What people don't tell you about being mixed race

Image credit: Diliff

Growing up, every ethnic minority in the UK has a realisation that they are not the same as everyone else. In primary school it inevitably crops up: both ‘where are you from? London? No you’re not, not really’ and ‘there are too many Indians in this country, we should get rid of some.’ Suddenly the carefully constructed, multicultural, narrative of you as a Briton, as someone who belongs in Britain; is whisked away from underneath you. The New Labour rug is pulled from beneath your feet and you come crashing abruptly down. Add to this the constant negative chattering about ‘immigrants’ and ‘minorities’ on the news and high profile incidences of racism in the public (notably the Jade Goody/Shilpa Shetty controversy on Big Brother as I was growing up); and you realise that you will never have your citizenship for free.

There will always be people who either openly or subconsciously don’t want you, or people like you, to live where you do and as you do – just because of the colour of your skin and the foreignness that it symbolises. Only a few months ago someone yelled ‘Wog!’ at me from the window of a passing van and the utter hatred on the man’s face for everything I was, was just astonishing. It's hard to accept, especially as a child, that there’s nothing you can do. It’s innate, irreversible; and no amount of daydreaming or scratching your arms will get the stain out. At the time I wanted more than anything to be white, to be normal and to be allowed to be British just like everyone else.

After recovering from this crisis of identity, which in my case required time and a bout of counselling, you leave with this latent certainty that you are not white English. You are something else. ‘Racism’ in the popular sense of the word is so reviled that many well-meaning white people tip-toe around the issue and wouldn’t tell you face to face that you aren’t the same as them. Deep down however both you and they both know that that’s the case. Could I be British Indian then? Embrace the other half of my identity in an attempt to reach some stability? Now this in particular is where being mixed becomes an issue.

In reaction to the overwhelming and, to me, alien cultural whiteness and Englishness of Cambridge: the pubs, the roast dinners, the Bake off; I would emphasise my British Asian-ness wherever possible. Yeah I went to school in North London, yeah my parents expected a lot of me, yeah chicken shops and popular rap music were cool. While this common ground was fruitful in Cambridge however, back in London the fact that I wasn’t a real Indian was quickly identified by thoroughbred minorities. ‘I’ve always listed you as a white guy’ said one Hindi friend at a restaurant. I was stunned and looked myself up and down in the toilet mirror. God I was awfully pale, but surely not white? An Egyptian man, in one interesting twist, assumed I was white simply because I studied at Cambridge. The thought idly crossed my mind – ‘why am I so light, everyone thinks I’m white!’ How perplexed would the 7 year-old me who was desperate to be white have been if he came across that thought. ‘You’re only Asian when it suits you’ jabbed a friend of mine, and maybe she had a point. I seemed to be running backwards and forwards between the two races that made me up.

It wasn’t that I didn’t, and indeed don’t, see any whiteness in me: both physically and culturally. Nor is it the case that I see anything wrong with it. It’s just that the whiteness would only be acknowledged by brown people and the brownness only by white. People are only ever looking for difference when it comes to these things, and this is a quintessential part of being mixed. Your body and your identity are not stable and they are not your own. People are clamouring to pin you down, figure you out. To some you’re an exotic Asian boy wolfing down his curry at home, and to others you’re just another member of the overwhelming white majority. Who you are is contested, and this is only more true if you don’t look like you’re from any particular place. If a half-Chinese person looks ‘East Asian enough’ they can maybe be weeded out by the Chinese community, but the seas of white, brown and black people around them will just see ‘Chinese’ (no doubt assuming subconsciously that shyness and an aptitude for maths are also present.)

But If you’re ambiguous, as I am; then no-one can easily cram you into a box in the same way. Iran? Italy? Portugal? Egypt? Each guess is so disparate and you are so fleetingly linked up to a new country, people; and set of stereotypes each time that it reinforces your disconnect from where you are actually from. Almost every day at my old work I was asked, and it consistently reminded me that at times I almost have no ethnicity. There’s a big question mark over my head and in some respects I’m even fond of that. Being hard to put in an ethnic box means that people can’t judge me quite as much before I even open my mouth, and feeling as if I have no specific ethnicity doesn’t stop me from feeling ethnic in general. There are experiences, and sometimes even cultural ideas that unite ethnic groups – especially in places like London; and being situated vaguely in this malaise can sometimes be enough to forge meaningful connections and associations with other people. Being mixed race for me has never been entirely straightforward, but I’ve come to accept it as who I am; and feel that it is not without some proverbial silver lining.

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