It takes years and years to build up your view of yourself. If what people tell you is contradictory, it can take even longer.
I grew up as a mixed race Asian with my white mom in a population which is recorded as having an exceptionally low percentage of ethnic minorities — 0.985%, to be precise.
Obviously, as I have written about before, being visibly Asian led to many, many needless conversations with absolute strangers about where they believed I was from. Or, where my parents were from. Or, if that wasn’t satisfactory, where my grandparents were from.
To my mum, my race didn’t matter. I was me before I was half Asian. Or rather, I was a “person” before I was in any way Asian. My Race wasn’t, in her eyes, important to talk about.
When I think about growing up, I imagine myself thinking I was white. But weirdly, I didn’t. I was aware I wasn’t white, and yet as I got older I only became more confused. I remember being called ‘brown’ in the playground and the scorn with which it was said. I was only in high school when I was told by a white guy I was “too white” to talk about racism after he mocked me for being Asian. It was then that I began to doubt myself.
I think I’ve always thought, or at least hoped, that nobody would notice my color. Growing up where race wasn’t really talked about, even where my mum herself would occasionally say problematic things, I thought I blended in.
“Sometimes the glass wall would fall down. In these moments, I’d say things like “I wish I looked like you” and “I wish I was someone’s dream girl”.”
But it seems like sometimes the facade, the glass wall I’d built around me thinking nobody could see in, would fall down. Someone would make a comment at school or talk to me at a bus station about my “origins”, or maybe I’d just look at my friends and their percieved caucasian ‘beauty’. In these moments I’d say things like “I wish I looked like you”, “I wish I was white and blonde”, and “I wish I was someone’s dream girl”.
The dream girl concept still remains. Even when I’m my most femme, and that’s not often, I feel inferior. Watching TV and hearing guys describe their dream girls as blonde and thin, with blue eyes and pale skin (that bit often implied), hurt. I couldn’t imagine anyone saying “I’d like a hairy brown girl who is short and looks like somebody’s Indian mother.”
I wonder sometimes what it’s like to be just a person before a color. These days, white people are very sensitive to comments about their whiteness – I’ve heard people being uncomfortable with the label ‘white’ before. But that’s better than ‘hairy Indian girl’, or just being described as ‘The Asian one’. I had to get used to it, and so should they. Especially when those uncomfortable with the term ‘white’, are often the same ones that tag their selfies with it because they know it’ll get more likes.
“Sometimes I wonder what it’s like to be just a person before a color.”
White people are very keen to distance themselves from racism, thinking this will solve things. Race is a sort of taboo. I know I’m Asian, but I don’t know what that means. I very rarely talked about race, even when my ex would make jokes about how “hot” he finds Indian women because of me.
It’s an odd place to be in. When I watch films, I don’t know who looks like me. I’ve never seen someone like me in a film. Even in this time of constant white noise about diversity increasing in the West, I have yet to see a Hollywood movie with a femme like me featured in it. Men of color are slowly climbing up the media and Hollywood ladder, which I am grateful for, but they haven’t necessarily taken us with them. A lot of features starring men of color focus on their relationships with white women, like Judd Apatow, Kumail Nanjiani and Emily Gordon’s upcoming romance The Big Sick, and Aziz Ansari’s Master of None. Films like these tend to leave brown and black women behind, with few roles or only stereotyped characters.
Having a mother of a different race only made my confusion deepen. I love her, obviously, but she did make it hard for me to find myself within my race. White fragility makes it difficult to address race at all, let alone without them centering themselves. White people are keen to talk about progression but very reluctant to demonstrate progress.
I’ve also learned that with being brown comes the assumption of being Muslim. I have no problem with being Muslim – only that I’m not. I know nothing about Islam, though I am beginning to learn. My dad was raised in a Muslim household, but being somewhat a philosopher, he calls himself an atheist existentialist and does not practice Islam. I know very little about Islam, and I know very little about its history. I barely know the history of the country half my family came from, even as someone who has studied history to degree level.
It was difficult to imagine who could be like me, who could be brown but raised white? Who could live in two completely different worlds and yet have no idea where they belong?
This was when I decided to learn. I started Indian dancing and learning Bangla. Two years ago I couldn’t even point out Bangladesh on a map. I started becoming more involved with the desi community, who were more than happy to accept me. I even found other mixed Bangladeshi desis, like Dom Chatterjee, founder of a queer and trans people of color focused online magazine, Rest for Resistance, who will speak to us next week about their experience as a mixed-race desi with a white parent.
A hugely influential article for me was published in the Guardian last year. Mixed race femme Georgina Lawton describes being told by her white family that she was white, and how it felt when she discovered that her white father was not her birth father – that she was, in fact, the child of a one night-stand with a black Irishman. She describes the influence of her Anglo-Irish family background and culture, and how she felt just like everybody else, but still got no answers from her parents when she asked why she looked different. Her article has been shared online and commenters have wondered “How could she believe she was white?” but it’s easier to believe your parents than to doubt them. When you’re young, you accept what your parents say. And when you’re not talked to about race, apart from to be reassured that you’re white, it can be extremely damaging. You end up building glass walls and believing nobody can see that you’re “different”.
I’d like to thank people who talk openly about race, like Georgina Lawton, for opening up a discussion about people of color being raised by whites. Without people like them, this article wouldn’t have gotten past the draft stage. I would still be wondering who I am, and where I fit in, but wondering it alone. I hope this article has shed some light or provided some relatable content, about the difficulties growing up in a majority white area, with most of your close family white, and being half white yourself. I still don’t really know who I am. I don’t know what color I am. I don’t know how Bangladeshi I am, or how British I am. But I’m learning. And I hope you can too.
Read Georgina Lawton’s article here: ‘My mum always told me I was white, like her. Now I know the truth.’