The past year and a half has involved a lot of self-reflection. I’m learning more about myself, what I’m made of and what it means to be me.
I’m a 40 year old British Indian woman, I’ve spent my whole life in Newcastle – shout out to my brief French episodes… Aix en Provence 2000 and Paris 2010.
My childhood memories are treasured and bathed in a soft fuzzy light, accompanied by 90s Bollywood films, Indian food on Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays, lots of gatherings with my close knit family and Hindi lessons at the temple on Saturday afternoons.
Then something happened… I can’t pinpoint what or why but I was embarrassed of being Indian. I resented that I was different from the majority of my friends. I wished I had lighter hair, blue eyes (let’s not talk about those bright blue coloured contact lenses I wore in my early twenties – massive eye roll). The only Indian people I recall seeing on tv were Sanjay & Gita in Eastenders. They were hardly role models for 14 year old me. I can recall being called “a bit sad” because I liked Bollywood films as a pre-teen (I mean… I had posters up in my room and used to read Stardust magazine haha), it was probably not a direct result of that, but I totally disconnected myself from it all as much as I could. I remember not wanting to be seen wearing traditional Indian clothes and I’d beg mum to change her clothes if we were popping out. The same goes for speaking Punjabi or listening to Indian music, I didn’t want anyone in earshot to hear. I keep deleting the last two sentences because I’m so ashamed of it now and will try my hardest to make sure Anushka is proud of her Indian heritage and enjoys learning about it as well as embracing her Britishness.
Across the last year I’ve been reading a lot about unconscious bias, privilege and learning more about my own blind spots and how they have impacted my decision making and behaviour. I’m by no means an expert – just very interested in learning more. It’s been eye-opening and it’s reminded me of lots of things people have said to me over the years, that made me feel like an outsider. These are all nice people too, I am certain no one meant any offence. These could be labelled as micro-aggressions and I think my encounters have for the most part been unintentional. I’ve listed some, but not all because hey, we’d be here a long time. I also know I’m not the only person who’s experienced this – this happens every single day and I’m pretty sure you could add to my list.
My examples all have a racial context but this applies to anyone in a marginalized group — whether it is as a result of religion, sexual orientation, gender or disability.
Where are you from? My answer is always the same. I’m from Newcastle. This isn’t the answer most people are looking for… so my answer provokes the inevitable “but where are you really from?” This instantly makes you feel like you don’t belong. It’s saying I know you were born here but I can tell from the colour of your skin and your name that you’re not REALLY from here.
Do you go home often? Yes, I live at home. The UK is my home. When I’m asked this question, the person asking, means how often do I go to India.
On more than a few occasions it’s something like “how long have you been here?” or “you speak very good English“.
When I was in a new job, someone said my name was too hard and asked if they could call me Sharon. Nope, you can’t, sorry. I remember laughing it off at the time.
“You must love spicy food” actually I don’t.
Someone was on the phone to a call centre in India and hung up frustrated and said “bloody Indians“, instantly shot a look at me and said “not you, you’re alright“.
“You’re really normal, I don’t think of you as indian” – yes, really. This same person said they wouldn’t know I wasn’t white if they could only hear my voice. You know what the worst part of this story is, I think I said thank you. I took it as a compliment.
Even typing this list up, I wonder if I’m being overly sensitive or reading too much into it. In all the examples above, I let the comments slide, maybe even made a joke out of it. The easiest thing to do is to ignore it and move on.
Over the past year, I have made a conscious effort to speak up, not just for myself but as an ally for others too. I try to approach it in a way that isn’t confrontational or rude, because more often than not, I will need to interact with that person again. I could just say nothing but I know I would regret that afterwards. I’ve got a little mental list of things to say – this was an idea of a friend of mine (hi Guy). Simple things like ‘did you mean to say that?’ or ‘could you tell me a bit more about what you meant by xyz?’.
I hope I’m not coming across as preachy – this is just based on what I’ve experienced. I’m not looking for sympathy, it’s quite therapeutic to write it down. There are still times I feel like the odd one out, but it’s taken me ages (forty years in fact) to get to this level of acceptance and I’m pretty happy about where I am now.
Would love to hear if you have any comments or stories to share.