“Maa, why aren’t I white?” I asked, 5 years old. It wasn’t something that I had ever thought about until another child had pointed it out. It didn’t make sense to me, because in my mind I was just like everyone else – I was white.
Having had very few brown people around me, except my family, I didn’t realise the subtle effect this has had on me. It wasn’t until I went to university that I was truly confronted with the reality of it. The sudden diversity that I was thrown into in London, gave me unprecedented volumes of comfort and relief. That I could blend into the melting pot of races and cultures. That I was no longer one of just a handful of BAME students in my school, but one of a larger number. That I no longer felt I had to represent both myself and my entire culture to others – I could just be myself. That I now had many brown friendships, where we have a shared understanding of experiences as second-generation immigrants that didn’t require constant explanation.
Only now have I reflected on the experiences I had growing up in Plymouth and how they have shaped me into the person I am. Fortunately, outright racist comments or acts committed against me – like local teenagers throwing stones at our house, to the man behind us in McDonald’s loudly announcing that we should “go back to where we came from” – were few and far between. I consider myself incredibly lucky, as I know that this isn’t the experience of many people of colour in this country.
Microaggressions made up the majority of my experiences. Being made fun of for having a ‘moustache’ in primary school, to strangers asking where I “really come from”, to teachers constantly mispronouncing my name despite my corrections (or sometimes just coming to my name in the register before exclaiming “I’m not even going to try and pronounce that”). I’d be lying if I said all these things didn’t have an impact on the way I thought about myself and my culture. For years, I was ashamed of being different – being embarrassed to wear traditional attire, to speak to my parents in Hindi in public, or of my parents’ Indian accent. Much of adolescence involves a desperate desire to fit in, and being of a different race to the majority makes it so much harder to do so.
It wasn’t just the local community that affected me. Just switching on the TV, or reading books, or in films – it was rare to find a British brown girl. Representation in media matters because it reflects our society. If you aren’t represented, your society does not value you. A certain cognitive dissonance appeared particularly in my former years, where I simply didn’t believe that my skin was that dark. I had subconsciously subscribed to the eurocentric beauty ideals that I had been surrounded with. Even in later adolescence when I eventually did recognise my features as being different, I couldn’t see the beauty in my dark complexion or my thick eyebrows. It is only in recent years that I have begun to try to undo that damage. To become proud of my culture and heritage, to admire the bravery of my parents who uprooted their lives in India to move across the world to a country that was likely much more intolerant then than it is now. I have decided to love the richness of my skin and the features which I have inherited from my ancestors. I still have a lot of work to do, but I believe my journey of re-engaging with this part of my identity is still only just beginning.
Miss Anjali Jha
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