonging conflicted with the identity people gave me. In recent times I’ve come to the conclusion that I don’t have to choose between being a Burgher or being Australian. Placing myself in a single category doesn’t suit who I am as a person. I am unique, I am me, and I won’t let myself be put in a box by someone who wants to classify me according to their own perceptions of race and ethnicity.
Learning to understand Burgher culture was an important component of loving my identity. Teetering between appreciation and appropriation, I have found a deeper understanding of my heritage. Embracing the two cultures I belong to helped me determine what was important to pass on to my own children.
I am part of the last generation of an ethnic group known as the Burghers of Ceylon. I also proudly call myself Australian. Today, I am surrounded by a culturally diverse community. Racism and colourism haven’t gone away, but examining the impact of these prejudices on my life has led me to better understand myself. My resilience has helped me to rise above the racial slurs and microaggressions I experience. Finally, I have found empowerment in accepting my reflection.
Tremaine Pavlovski is a drama teacher with over 30 years of experience working in a variety of educational settings. As an international presenter and workshop leader, Tremaine uses her voice to collaborate with other like-minded folk to create social change. Find Tremaine on LinkedIn.