explainer

'I don't eat butter chicken every night.' With brown skin comes constant assumptions.

When you look at me, what do you see? 

A young professional, or a brown girl who speaks surprisingly good English considering she "is not from here"? 

I am an immigrant. A proud immigrant with a long-spanning history and bloodline of humble, honest, and hardworking Indian men and women. 

Side note: Amanda Fotheringham shares the awkward questions she gets asked as a young Aboriginal woman. Post continues below.


Video via Mamamia

I was born in South Africa. However, my forefathers hailed from Tamil Nadu in India. They were brought to South Africa as indentured labourers to work in the sugarcane fields. 

Sadly, I have never been to India; and it may surprise you to know that I do not speak an Indian language. In fact, my parents grew up in South Africa speaking Afrikaans and Zulu - Afrikaans is a West Germanic language that evolved during the 17th century under colonialism and Zulu is a language native to South Africa.

Unfortunately, because my parents spent much of their time learning the language of their oppressor, they were never able to master their own mother tongue - something they both deeply regret. 

To clarify, because you ask me so many thoughtful questions, I do not eat butter chicken for dinner every evening and my parents do not shake their heads when they speak; nor does my mother wear her hair in a long braid that reaches her lower back. 

I am sorry to disappoint, but by father does not work in IT, nor is he an Uber driver. 

In fact, he has an MBA from Melbourne Business School. No, my younger sister does not have a profile on an Indian matchmaking site, she is a passionate, strong, and courageous young woman who aspires to become a lawyer. 

My brother is not about to leave home with his subservient new Indian bride. He has been too busy finishing his studies at Stanford University, working for our local MP and mastering his French studies to focus on finding a wife.

Lastly, my mother - my intelligent, patient and unbelievably talented mother - doesn't stand barefoot in the kitchen all day cooking curry whilst wiping sweat from her forehead with her dupatta. She is in fact a teacher studying toward her PhD. 

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Are you shocked? How is all of that for myth busting? Your head must be spinning! 

Saihini wearing a traditional Indian Lehnga at a Diwali celebration Image: Supplied.

No, I do not have an “English name that is more convenient for people to pronounce” and there is no abbreviation for ‘Saihini’ that you may refer to me by.

If I can make the time to learn how to articulate your name, I am sure you can offer me the same courtesy. After all, my name is phonetic – Sai – hee – ni. It is really not that difficult if you are willing to make an effort. 

Well, I am honoured that you approve of my “golden skin colour” and are envious that I “don’t have to use fake tan” like you do. 

No, my glossy black hair is not a product of ‘Parachute coconut oil’ applied daily by my grandmother and my parents did not have an arranged marriage. 

It is not my Indian-ness that gets in the way of how you perceive me, it is your bias.

I have been overlooked for career opportunities because my name is foreign sounding and creates a furrow of uncertainty in the brow of recruiters questioning my English capabilities; I have been followed in high-end stores and have perplexed staff who are trained to be suspicious of people who feature towards the bottom of the colour chart; I have been trolled online when participating in robust political conversation and told that “Australia is full”. 

I have been judged by the colour of my skin, not the content of my character. 

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I have been advised that changing my surname when I marry will be a “good idea” and encouraged to give my children non-Indian sounding names in order to “mitigate bias and create greater opportunities for them”. Why of course, you are right, Anglo-Saxon names will surely open up a whole world of new possibilities for myself and my children. 

I have been told to opt for silver jewellery instead of gold, because “gold is too Indian looking and people might mistake me for being fresh off the boat”; I have battled in parking lots when one of my fellow citizens has unjustly taken my spot and subsequently hurled abuse at me to “go back to where I came from” when I have stood my ground – why do people always have to go to that place?

I have been to makeup counters that do not stock my shade of foundation and told to “try online because they have a wider selection”; I have stood in a line at the hospital next to a dark-skinned stranger who the nurse in charge has mistaken for my husband and been asked more times than I care to remember, whether ‘Saihini’ is my “Christian name or my surname”. 

My, my, I have been discriminated against time and time again. 

It may surprise you to know that as a young professional, I am an equal contributor to the Australian economy and pay my taxes just as you do – please remember that when you tell me to “go back to where I came from”. 

I am a journalist and fierce believer in equity, transparency, and fairness. I am also a proud South Asian woman who wastes an astronomical amount of unnecessary time, effort and resources fighting for my place in society.


Saihini in her academic robe at her double masters graduation at Monash University. Image: Supplied.

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The playing field should be equal and open to all, irrespective of race, ethnicity, creed, or religion. Merit and merit alone, must be the primary consideration when it comes to affording people opportunities. And it goes without saying, colourism should play no part in this. 

I have been told that my Indian heritage and the colour of my skin act as deterrents to the rest of the world, as if there is some enormous neon sign atop my head screaming: 

'This girl is brown!' 

I have been told to assimilate and “act Australian” because the odds are already stacked against me by virtue of the melanin in my skin - a multistage chemical process that I could not change even if I wanted to (which for the record, I do not). 

Despite what you may think, I love my brown skin. I love it fiercely. 

I love that it makes me different; I love that it is a product of my ancestors’ blood, sweat, tears and sacrifice; I love that it represents my uniqueness and I am happy that it sets me apart from the crowd - I am no white noise. 

I am comfortable in my brown skin; I embrace my brown skin; I own my brown skin and wear it proudly. It is a cloak that shields me from the sun and ironically, protects me from your bias. 

Your prejudice says more about you than it does about me.

It has been suggested that I work longer and harder to be considered an equal. However, I passionately refute this belief and simply work longer and harder to be unapologetically me. 

So, before you tell me that I am “pretty for a brown girl”, please check your conscious and unconscious bias. Yes, I am Indian and yes, I know that you can determine that within seconds of looking at my face. However, I am also a human being who wants the very same things in life as you do – to be happy, free, and equal. 

Indeed, brown is the colour that makes up the outer shell of my body. However, it does not speak to who I am as a person. Please see me as a person and that alone. 

The same God that created you, created me. That should be enough. 

After all, are we really going to allow a group of natural pigments, a few amino acids and a spot of oxidisation ruin our friendship? 

That’s what I thought!

Saihini Naidoo is a freelance journalist, presenter and Media Communications Advisor. She holds a Bachelor of Communication and a double master’s degree in journalism and International Relations from Monash University. 

She is a passionate advocate for elevating the voice of Australia’s migrant community. 

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