Putting down my masks
Kane van Diermen March 1, 2019
When I thought about my experience being a queer blackfulla, I thought to myself, “what experience”? Surely my life is just like any other person’s life? I am just a run of the mill guy that is trying to do life. While there is definitely an element of this that is absolutely true, I also know that my life has been shaped by the experiences provided to me by the communities I come from. I am a gay Yolngu/Western Arertnte man, who grew up in Larrakia country; and just to really mixed things up I have a father from the Netherlands who, with my mother, raised my brother and I to be immensely proud of our Dutch heritage, traditions and culture.
Quite often people (particularly white people) have trouble processing all of this. Sometimes, I get the impression they perceive my identities as opposing as rather than existing harmoniously – I am Aboriginal AND European, I am gay AND masculine. I am masculine AND feminine. I am clearly a blackfulla who has a huge white family. I have often had people say to me things such as “Hang on, how are you Aboriginal and Dutch?” or “Is that your real Dad?”, after which I would have to delicately explain just like most people, I have a mum and dad and it just so happens that they are ebony and ivory if you get my drift…
When I was younger I just thought that people were interested in my parents. Nowadays though, I recall these experiences with some frustration. When I chat to my other coffee coloured friends, it seems a common experience of ours is having to explain our existence to people who more often than not can’t explain their own.
My childhood was spent in Darwin in the Northern Territory. It was full of diversity. When I look at my old school photos the class is made up a healthy mix of other blackfullas from all over the NT, Indonesians, Filipinos, Greeks, Cyprian, and yeah there were a few white kids too, but it never felt like us blackfullas were a minority whether that was true or not didn’t matter because we felt very connected. In the NT my blackness was never an issue, most people around me were black. I guess for the most part I never realised my blackness or even my queerness for that matter was an issue. That was until I heard the word faggot. I never knew what it meant but I soon found out, and it was in that moment I put on my first mask. One of many masks I would wear just to survive and get through some days, I’m sure this feeling is known to my queer brothers and sisters all over the globe.I am Aboriginal AND European, I am gay AND masculine. I am masculine AND feminine
When I was in my early teens I moved from Darwin to Auburn in the Clare Valley in South Australia. Never before had I been the only person of colour in the classroom! So being the new kid and the only brown person in the school had me feeling like I was on stage…. Naked! It was here I heard the words ‘boong’ and ‘coon’ thrown around freely with little consequence. Feeling like I didn’t belong, my survival instinct kicked in and I put on another mask. I pretended I was Greek (a really, really brown Greek). Somehow in my head being called a wog was easier than being called a coon or boong. This worked for a little while; I went to school, clenched my teeth, smiled and tried to laugh through the taunts for being “Greek”. Then people saw me with my mum and they joined the dots. My mask was ripped from my face and thrown to the side. Not long after I was ‘outed’ for being black and that’s when the real nasty shit started. After a huge amount of pain I returned to Darwin briefly and then we went to Adelaide, which was amazing!
In my later years in high school, I used to sneak out at night and go to the local gay bar. One particular night I had spent the entire night pouring my heart out to a group of older, very patient lesbians, I had decided the time has come that I needed to come out to my folks. I came home, my mum was still awake and I told her that I was bisexual. I couldn’t bear telling her I was ‘fully gay’, I felt like being bi was not as bad. Being bi gave me the option to retreat from gayness if I was not accepted. My parents were accepting but were mortified to hear I had been sneaking out. Needless to say I was grounded for some time. This is when I was able to take a mask off and start being my queer coffee coloured self.
I have been fortunate enough to travel overseas a bit through life. It is on these travels I felt the freedom that most 20-somethings feel when they’re overseas, but there was something else. There is a particular freedom I felt from the stereotypes of being an Aboriginal person in Australia. As black people in Australia we are often unwillingly bound to what the society think of us, particularly in our poor representation in the media. It is overseas that we break free of this, we become just another traveller. Gone is the bolt of panic when people find out you’re Aboriginal. That panic is replaced with pride. When foreigners find out that I belong to the oldest living culture in the world they are fascinated and in that moment we become the writers of our own story. When we are brave enough to take a mask off, even for a moment, we experience growth.
As life went on I learned to put down many of my masks but also pick some up too. I learned that in white workplaces, my blackness can be both exotic and desperately uncomfortable. At first I would want to look after people’s feelings in the workplace. I learned to talk and act like a white person. I learned that to be taken seriously I needed to act and sound like them. Often I was praised for being so well spoken and articulate. After some time I would respond to such comments with “you sound surprised?”. Faced with the reality of what their well-meaning comment actually reveals about their thinking, discomfort would often follow. As a black person working in white spaces, I would often be the impetus for other people’s cultural learning and growth as well as providing the ‘indigenous lens’ on unrelated projects. This sounds fantastic in theory, but the reality is that I wasn’t being paid for that and it certainly wasn’t in my job description.
These are but a few experiences I have faced that have shaped me into the person I am today. When we are brave enough to take a mask off, even for a moment, we experience growth. When I look back at my life it is no wonder I had no idea where I fit into the world, because I was too busy putting on so many masks in order to either fit in or to look after other people’s feelings. It has taken so much practice to peel back the masks over the years but when we do we finally come to a place where we can live as our true authentic selves.
These days I rarely put on any masks and often I don’t feel much different from other people. That doesn’t mean that homophobia and racism doesn’t exist. It just means that I am more grounded in my being and unapologetic for my existence.
Kane van Diermen is a Yolngu/Western Arertnte man, who grew up on Larrakia country. He works in Indigenous Health, runs a business and currently resides in South Australia with his partner, three dogs and their chickens.