Growing Up With Siblings of Colour. My ‘Understanding’ Is Not Their Experience.

Larissa Dann

If you are white, like me, you may be questioning your understanding of white privilege.

I am – yet the children in my family, with whom I grew up, were of colour.

My sister’s stunning Asian features are showcased in tawny skin, topped by glossy, straight, jet-black hair. My three cousins’ glorious brown faces are crowned by curls of varying tightness. (Because we were a close family, I will call them all my siblings). As a child, I was blissfully unaware of our different lives within the one family. As an adult, I spent hours listening, with horrified sadness, to the pain and discrimination experienced by my siblings.

My parents were white. Our grandparents were small-town white.

I played with my siblings, I argued with my siblings, I loved my siblings, I was annoyed by my siblings, I sang with my siblings. We were just family, normal, loud, laughing, crying, competitive, tumultuous, sometimes cruel but mostly kind. We were simply kids flung together, accepting each other, loving each other, because we were family.

As a child, I thought we were loved equally by our white parents and grandparents. However, with the perspective of an adult, perhaps I was loved a little more. Accepted a little more, simply because of the colour of my skin, and pure white decent.

I was blind to the significance of colour.

Inside the four walls of our families’ houses, the dry fenced yard or carefully mown garden, we enjoyed a fortress of sameness, of belonging. Here, my sister, my cousins, my parents, my grandparents, existed in our own world of security and love, where the only differences were from within – personality, temperament, values.

When we were together, I did not notice the colour of my siblings’ skin, their eyes dark with expression, their hair tightly curled or blackly straight. Instead, I simply shared my childhood with beloved family. We each had our own personalities, our own secrets, our own foibles, our own strengths. We built relationships of love and warmth, respect and, at times, pain.

Only in photos did I become conscious of difference. Each of my siblings shone – they were bronze, beautiful, gleaming – distinct, and special. I was plain, red-haired, freckled and bespectacled – boring, and ordinary. They accepted me.

And yet, I was blind to the significance of colour.

Outside our sanctuary was the rest of world, and that world was not so kind. Outside, in the public world, was division, derision, punishing the minority, the different. Outside our homes, I was aware of difference – because of the colour of my sibling’s skin.

The world in which my sister and cousins lived was a world I would never have to inhabit.

My experience was not their experience.

My siblings and I walk down the street together, chatting, smiling. I turn my head and see the crinkled eyes of the older white woman behind her fence, following our movement past her white weatherboard house; the head a of check-shirted young white man, turning to stare as we pass; and I am proud. Here I am, ambling beside beauty, beside difference. I bask in my association. Finally, I am noticed, I am special, because I am with my striking dark family.

My siblings walk down that same street with me, and they see the same crinkled eyes following them, the same turned head. Inwardly, they cringe; slowly, they crumble. They do not want to be noticed, to stand out. Because that is their every day.

They know what I will never know; they live what I will never live.

While I walk the same street, while I sit in the same classroom, while I buy from the same shop, while I attend the same ballet school, I will not suffer as they suffer. My cloak of skin is white; theirs is dark.

I wait outside the school for my younger sister, to begin our wander home. I hear noise, a commotion, and there she is, running towards me, pursued by a group of older children, yelling.

“Ching chong”

“Slopey eyes”

I notice her fringe is wet.

“They spat on me”, she sobs.

I scream at them - I will do anything to protect my defenceless baby sister. We run home. Breathlessly, I race out the horrifying experience to my mother. She comforts her daughter but does not go to the school.

I, with my white skin, have the power to change the situation, the confidence to fight back. I, with my white skin, am protected from taunts. I, with my white skin, can walk through a shop unnoticed . . . a reality my curly-haired tan-skinned cousins rarely encounter.

I spend my life trying to empathise with, to understand, how the simple pigment of my siblings’ skin, eyes, hair, impacts on their lived experience. But I will never know the profound influence of skin colour on life outcome, because I will never live as someone of colour. I watch the documentary ‘How racist are you? Jane Elliot’s Brown Eyes/Blue Eyes Exercise’, and comprehension begins to dawn.

My cousins, my sister and I gather together as young adults. We mull over our lives together as a family, as individuals. They begin the discussion of colour, of race. Each discloses example upon example of discrimination, of choices denied, of chances lost, because of the colour of their skin. I am an outsider, and I listen. Simply listen. They turn to me.

“You were favoured in this family, you know.” I open my eyes in shock, and my lips part to defend myself, but quickly close. My cousins, my sister, relay the evidence. The photograph of four generations of white women, with the dark girl being asked to stay out of the photo. The grandmother exhorting the grandchildren not to get their nose or ears pierced, as they’ll ‘look like a savage’ (no such warning for me). They lay the pains in a pile, watching one sibling gaining advantage from the older generation – because of her colour.

The next day, I ask my mother and grandmother whether they are aware of how much discrimination and difficulty my siblings suffered, because of their skin colour.

“No” say my white family members, the ones who cared for us. “No, they never suffered from racism – they would have told us”.

My mother, my father, my grandparents (people of their time) did not recognise, so did not discuss, what race might mean to the lives of their brown and white children, both inside and outside the family. There was no explicit acknowledgement of how colour may make life difficult. Yet this was the one issue that would most affect their children’s friendships, their education, their self-worth. Ignoring difference did not make it disappear. Instead, like an un-lanced boil, the invisible impact of colour filled our family with the pus of emotional pain . . . in the end, pushing us apart.

Today, in the shadow of George Floyd’s death, of BlackLivesMatter, I again have cause to reflect. A roll of the genetic dice meant I was white growing up in a predominantly white society; and that I was fortunate to share my formative years with beloved siblings of colour. A roll of the dice meant my siblings grew up with skin darker than mine, in a white society. A roll of the dice meant that I grew up in comparative advantage.

There is hope in my story. The next generation.

White, brought up with colour in their extended family, my children are intensely aware of the impact of difference, and the importance of acceptance. Throughout their childhood and into their teens, their broader family and I discussed, openly, honestly, painfully, the effect of colour on the lives of their family members - and in general. My children attended schools where over forty languages were spoken; among their cousins, and their closest friends, are people of colour.

I am inspired. My young adults are accepting of people - regardless of race, skin colour, sexuality, ability. They are outraged by injustice and would hate to cause someone hurt.

I cannot change the past. I cannot heal the emotional scars of my siblings’ childhood. But perhaps their experience can help change the future. By influencing the next generation, we sow the seeds to grow a society of acceptance.

First published 2nd July, 2020

© Larissa Dann 2020


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