Sunday, 21 June 2020

Mixed up: ethnic identity as a dual heritage daughter

I was recently invited, with others, to speak at our church Zoom service about my experiences concerning my ethnicity within both community and church. This is what I read out and I wish I had heard it when I was younger. I'm sharing in the hope that it will help people to understand the experiences of people better, and perhaps help other mixed race / dual heritage children to explore who they are more comfortably. Thank you to our church for giving me this opportunity to share.

I've only recently come to realise that I'm not white. To be fair, I've always ticked the 'White/Asian' box on the forms, knowing I'm honouring the truth at the same time as helping diversity quotas along. But despite the genetic facts of the matter, I've always felt that I am a "white" person masquerading as a mixed race one on paper only.

The reasons for this are complex but one is obvious: compared to my brown-skinned mum and my darker brother, I feel white. Somehow I got the lion's share of my dad's English genes, and even Mum talks of how strange it was for her daughter to be so much lighter.

My deep consciousness of my comparative whiteness has meant that when people have questioned my ethnicity, I have written this off as anomaly rather than a pattern that shows that I am not an English-looking person. Somehow the frequent questions, "Where are you from?" or my favourite, "Are you a bit...?" never alerted me to the fact that my other people's perception did not match my own. Incidentally, I always welcome people asking me, however clumsily, if it is from a kind heart, but sadly this wasn't always the case.

I remember asking a friend at school to borrow her concealer and her laughing and exclaiming, "But you've got way darker skin than me!" which I found ridiculous, as to me we looked the same. At Body Shop parties (the noughties version of the Tupperware gathering) I would go to swatch a shade of foundation and be told, "oh, that's far too light for you". I still sometimes buy makeup that's way too light because what I look like does not match what I see in the mirror.

Ironically, my lighter colouring has meant that some people have felt at liberty to confide in me that they think immigrants should "go home", until I ask if they mean my mum shouldn't be here, and they blush and say "Oh no, not her, she's fine". I resist the urge to point out that every immigrant is someone's mum, or dad, or daughter (and that immigration is good for our economy). But aside from that negative aspect, I know am a beneficiary of white privilege in terms of my life opportunities, which means that as far as I know, none of the struggles in my life have been a direct result of my ethnicity. I am all too aware that my pale skin has meant that I have got off lightly in terms of racist abuse; my darker brother has suffered more.

Another key reason for my inability to grasp who I truly am is the nature of my mum's ethnicity and her lifelong struggle with identity. Mum is Anglo-Indian, which is pretty niche. There have only ever been around 300,000 Anglo-Indians living at one time. Anglo-Indians are imbued with identity insecurity, due to their historical rejection from both British and Indian communities. Our British colonial ancestors have been traced back to the 18th century: white upper-class Englishmen who felt at liberty to take the spoils of India for themselves, including her women, thus creating a whole new ethnic group with their illegitimate children. When India achieved independence in 1947, the Anglo-Indian community were left out in the cold by the collapsed Empire and found themselves in a precarious position.

My Indian identity always felt like an absence to me. India was an abstract, an unknown I have never visited. No, my mum doesn't wear a sari. No, she doesn't speak "Indian". No, she's not Hindu. And most insultingly: no, she doesn't own a corner-shop (with no disrespect to any corner-shop owners of whatever skin colour they may be). People have struggled to place me but have always known that somehow, I am 'other'. We didn't fit with anyone's idea of what we should be.

My Indian family had mostly emigrated to Canada long before I was born, meaning there was no big family to hang out with and celebrate our Indian heritage with. I don't look much like any of my dad's family; I look like my cousins who live in Canada. And what was my Indian heritage, with no saris, red dots on our foreheads or Diwali traditions?

We ate curry - amazing curry - at home, and rice with a lot of things English people have chips with. My parents educated us around the dinner table about the East India Trading Company, the British Empire, Indian history, the partition, white supremacy, and racism. We loved eating jalebis, the Indian sweets that are orange and sticky. I liked that I was half-Indian. But because I have always seen myself as white, and because my Dad, as a white Englishman, is very comfortable conversing openly about these things with anyone, I erroneously assumed that all white British people experienced this type of upbringing, and that fluency in talking about race and ethnicity was a normal part of British culture.

