Earlier this year when I had an article published by Daily Life entitled ‘The Day My Daughter Told Me She Didn’t Like Brown Skin’, I was called out by a Facebook commentator for being racist. Against white people.

The article explored my four-year-old’s comment about her own dark-coloured skin and the internalising of dislike at being Other.

The sentence which offended my FB critic was my description of Elsa, from the Disney movie Frozen, as ‘a white blonde haired Snow Queen, whose over-sized blue eyes swamp her miniscule, pointy nose.’ Here is the ensuring rage:

Look, what if I were to write an article about a black cartoon character and say she had an ‘oversized Afro’ or a ‘wide, flat nose’. Would that be racist? Yes, it would be, because I would be pointing out obviously Negroid facial features in order to demean them (check the word ‘oversized’!) So why isn’t what is written in this article considered racist? Face it, it’s straight up racism against Caucasian people and Caucasian facial features! Speaking as someone with blue eyes and a ‘pointy nose’ (and two sons with blue eyes), I find the article nothing short of offensive!

My description of the character’s eyes drew not from any privileging of Caucasian features, but from the well-documented strangeness of Disney’s female faces, where all women are made to look baby-like (and, by association, vulnerable and innocent). And ‘miniscule, pointy nose’? Again, I believed these to be just accurate descriptors.

As I watched the reply thread grow with strangers rushing to my defence, I did not ponder if I had, indeed, been racist. In my heart, I knew I had not. What bothered me was whether I really needed to consider the feelings of every Caucasian person whose features might be similar to that depicted by Disney? Whether this was what was necessary now, to analyse every sentence to ensure it could not be offensive to any group, any position or any individual?

A few days ago, I read a piece by Alice Pung in The Monthly, describing her post-birth experience. As a daughter of Cambodian refugees, she explores the cultural expectations of her parents in relation to the Chinese and South-East Asian practice of zuo yue zi, which literally means ‘sitting the month’. Whilst grappling with a range of issues, she paints this picture of those from another culture:

Reading Naomi Wolf’s Misconceptions, I imagine a poor young Anglo-Australian mum at home looking at Miranda Kerr’s postnatal abdominals in Woman’s Day, in between having to breastfeed her baby (sometimes above a new C-section wound), cook, clean and deal with visitors who want to wake the baby up to look at the colour of his eyes. When everyone leaves, she feels neglected and isolated in her house, with only a bag of hospital booklets to guide her until the next visit from the maternal and child health nurse, booklets advising her to breastfeed and exercise immediately.

Like my own Facebook commentator, I felt irritated and offended by this description and considered jumping on that outlet of outrage to defend all ‘Anglo-Australian’ mums (although I really don’t consider myself particularly Anglo, I saw this as a sketch of every non-Asian Australian).

But why, I had to ask myself, hovering over the keyboard, did I need to do this?

Why did I need to tell Pung about how it was different for me, about how my two sisters travelled interstate to cook, clean my bathroom while I was in hospital and hold the baby as I slept? Does my individual, personal experience cancel out her general picture? Can I call her out as racist because she is indulging in cultural stereotypes which, one has to admit, would not be acceptable for the mainstream to write? (Think about a non-Asian person describing Asian mums with the same kind of generic assumptions.) Yes, this does come down to speaking positions – those perceived as in ‘the minority’ are permitted to mock/denigrate ‘the majority’ – because, in effect, their power is weaker and the discussion does not often flow this way.

But there was something else nagging at me as I shut down Facebook and walked away from the Pung article. My ‘outrage’, I realised, was a simple need to express my individual personal experience. I wanted to shout in defence of myself, not any cause or system. I could not honestly say there weren’t Anglo women who didn’t have the experience Pung pictures and in highlighting the ways in which family should interact with new mothers, she might actually do some good.

In the same way, my critic’s experience of having blue eyes and a pointy nose did not cancel out my interrogation of the privileging of white culture. Her affront stemmed from a notion of singularity: that every individual has a right not to be depicted in a way that might not be flattering to them.

Whilst the cult of the individual is nothing new, I was disturbed by how close I’d come to being one of the discontented of the internet, for no other reason than that my experience had not been depicted in one particular story.

As a writer, I’d been branded negatively because I had not taken into account the feelings of every possible reader, something online writers seem to have to put up with on a daily basis.

If we are left only with this individualistic view – with this constant cry of ‘it isn’t that way for me!’ – how do writers say anything of worth without fear of being hassled? And if I was so close this time to sounding the cry, what will stop me next time?

Rachel Hennessy

Rachel Hennessy’s novels are The Quakers (Wakefield Press, 2008) and The Heaven I Swallowed (Wakefield Press, 2013). She teaches creative writing at the University of Melbourne.

Overland is a not-for-profit magazine with a proud history of supporting writers, and publishing ideas and voices often excluded from other places.

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  1. Thanks Rachel, now that I’m a bit more mature I quite enjoy reading about others’ introspection on race, rather than automatically finding it cringeworthy.

    I think it would have been “acceptable” to write about imagining the Asian motherhood experience in light of the “Tiger Mother” book. I also suspect this actually was written about a fair amount.

    Not having read Misconceptions, it probably isn’t fair to judge whether Pung or Wolf had more of a role in assigning an Anglo-Australian experience to that book – but I unfairly suspect the latter.

  2. I had a similar experience today, not about race but about suggesting that if house prices can’t be lowered that perhaps we could get a better deal as renters rather than being assumed to be scum. One person in the conversation took offense as they are a landlord and got very irrationally aggressive at my suggestion, as if mentioning it had any power to make it happen.
    I think something similar happens with all online comments, people read an article with a highly individualized world view and have no though that the “offensive” comment was not aimed directly at them. Deep down it is a desire to be right, and a frustration that in the modern world we do feel so powerless to change things, even to direct simple things in our lives and so we over react when we read or hear something that hits a sore spot.

  3. Perhaps some people just need to wake up and consider that being swamped with tacky American Disney culture and American culture per se is something to be avoided. Bring back greater tax breaks for the Australian film industry I say.

  4. Interesting article. I see it slightly differently – I think there is something provocative about generalization on the basis of race / culture / gender / class, because of course there is lots of variation out there, and I think it’s understandable to want to point out how one doesn’t conform – it’s a way of challenging us all to question stereotypes. I say this as someone who had to be told a number of times to stop doing this, but it probably wasn’t until I faced it from others that I realized how irritating it can be. I see it as more a wish to be seen as an individual person rather than a representative of a larger group. (Having said all that, I think the elsa example was a different issue.)

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