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Racism is not something I’ve had a lot of personal experience with. I’m a brown-skinned, brown-eyed, brown-haired white girl living in a fairly white kind of world. But whenever I venture out beyond my rural homeland the inevitable question comes up.

“So, where are you from?”

To which I answer with a description of my small town. Whereabouts, climate, flora, social milieu.

“No, I mean, originally?”

The ancestry question.

As far as I know, I am of English, possibly Irish descent. Convicts, most probably. This is always a surprise to my listener. Often I am erroneously claimed to be part of some more exotic ethnic group.

“I bet you’re Greek … Italian … Lebanese …”

The list goes on. I’ve even had someone guess half-Thai, which seems a stretch. I’ve been claimed by Aborigines on public transport, “Hey Sister, come sit with me. Tell me, where’s your mob?” And then scoffed at for denying my heritage. 

This claiming seems a warm thing to me. A welcoming. A belonging. It is always with regret that I refute it. But it leads me to pondering what preconceptions are being foisted on me without my knowledge. What is contained in other people’s assumptions of my cultural heritage? If I experienced racism based on my assumed ethnicity, would I even notice? And do people think of me differently when they discover, despite appearances, that I am of plain-old Anglo-Celtic heritage?

With the jumble of ethnicities in cities I notice the ancestry question is something sorted out early on. But what quickly becomes clear is how often people guess wrong, and when corrected – how little the truth actually tells you about a person. Can clear deductions about cultural heritage even be made nowadays? Despite attempts to maintain separate ethnic identities, have these markers become diluted in the mishmash that is multicultural Australia? If my Australian mother was of Italian–Croatian heritage, and my Australian father was of French–Malaysian heritage, what would that say about me? Maybe a little, maybe a lot, but the complexity of cultural associations would be a little mind-boggling to decipher from the outside.

Which leads me to questions of perception – what we see in others, and what we rate as important. My mother once told me a story about my first day of school that has always stuck in my mind. I grew up in a small country town. My primary school had sixty kids all up, so maybe twenty in my classroom. There was one black girl in amongst an otherwise white class. She was an Islander of some description, though I never discovered which island. Her skin was not tan, or dark brown, but a lovely near-black. My mother was curious about her. This exotic-looking black-skinned five-year-old girl. When I got home from school she asked:

“And who was the little black girl?”

The question of whether my mother could have used a more sensitive adjective springs to mind, but I guess since I was five, she was trying to keep it simple. The surprising thing is – even though there was only one black-skinned girl in my class, and even though I’d never met a black person before – I didn’t know which girl she meant.

“Who?” 

Not yet schooled in this difference between skin colours, it seems I didn’t notice it.

“How did she have her hair?” I asked, perplexed. Hair was something I was minutely interested in.

“It was black and fuzzy, in pigtails.”

“You mean the girl with hair like puff-balls?”

And then I finally got it. I knew who my mother was asking about.

Often it seems as though perceptions of ourselves, each other, and the world around us reflect a reality set in stone, but really we notice what we’ve been taught to notice, and we judge what we’ve been taught to judge. Nowhere does this truism become clearer than in the raising of children. 

Again and again I’ve been surprised by what my children don’t see. I once invited a friend who has a disabled child over for lunch. The child was born with only one functioning eye, half an ear missing, and a malformed leg that had been amputated above the knee. Despite these difficulties, she was bright and cheerful. My children were pre-school age and I wondered if I should talk with them about the girl’s disabilities before she arrived. I was alarmed by the prospect of them treating her strangely, or reacting in some way that was hurtful, but I was unsure of how to manage this possibility. What would I say?

“There’s a girl coming. She’s looks a bit different from you, but try not to make a big deal about it. You don’t want to hurt her feelings.”

This kind of sentence sat heavily on the tip of my tongue in the hours before her arrival, inadequate and somewhat patronising. In the end I decided to just see how it went. To let my children make their own deductions.

The friend arrived and the children played. Zalie had a spike like a pirate where her foot should have been, but she was mobile. We had lunch, and the kids rushed around, chatting and squealing and laughing, and there was no mention of the missing eye, ear, or leg. After my friend departed, while sitting quietly in the bath, my five-year-old son said:

“You know Mum, Zalie had a broken foot.”

That was it.

And it got me thinking about how differently the day might have gone if I’d made a point of highlighting Zalie’s difference. Of guiding my children’s perceptions and judgements.

It certainly showed me a lot about my own.