All of this started to change two years ago when I read Reni Eddo-Lodge's superb book, "Why I'm no Longer Talking to White People about Race". In one part, she discusses mixed race children, and how the colour of your skin does not determine your ethnic identity: your genes and heritage do. I was amazed. This gave me the freedom to start accepting that I am half-Indian and half-white even if I don't look 50/50. I also identified hugely with a lot of the things Eddo-Lodge says about how white people interact with the subject of race and how brown and black people can feel about this, which surprised me. Around the same time, Mum had given me the novel "Secret Children", which is the fictionalised story of a family like the one I have come from, a long time ago: an Indian woman stolen from her village for a paltry sum by a British coloniser making his fortune from Indian tea. These books started unlocking something within me.

The murder of George Floyd has catalysed this process. As the aftermath and protests started to unfold, and the reactions poured out, I found myself struggling hugely. There were many reactions that showed the lack of understanding of structural racism and the uphill struggle people of colour still face in the UK. There were reactions from well-meaning people who were 'shocked' that this kind of thing could still happen. For those of us who have faced racism all our lives, it is not shocking, it's just exhausting, painful and exasperating. Then there was the silence. I understand that silence does not necessarily mean approval of injustice, but it can feel like it when it helps to uphold the status quo, and it can definitely feel like a lack of acknowledgement of pain. Silence certainly does not change anything.

I began to realise two things: one, that the people I was most identifying with in the George Floyd reaction were people of colour; and two, that all the hundreds of 'anomalies' throughout my life were not in fact that, but a coherent pattern. By that I mean that every time someone has asked me where I'm from, told me immigrants shouldn't be here and watched my face twist in pain, asked if I've had my teeth whitened, told me my hair colour looks too dark for my face or that they knew I wasn't English because I look 'a bit' - all of these things suddenly clicked into place and I realised that who I am is not who I have thought I am. In fact I am who everyone else sees: a half-Indian, half-white woman.

This all converged into the realisation that the 'white' experience of race is not something that I know much about, because it's totally different to mine. I do not know what it is like not to feel like an 'other'. I cannot comprehend not feeling that identity is something extraordinarily complex and confusing and painful. I did not understand before this month that talking about race at the family meal table isn't normal. I find it very difficult to understand being "proud" of being British when I am painfully aware of what Britain's historical actions have been. This is quite at odds with the culture we live in, particularly in Keighley where being proud to be British is kind of a big deal. At the same time, while I abhor the actions of the British Empire, I am very much aware I would not be here without it, two truths that are difficult to reconcile. I have never lived anywhere that is not overwhelmingly majority white and have never attended a church that isn't majority white, so I have no personal experience of that "melting pot" ideal where multiculturalism is a thing and I would be able to fit in. I know that the breakdown of my parents' marriage has also contributed to my general fractured sense of identity too, although both mum and dad are incredibly unconditionally loving to me.

I haven't finished processing all these emotions yet. I've experienced severe anxiety during this time. But here are some things that are helping me through it.

1) My underpinning identity is that I am God's child and a member of the human race, created in his image as are all other human beings. Christianity provides the ultimate antidote to racism. Race is a human construct, designed to subjugate. We have different skin colours and ethnicities and can celebrate these, but we are all one race. Sadly, we have to deal with the consequences of racism, but we know that we are not Indian or white or black first and foremost: we are Christ's.

2) Jesus was a brown-skinned man who lived as a refugee in his early years, did not belong in any earthly home, and was despised and rejected and killed by the authorities and his own people. He faced the ultimate injustice and he knows more deeply than any of us could what it means to be an outcast.

3) I may have been a bit slow on the uptake to realise who I am, but the people in my life who know me and love me, like yourselves, have always known who I was, and have accepted me. I think because ethnicity is not talked about, it hasn't always felt like that, but I know it to be true.

4) Our family is evidence of how God's grace works out of evil situations. What the British colonials did to Indian women was wrong. But out of it have come precious human beings. Fallen image bearers are capable of good and bad deeds and God can still work amazing providence out of injustice.

