The Peculiar Privilege of Learning Where You Come From
Naomi reflects on her experiences of being white-passing and mixed-race
In 2013, following the racially motivated murder of Trayvon Martin the year prior, the Black Lives Matter movement was officially founded. At this time I was fifteen years old, and just beginning to understand the prevalence of racism and how it was my responsibility as a white person to do what I could to aid the dismantling of the system that places white people as a priority and that ensures people of colour are guaranteed oppression.
Those of us in the UK who may have previously thought that racism was an American issue have been forced to face the fact that racism is alive and well in the UK, and that our systems thrive on the oppression of people of colour.
Seven years on and the world is enraged again. In the wake of George Floyd’s murder, we now understand the need for anti-racism and education so the effects of our actions will make permanent changes. As white people, we are learning that it is a privilege to learn about racism and not to have to have lived through it from birth. Those of us in the UK who may have previously thought that racism was an American issue have been forced to face the fact that racism is alive and well in the UK, and that our systems thrive on the oppression of people of colour.
Another thing that I have learnt is that I am in fact not the race I thought I was in 2013. I knew that I was half Irish and half Indian, but because of my light skin and the fact that I have never been the target of racial abuse, I had assumed that I was white. In fact, I am mixed-race. This realisation has opened up a world of questions that I had never really enquired about because I thought that it didn’t affect me, whilst simultaneously coming to understand that I, and other white-passing people of colour like me, am in a place of privilege where people feel “safe” to be racist around me, and I have a responsibility to challenge that.
As the child of two first-generation immigrants, I could see very clearly that when Brexiteers spoke about immigrants what they really meant was that immigrants who looked like my mum were acceptable, but those who looked like my dad were “taking our jobs.”
My personal experience of true awakening to the pervasive presence of racism in the UK was Brexit. As the child of two first-generation immigrants, I could see very clearly that when Brexiteers spoke about immigrants what they really meant was that immigrants who looked like my mum were acceptable, but those who looked like my dad were “taking our jobs.” At the time of the referendum, however, I spoke only with my vote and not with my voice. I let racist remarks go unchallenged because I didn’t think it was something that affected me. I hesitantly said “thank you” when told “you’re too pretty to be Indian,” and I didn’t stand in defence when one of my peers made a joke that centred on the assumption that my dad was an Indian takeaway delivery driver. Having spoken to my parents about the matter I have since learnt that remarks like these have been thrown towards us as a family my entire life. Not only have people targeted my dad and my family in a racist manner, but they have spoken comfortably to me with racial hatred with the assumption that I was another white person willing to laugh it off. A university peer of mine once told me that Indians were “begging to be colonised again” and I assumed that he had raised the subject because he knew I was Indian. When I mentioned it and he realised his misstep, he said “I feel kind of bad now.” This was a huge moment of enlightenment for me. I came to realise that racists will always feel comfortable sharing their hateful views with me because their hate is based on superficial judgment, and I don’t fit their quota.
In the years since that interaction I have been more and more vocal towards those around me who feel that they are in a safe space to perpetuate stereotypes and racial hatred, but even when they know my ethnic background will often still speak with confidence. In a debate recently, I asserted the sentence “you can always do more,” and it was thrown back at me as a “you can always do more, so why bother?” Why bother? Because people are marginalised, abused and murdered. As a new resident of Bristol I was reminded of this interaction by street art on the M32 by artist @lanie__rose with @asablackpersonintheuk that states, “As a black person in the UK I need you to do more.” So do more. Always strive to do more. Because it will always be easier for us with white appearances to strike up uncomfortable conversations and confront those around us than it will be to be judged by the colour of our skin for our entire lives.
