“I’ve lost count of the times I’ve been asked where I’m ‘really’ from”

Written by Anita Ghosh

When one part of your identity is seen as inferior it makes you want to fight for it, writes journalist Anita Ghosh.

Our names shape our identity. Within a millisecond of hearing a name, people form assumptions about you. What you might look like, what you do, even where you might live. Take my name for instance, Anita Ghosh. Where am I from? What do I do? Let’s say you Google me – what can you guess from that tiny picture? My age? Relationship status? Half the time, we don’t even know we’re doing it but unconscious bias affects our thoughts and actions more times than we give it credit for.

A name, a face, the colour of a person’s skin: sadly, it all has the ability to change how we’re perceived, treated and ultimately live. The truth is, I’m 32, 5ft 4in (and a half) with a soft Mancunian accent… oh, and I’m mixed-race – the term set to define the undefinable.

I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve been asked where I’m really from, as if my answer of “Bury”, where black pudding and the Neville brothers hail from, isn’t satisfactory enough. In the majority of cases, I’ve come to learn that the subtext of the “where are you really from” question usually means “are you one of us?”.

Like all of us, I belong to a mixture of both my parents, mine just happened to have different coloured skin. An Indian doctor (my father) fell in love with an English nurse (my mother); it has all the ingredients of a Richard Curtis movie. But this was the 70s in a gritty northern town, where the National Front was growing in popularity, and racism, in its many guises, was part of everyday life.

Growing up, I don’t remember seeing a mixed-race person I could identify with in the films I watched or magazines I read. Society told me I couldn’t be more than one: it felt like a constant toss-up between Disney’s Belle or Princess Jasmine, but truth be told I always felt too white to be Jasmine and not white enough to be Belle.

Early on, I started to question the differences I saw around me. Why did I look different to the other girls in my class? Why did my name sound different? Why were the families on TV different to ours? When I asked  these questions at home or at school, the answer was always: race doesn’t matter, we are all the same. But even back then, I didn’t feel satisfied with that answer. I could see I was different based on a world that really wasn’t colourblind. And as I got older, I remember the shame I felt persistently having to tell my grandad not to use a racist slur which referred to me too, and having to explain what white privilege was to my aunt Brenda.

My Indian heritage is incredibly important to me. My dad died when I was a teenager and I feel very strongly that my heritage is part of my dad’s legacy; I want that to live on through me, and maybe someday, my kids too. After my dad died, my mum tried her hardest to keep my Indian roots alive for me, but it’s a hard thing to do when it’s foreign to you too. We went on a holiday to India, visited the local temple on special occasions and saw the latest Bollywood blockbusters. But these glimpses into that part of my life highlighted how alien it felt when compared to the world I was living in.

For too long, society’s default has been to think of a person as a single identity. And, as I’ve gotten older, I’m more aware of being treated as solely white. I am conscious of the privileges this has given me: I don’t feel racism in the way that visible people of colour do, but I do have an understanding of how people, like my dad, continue to suffer today.

Throughout history, race has been used to categorise people – so I grew up questioning, what happens to people like me? Someone who falls between two races, two worlds? To this day, I still have to pick my ethnicity from a list on formal documents, and at times I really couldn’t see how I could fit all parts of my heritage together. I found it difficult to understand what my authentic voice should be in conversations about race, and which box was the right one to tick – both physically and metaphorically.

But over the years I’ve come to realise that life isn’t about ticking boxes or conforming to society’s expectations. And that I already had an authentic voice within me, because if one part of your identity is seen as inferior, it makes you want to fight for it. And that’s what I’m prepared to do. 

Racism is endemic in our society, it’s entwined into the fabric of everyday life. It’s in the “it was only a joke” centred around your friend’s “weird” name, it’s in the decreasing number of BAME representation in leadership, it’s in the abusive chants still being hurled at Black football players on the pitch. Yes, sometimes it’s subtle but it’s still there, and always has been. There was a period of time in the not too distant past, in the UK, when it felt easier to turn a blind eye to racism or, better still, be colourblind altogether. But right now we’re very publicly acknowledging that we do see colour and whiteness is still the default. We’re being forced to confront the bias rooted in our society, systems and even our front rooms.

The increase in awareness of anti-racism and the Black Lives Matter marches around the world have made me realise I’m ready to fight for my identity. 

By the end of this year, it’s predicted 1.24 million people in the UK will identify as mixed-race, making it the fastest-growing ethnic group of the last two decades. As one of those 1.24 million people, I know I can play a key role in the anti-racism movement right now, by enabling very real and often raw conversations about race. Through these, I hope to challenge the flawed perceptions of what it means to be British in 2020, using my lived experiences. And I will encourage others to do the same. 

While I still have lots to learn about my heritage, I’ve come to love embodying a mix of different cultures. It’s the essence of a vibrant and liberated society. I’ve also learnt to embrace the question “where are you really from?” and, rather than dismiss my Indian background, use it as a chance for me to defy cultural stereotypes and be the person I want to be, not what you think I should be.

So if you asked me what it’s like being mixed-race in Britain today, I’d probably say it’s about finding the beauty in being able to exist in two realms simultaneously and not fully fitting into either. It’s fun not ticking any boxes. 

Images: Anita Ghosh/provided

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