4) I believe the church has a key role to play in this conversation. Our allegiance is not to our nation but to our Saviour. We can talk to each other with grace and honesty because of our identity in Him which turns away pride, fear and shame. One example of this I have really appreciated was conversations around the time of the Brexit vote. Because part of the Leave campaign was concerned with immigration, I found it hard not to second guess whether my Leave-voting friends saw this as an issue and as a result how they would see my family. So I broached the subject respectfully with a number of church friends I knew had voted Leave and really enjoyed hearing their thoughtful views and learning from them. This then dispelled the worries I had too and the potential tension.

I understand that the concept of being "colourblind" came from good motives and was a reaction against racism, but I think we need to ditch it. Colour is beautiful. It's how God created us. Saying we don't see colour also stops us from acknowledging the injustice and pain people of different colours experience. The church can see and celebrate colour and be curious about each other because knowing and understanding one another shows us all a little bit more of God's image reflected in each of us.

So what do I see when I look in the mirror now? I am trying to see me for who I am: a kind of Indian and English-looking woman with my mother's nose, my Dad's curly hair, and my Grandma's eyelids. But most of all I am trying to see myself as God sees me: at home in Jesus, safe, secure, loved, and stamped with the Holy Spirit's seal. My earthly ethnicity may always be something of a conundrum, but I know that because of my identity in Jesus, the struggle will be gone one day, replaced by perfect peace and joy in an earth that knows only complete and beautiful unity. That isn't just a dream: it's our future reality.


  1. I am so glad to see this text. It is a complicated enough topic for us not having conversations about this when you all lived here in Brazil. I get that.

    Even so, I’d really have loved it if we had had that chance, so I can put my own ethnicity salad in question - and understand deeper what my darker friends still suffer to this day. And recognizing what I’ve experienced coming to the South of the country to find less miscegenation, less love to the different (in both skin and faith), and less empathy with those who struggle.

    I hope we keep learning. And glorifying our Saviour by overflowing his love to each as needed.

    My love to the Severs, and all of those birds.
    My love to the Kings, with all their history.

    Especially, my love to Cora, who’s taught me so much about myself.

  2. Oi Rafael, muito obrigada pelo seu comentário! Eu sei que eu nunca conversei com voce ou outra pessoa no Brasil a respeita disso, porque eu mesmo nao tinha processado essas coisas. Eu entendo que voce tem uma experiencia profunda e complicada em relacao para sua etnia como muitos Brasileiros. Estou lendo um libro chamado "Natives" por Akala, e ele escreve da situacao no Brasil a relacao ao racismo e as razoes atras disso. Estou aprendendo. Se voce quiser, estou aqui para ler o que voce tem para falar.

    Muitos abracos da nossa familia para sua.

  3. Thank you for sharing so honestly, I am also mixed race (English & Caribbean). I can relate too you so much. For a short time your dear Mum worked in the childrens home I lived in!

    Growing up in a white middle class area meant I was bullied about my brown skin and frizzy hair. The memories are painful but I too feel loved by Christ and have begun to embrace my heritage. One of my children had inherited more of my genes and subsequently has been racially abused at school. The situation was dealt with swiftly by the PRIMARY school teacher, the individual was excluded.

    George Floyds death caused us amongst many great pain. Our children asked questions & we had the opportunity to teach them about black history. As a family we a culturally diverse, my husband is from Serbia! Moving forward I am keen to embrace our diversity and celebrate it in the light of God’s love which embraces all.

    You have the most beautiful parents, I love and respect them both. May God continue to use you to bring His peace, love & joy to those from every cultural background.

    Be blessed beautiful Sister! ��

    1. Hi LHG, Thank you for your open and honest comments and your kind encouragement. I'm so sorry to hear that you and your child have both gone through this horrible racial abuse. When people say we don't live in a racist country I just want to point out that I don't know a single person who isn't white who hasn't experienced any racist abuse. I am glad to hear that the teacher acted swiftly. I agree about the pain, the learning and the embracing - all in God's love.
      I will tell my mum to come and read your comment - that's amazing that she worked where you were. She was talking to me about this just the other day.
      Love in Christ to you and your family. xx