Being white-passing is a double sided coin: on the one hand you might come to a point where you want to embrace your culture and say proudly that you are a person of colour, whilst on the other hand you have to acknowledge your privileges over other POC and that you are not sharing a universal experience. I didn’t know that I was technically a person of colour for most of my life simply because nobody told me, and as daft as it might seem, I just didn’t know any different than having an interracial couple as parents. Being born and raised in the UK with light olive skin, two different passports and a British accent but no British blood is a confusing situation to be in growing up, the most confusing question of all being: “where are you from?” To this day I have about five different answers depending on what people mean. Often the intention is just “Where did you grow up?,” but race comes into it on a very regular basis when people feel confused about my surname. I always have to spell it out if someone is writing it down, or and almost nobody seems to be willing to pronounce it correctly, even if I’ve just said it to them. Only in the recent past did I realise that my very simple, two-syllable surname was so baffling because it was unfamiliar, foreign, ethnic. This gave me a deeper insight into the racist unwillingness to learn that people such as child actress Quvenzhané Wallis have been subject to. I shouldn’t have to say that children should not need to defend their own names in the interest of white comfort. In the words of Uzo Aduba: “If they can learn to say Tchaikovsky and Michelangelo and Dostoyevsky, they can learn to say Uzoamaka.” Despite being common amongst Jat Sikhs, my surname, Samra, hasn’t made the rounds in the UK. When people ask me where it comes from, I explain that I am partly Indian. After this, I usually receive one of three reactions: A), an uncomfortable and swift acceptance of my answer and no further questions asked, lest the person asking has to understand the seemingly very confusing fact that I am a person of colour, B), confusion and endless questions and comments including the very popular and entertaining “I went to India once,” firmly asserting that they are okay with me not being the white person that they originally thought I was. Or the refreshing option C), genuine understanding, acceptance or inquisitiveness. Had I been born a bit darker there would certainly be more than three responses to my ethnicity, and hatred and ignorance would fuel them.
Almost every mixed-race person I have spoken to has been subject to comments about not being black enough, not being white enough, not ‘this’ enough, or not ‘that’ enough.
Being a mixed-race person in the UK is a personal experience that varies, but after discussions with others with similar backgrounds, there is one thing that I have noticed. Almost every mixed-race person I have spoken to has been subject to comments about not being black enough, not being white enough, not ‘this’ enough, or not ‘that’ enough. This is certainly a source of confusion amongst many mixed-race children as I know it was for me. In addition to this, a conversation with a co-worker who was raised by her white parent but to society is seen as a black woman enlightened me to the disconnect between our appearances in the eyes of strangers and our actual identities. How for me, as someone who appears white, this means that I am essentially immune to racial abuse that might have been experienced by my father, but she and others like her will face racism their whole lives and will have to learn for themselves how to cope with this in conjunction with confusion and lack of connection with their culture. I will be told, and have been many times, that I am ‘too white’ to be Indian. And whilst this may annoy me or hurt my feelings, others are seen every day as not white enough to live.
This white privilege is recognised and encouraged by the systems in our country. It is not an option now to be passive or complicit and it never has been. Those of us who hold this privilege must do our part. Forget white guilt, remove your white ego. There seems to be unending ways of being racist, and association with people of colour does not absolve you of that. Tokenism, fetishisation, appropriation and performative activism come heavily into play when people who don’t take direct action either claim or truly believe themselves to be anti-racist. In her book Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People About Race Renni Eddo-Lodge writes that “children of immigrants have quietly assimilated to the demands of colour-blindness,” and for most of my life, I fit this description. However, as I am now, I do not wish to live in a colour-blind world. I want to live in a world where every culture and every skin tone are seen and validated by society. Where we can learn about all kinds of cultures and where the systems that are supposed to protect us actually protect everyone.
This white privilege is recognised and encouraged by the systems in our country. It is not an option now to be passive or complicit and it never has been.
If my biggest inconveniences as a biracial person are tedious explanations of my surname and telling my hair colourist that I have “Asian hair” so that they can colour it accordingly, I think I’m doing just fine. And so my advice to other white-passing people of colour is to embrace your culture, even if it would be ‘easier’ to be the white person that you might be seen as. We are in an opt-in system of race, and I couldn’t encourage you more to opt-in. Be proud of your culture, learn your family’s history and embrace traditions, and reject anybody’s sentiment that you’re not anything enough to “count” as a person of colour. Correct people’s assumptions of your identity even if you think it might make them uncomfortable. You have a right to your identity, but you also must recognise your privilege if you wish to be a part of the fight for a kinder world. You will be seen and heard in a way that someone else of a similar ethnic background to you won’t. Use this information to pave the way for a world where people don’t feel that they are lucky for being white-passing, where the beauty of every skin tone and ethnic feature is acknowledged, and where nobody will be harmed in a cowardly act of shallow hatred.
Does Naomi’s experience resound with you? Let us know in the comments.