I acknowledge the traditional owners of the lands I write on, have come from, have been to, and am inspired by. I pay respects to Elders past and present of the Wurundjeri people of the Kulin nation, of Woiworung and Boonworung language groups on whose lands I live as a guest. I humbly extend respect to all First Nations people and their spiritual connection to the land, sky and waters.
Be advised the below content describes experiences and explores issues of racism, xenophobia and cultural appropriation. but that’s not all it does.
this is my cultural story.
I was born in early February, 1990 on Kaurna land near Tarndanyangga, which some call Adelaide. I was given the birth name Brodie John Paparella.
Paparella is my father’s family name. In Italian it loosely translates to “little duck”. Not like a duckling, a small duck. Italians mostly only use the word to describe the cute rubber ducky bath toys.
John is a reference to my grandfather, whose given name Giuseppe was anglicised to John when he emigrated to Australia after World War II, and his employers kept confusing his paychecks for his brothers’. In Italian families, the eldest child is traditionally given the same name as the grandparent they share a sex with, but I was given this as a middle name to make a compromise.
The compromise was struck because my grandfather wasn’t too fussed with tradition, because my uncle and auntie had already broken the tradition with their children’s names before I was born, and because my maternal grandmother threatened to disown my mother if she let it happen. Apparently an Italian surname was bad enough, to have a grandchild named Giuseppe would be unbearable. My grandmother thought her lineage to Britain should be honoured in my first name.
My mother loved the name Broderick, but she knew ‘lazy’ Australians wouldn’t pronounce it with its proper brogue and likely shorten it to “Ricky”, which she loathed. So that’s why I was called Brodie. It means mud. Literally. You can look it up.
My parents were both born in Australia. My father’s parents both come from Bari, in the Puglia region of south-eastern Italy, a fishing village perched right on the Adriatic Sea. My mother likely descended from Anglo-Saxon settlers who colonised this land and eradicated the rightful sovereign occupants. I haven’t traced our family tree to know when my Roberts and Hayhoe ancestors arrived; ignorance is bliss.
My parents’ marriage was somewhat unconventional, crossing cultural boundaries for the first time on both sides. No-one in my father’s family had married an Australian. No-one in my mother’s family had married an ethnic. I’m told the night before the ceremony, my grandad called my Nonno and told him he should consider his whole family lucky that his daughter was generous enough to marry a ‘wog’ like my dad. Apparently my grandmother threw a crayfish at one of my extended Italian relatives at the reception. To say it was miracle I was born eight years later is not an understatement, and that’s without taking into account the miscarriage by near-fatal haemmorhage before me.
I was born in 1990, which was on the tail-end of a turning point for migration into Australia and race relations. In the five decades prior to my birth, Italian and Greek immigrants were not welcome by white Australians; they were scapegoated and discriminated against, called “wogs”, “dagos”, “greasy” and accused of job-stealing, rent-raising, and a swathe of other racist abuses. Before the attention zeroed in on Asian and Middle Eastern immigrants and asylum seekers in the 80s through the millennium to now, people like my Dad were stereotypically associated with World War II fascism, and so faced racist violence and the brunt of the assimilation movement. Many ‘mediterranean’ migrants retreated into their own suburban districts for protection and cultural resilience, or otherwise resigned from their cultures in favour of shrimps on the barbie and living like Aussies. Both of my father’s parents “naturalised” when they were married on Nukunu country, called Port Pirie by some. This means their Italian citizenship was effectively renounced as well as that of their progeny. For them this didn’t represent much cost: neither wanted to return to the war-torn homeland they left – my Nonna still doesn’t want me to travel there for fear I’ll be misgendered and drafted into the military.
My parents separated shortly after I was born. It was not a harmonious separation,and while my Australian relatives had displayed unquestionably racist attitudes, my Italian family had their own ways of making outsiders feel unwelcome. This created internal tensions for me about my dedication to my identity, my loyalties, my skin tone, my features, and my name.
I did a great deal of growing up on Yirrganydji country around Gimuy, which some call Cairns, Far North Queensland. Parts of Gimuy are still well populated with Aboriginal & Torres Strait Islander people, and there are areas known where traditional law is largely respected. While living there I spent some time at Machans Beach State School, primarily an Aboriginal & Torres Strait Islander school, where I was one of only a handful of white kids. While I felt alienated and different, I cannot recall being bullied for my skin. I do remember taking Religion there, and the teacher assuring us that Jesus could only be coloured with pale or pink pencils, but the lepers could be any combo of brown, red, yellow, orange – colours of wounds and disease. As someone whose best friends were children of Australian and African parents – 60 Minutes came to our town to film them in a segment called “Cappuccino Kids” – I found this concerning enough to tell my mum who marched into the school to rip me out of Religion class. This was the Anglican stream I’d been in, I can’t imagine what Catholic or Baptist colouring in exercises may have involved. I didn’t stay at the school for long, but the time I was there is something I value greatly as giving me some small perspective on how wonderful a culturally diverse environment can be for learning and living.
I wish I had better held onto the experience of being a cultural minority, because when I moved back to Kaurna land and attended a middle class school in a very white neighbourhood, then a working class high school with a very homogenous student body, much of that compassion and inclusion for First Nations people was forgotten. First Nations culture up north was normal, and while still a very conservative part of the country, there wasn’t prejudice or discriminatory caution like I experienced in the south, where city lifestyle & structure, access to intoxicants and very poor social supports painted a different picture.
