Race is not, and has never been, an issue to be taken lightly. Hundreds of years of colonization and world domination by Europeans has victimized and villainized billions of people.
The UK is no exception – the police force is institutionally racist (largely towards Black British people) with their brutality towards minorities in police custody and the disproportionate likelihood of minorities to be arrested or searched compared to white people.
However, my article is not about facing extreme institutional prejudice – which is a major issue and deserves a hell of a lot more attention than it receives – my article is a light-hearted repetition of the ridiculous things I have heard from mostly “well-meaning” people due to my race.
1. “What is your family history?”
Growing up mixed race in the North of England meant sticking out like a sore thumb. People, mostly of the older generation, lurked around every corner ready to pick apart your family tree.
One day while peacefully reading (which usually provides a barrier against general conversation and being on short episodes of “Who Do You Think You Are?”), I was approached and asked whether I was on holiday. This was a regular occurrence, so I gave my rehearsed response of, “no, I live here actually.”
Naturally, the next question was, “where are your parents from?” to which I responded, “Manchester and London.” Then, inevitably, “where are your grandparents from?” Satisfied with the answer of “my dad’s family are from Bangladesh,” he engaged me in some forgettable conversation.
What was unforgettable was the line he felt appropriate to leave with.
This kindly, curious old man made sure to tell me, “your people make better curries than mine!” as he walked away. To this day I have no idea why.
2. “Why are you that color?”
This isn’t a completely separate phenomenon to the above. Instead, I dedicate this point to the friends and classmates who have also, like strangers, felt the need to ask unsolicited questions about my origins. My first day of middle school was average. Except, of course, for the girl who followed me eagerly to the dinner hall with an intense desire to hear my racial backstory.
“Is your mam black?”
“Is your dad black?”
“Then how come you look like that?”
Similar, and less harassment-y, situations occurred many times. One summer, my sister and I were sitting in a tree in our garden with a friend, who confessed innocently, “my mother doesn’t like you because she thinks you’re dirty.”
Several friends wanted to know if I was sure I wasn’t from somewhere interesting and made sure they let me know I looked “Spanish.” There wasn’t anything aggressive about their questions, I simply wasn’t ready to talk about my ethnicity. That was the case until I was about 14, and we were asked to tell the class something interesting about ourselves. My “best friend” suggested I talk about my “yellow-y green skin color” and I thought – enough. From then on I have been very openly half Indian.
3. “Your skin color makes a good joke.”
A second anecdote from my middle-school life was when I expressed an interest in acting. The class-clown joked, “the only thing you’d win at the Oscars would be a chicken curry.” I was more confused than angry or upset. Nowadays a comment like that could be a commentary from a witty comedian about how the Oscars are white-dominated. But, it was from a 12-year-old, and it was racist and weird.
That wasn’t the only weird comment I received. Sometimes weird, out-of-the-blue comments really do need to be decoded. My partner and I were told by his ex, “you make a good couple because you’re the same skin color,” which was weird, as my partner is tanned white, and I am mixed race. To me, it seems like a sly dig and a very odd way to let me know I am “different.”
These little comments come in more destructive ways too. My sister worked in a very posh restaurant, and had brought the card machine over for a table of customers to pay. A lady got out her credit card and stated, “I’m paying, because we have emancipation here.” My sister retorted sarcastically, “And they don’t where I come from, 20 minutes up the road.”
She didn’t get a tip.
4. “You’re either black or white.”
People from small villages where the only relevant information is how many sheep are in the surrounding fields have a pretty hard time comprehending race.
Consequently, everyone is either black or white. Being half Bangladeshi meant I was neither (or both?). Joking aside, rural England has a huge problem with identifying people who aren’t white.
This issue came into the media last year when Zayn Malik and Sadiq Khan were featured during Black History Month at a student union of a Kentish University. These men should have been celebrated as part of Asian Heritage Month, and this event not only removed attention from black role models and media influences (such as Mae Jemison, first black woman in space, and many, many others) and disrespects the historical struggles faced by people of African and Asian origins, but also demonstrates the Eurocentric grouping of distinct communities of people into a single category.
Even friends I have today have remarked about how “it must be difficult for you to be the first black girlfriend” and how they don’t understand how my partner and I look anything alike because “you’re black and he’s white.”
I appreciate my white acquaintances trying to address race kindly, but it doesn’t take much to ask about my ancestry (now that I am comfortable speaking about it).
Don’t disrespect members of the members of black and brown communities by trying to group their struggles into your own terms.
5. “You are beautiful.”
Amongst the countless people asking you where you are from, whether you’re on holiday, which one of your parents isn’t white, someday somebody will come along and will appreciate the things you have because you’re a minority. I remember when I was 8 years old, a girl in my class said, “I’d love to have a skin color like yours.” It still makes me smile to this day.
Recently it has been all about the eyebrows. Finally my thick, dark Indian eyebrow(s) are being appreciated rather than mocked.
In future, I hope Eurocentric beauty standards finally fall away into the abyss where they belong and black and brown people can be on trend every day of the year and are wholly accepted and appreciated as part of the beauty of the West and of the world.