Written by Anya Shah
Illustrated by Tavis Taiwo
Growing up mixed race, I’ve always looked and felt different from everyone around me. My dad is Indian, dark-skinned, brown-eyed and (almost) bilingual. My mum is Scottish, blue-eyed, blonde-haired and proudly Glaswegian, so much so that even her laugh seems to ring true to her Celtic roots.
As you might have guessed, my sister and I are somewhere in-between. An ambiguous mix that paints us as decidedly not English but also leaves room for interpretation. Most people assume that our roots lie “somewhere in Europe”, whatever that means.
Along with our physical DNA, I inherited two large families from both sides of my family tree, who, despite 5000 miles of separation, are incredibly similar. Whether it’s partying at Hogmanay in Edinburgh or wishing my aunties a Happy Diwali out in India, that warm, chaotic sense of familial love is to be found in equal measure.
Celebrating our difference is something I have always been encouraged to be proud of. I wish I could say that I always have been proud, but sadly, that’s not the case.
Living in a sleepy suburb of London, I’ve had a very sheltered life. I’ve gone to good schools, met some incredibly talented people and had every single door opened for me. On paper, I am an example of how ethnic diversity doesn’t stand in the way of success or of seamlessly integrating into a largely white society. I haven’t always felt quite so included though.
The galvanizing death of George Floyd has reignited a war that was not yet over but had fallen into a slumber. It has sparked protests, changed lives and paved the way for what I hope will be more, urgent change. While I can’t say it’s directly impacted me, it has opened up conversations I otherwise wouldn’t have had with my family and friends but also, with myself.
In the past few months I have been reflecting on experiences I have had with racism. As previously mentioned, I’m extremely lucky to have never really been on the receiving end of outwardly aggressive, racist assaults.
But what I have come to realise is that being mixed race comes with its own Pandora’s box. As a result, there have been what you could label: microaggressions. I’ve normalised these as part of my life. It’s time to stop letting them slide.
For clarity, a microaggression is “a statement, action, or incident regarded as an instance of indirect, subtle, or unintentional discrimination against members of a marginalized group such as a racial or ethnic minority.”
I’ve seen hundreds of people, usually from an ethnically mixed background, joke about how the question “where are you from?” is unequivocally followed with “but where are you really from?” This, I can safely say, is something that has haunted my encounters with strangers for as long as I can remember. It’s not necessarily racist but it is a little reminder that I’m different – and it’s superfluous. Everyone should have the autonomy to reveal their heritage on their own terms, if they so wish.
This sense of un-belonging generally pervades society at every level. In recent years, TV and media representation has gotten better but I can empathise with those who could never relate to their favourite characters growing up.
Likewise, the number of make-up foundations in the ‘ivory’ section will outnumber the darker tones by ten. I used to be embarrassed that I could never find skin-tone coloured tights. In fact, I used to wish I was blonde and fair like the rest of my friends. While none of these things are particularly life-altering, they reinforced my perception that being dark-skinned was undesirable, not only physically, but culturally too.
I used to dread the two weeks when we’d study Hinduism at school. On one particularly sordid school trip, we visited Southall, an area known for its Indian population. I remember feeling uncomfortable the entire day as I watched my school peers joke about how bad it smelt. The insults were never aimed at me – I was white enough to pass as a stranger there too.
On reflection, I wish I could go back and tell my friends exactly why I was proud to be Indian. After all, one of my favourite places in the world is my grandma’s kitchen which smells as strongly of curry and incense as the entire city of Southall.
On the flip side, a lot of people I’ve met over the years find me, as an unusual mixture of bloods, pretty fascinating. I’ve always been under the impression it’s because I could nearly pass as white. On more than one occasion, I’ve been told that I look “just really tanned, I’m lucky”. I’m not lucky – I’m half Indian.
Someone once even told me I was “trendy” because of the colour of my skin and that it would probably stand me in good stead for getting better jobs in the future. It wasn’t said with malice but it didn’t make me feel good.
I’ve had a richer life because of my ethnic diversity. Aside from the curried Brussel sprouts at Christmas dinner, there’s nothing I would change about my background. In fact, I feel very lucky that difference is ingrained into my existence. I only wish I had come to this realisation when I was younger.
Promising to do better in the fight for racial justice starts with yourself. This article isn’t supposed to be me airing past grievances that I’ve experienced. It’s more a comment on the small things which for so long, I took as an accepted part of my existence and shouldn’t have. We all have a duty to stop letting the little things slide. We must do it for ourselves but also for those who have a much larger battle to face.
My voice is different but it’s still one of some privilege. The things I’ve experienced merely scratch the surface on the myriad of pain, suffering and deeply ingrained injustice lurking under Western society. It’s critical that we all use our voice to keep the conversation going so that it doesn’t fade into a whisper once more.
Anya is 22 and London-based. Currently, she is working as a junior copywriter. She loves to travel, read and explore new venues to socialise with friends.
Edited by Stephanie Kleanthous