As for my own culture, growing up, I wasn’t encouraged to study the Italian language, attend schools with a majority Italian student body, or identify with being Italian much at all. My father would go on to partner with another Australian woman of Irish descent, together having two more children, my brother and sister, with whom I lived for my later childhood and teenage years. I believe Dad’s experiences of racism made him fearful of what his children might face, and I believe he too was influenced to believe the best thing for everyone was to conform to the customs of the current place. This didn’t bother me much because I had been encouraged by my mother to reject and scorn what ethnic traditions did exist in my life. I didn’t know any other Italians that weren’t in my family, I didn’t have any means to connect with other Italians about anything particularly Italian. But my name always set me apart, my nose, my skin, my eye shape, there was something about me people clocked and asked about, so the Italian part of my identity became something I admitted to, more than really celebrated.
At one point I worked in a law firm run by an Indian and Iranian family, where clients would come in and speak Farsi to me. I would get into Ubers and have drivers ask me which part of India or the Middle East I was from. Once I was on a bus where a man was racially abusing someone and when I interjected he told me to “go the fuck back to Brasil”. While living in New Zealand someone remarked to me “you’re not full white though are you?”. These small insights into the violence of racism have made it feel uncomfortable to recognise the kind of cultural ambiguity my appearance communicates.
It strikes me that my ancestors emptied me. I was withheld from claiming the culture I come from, but at the same time I am continually pressed against it by outsiders who want to know “my background”. People ask me if I speak Italian, I say “no but I speak a bit of Japanese” and their faces are priceless as they try to piece it together. I yearn to speak to my Nonna and Nonno in their first language that they increasingly rely on as they age and their grip of English slips. People shudder when I snap pasta in half to cook it quicker because that’s not Italian, but I wasn’t taught to cook in an Italian way, I was taught by Aussies. My culture was sanitised, frittered away, traded in for acceptance, secreted away all before I was born.
We’re in an interesting place as a society when it comes to cultural sensitivities, and genuine concerns about the slippery slope from cultural sharing to cultural appropriation to racism to racist violence. Humans are beginning to see the errors of the past; people are yearning for a sense of soulfulness that people as connected to their culture as PoC seem to experience. This leads them to adopt practices and fashions, attaching themselves to social settings and creative expressions that do not belong to them. The trouble is, this adoption is never attached to the same generational experience, the same red thread reaching into the infinite past, and so there’s no sense of authenticity; it all manifests as trends, costume, simulations, inferior replicas. This frustrates people, and so they seek to deepen or validate their connection by erasing the original owners (which is what their culture taught them to do, that’s their culture, that’s their inherent, inherited cultural practice – and by theirs I mean ours). It’s a vicious cycle we cannot escape because we didn’t choose to be born into a colonist culture either, and we’ve been made ignorant by our comforts and privileges not to question the status quo when as white people we sit at the top of the hierarchy. These aren’t excuses, but realities we must face as we seek to implement equity, justice, and empathy into our human culture. As we begin to celebrate diversity more and more, and we hold people accountable for exploiting cultural practices that aren’t their own, I look to my heritage, I seek to rebuild the bridges burned as an act of survival by my parents and predecessors.
It is my belief that being Italian does not make me a person of colour. It is my belief that this is also the case for other European communities, though it is not my place to speak for them. My people come from the Roman empire; we’re the original colonists. While Italians may once have been considered PoC in certain settings, by and large we are not now. We may experience incidents of racism and stereotypes depending on a range of factors around neighbourhoods and economic circumstances, but olive skin does not prevent me from a safe walk home after a night out, it does not compromise my job opportunities, it does not isolate me from identifying with people I see in the media, it does not shorten my lifespan, increase my risk of incarceration, reduce my access to healthcare or welfare, and it doesn’t prevent me from accessing my human rights in this country.
So I’m faced with the tension of wanting to learn about my ethnic history, wanting to let it inform my language, my creative expressions and performances, my style of dress and my sense of womanhood. Or is this cultural appropriation because I wasn’t born there, wasn’t raised in the culture, don’t speak the language, don’t have a connection besides a bloodline? Is it racist of me to be influenced by commedia dell’arte, to practice strega craft, to perform a lip-sync to ‘Ave Maria’? How do I share my culture when it’s been so torn apart and scrapped back together? How do I create from a place of culture when I don’t feel a valid connection to either side of the coin?
To make matters more interesting, my being is also powerfully informed by a third culture. It’s not a culture I was born into the blood of, but a culture I had to battle my way to. Queer culture is a wild chimaera of styles, customs, gatherings and identities. My adventure in queer culture has also not been without its complications, entering into acceptance as a gay man – which never truly fit from the start – and now finding my way as a woman in the trans community. This is a whole new mountain to climb in terms of navigating validation, authenticity, stereotypes, relationships, expressions and access. My connection to queer and trans cultures comes from a crystal of truth inside me which is far more intense a bond than the genetic link to cultures of place and origins. That doesn’t make it any easier to engage with and flourish within.
This is where my story is at right now, with questions, with yearnings, with listenings and with learning to do.
I believe it is important for us to position ourselves in the cultures we interact with, to evolve in our understandings of the diverse cultures we are connected to, and most importantly to show respect for the cultures we owe our safety, our stability and our success to – and who are long past due having those gifts redistributed back to them. Australia always was and always will be Aboriginal Land.
With all of that being expressed, I’m looking ahead to what my cultural story can be going forward, based on what cultures I contribute to, what cultures create and shape me, and who I am inside them; how I am known. I will always have, and be fulfillingly recognised by my birth name, but feel that moving forward, I am unfolding, and evolving a rebirth name. That name is Bayley Joyce Paparella. A tribute to my father’s heritage, a recognition of my maternal lineage and a reflection of my own journey to truth, my own legacy in the world.
It’s nice to meet you.