Identity is important. It helps you find your clan, it engenders a sense of belonging, and it can – and should – have many dimensions. But in Britain, it seems, only certain identities are thought to belong. That’s because Britain is a nation in denial. It is a nation in which the default narrative is set to ‘white’. Until recently I had struggled to find appropriate vocabulary to articulate why there is so much wrong with the notion of alleged ‘colour blindness’ in Britain. Afua Hirsh’s Brit(ish) helped me to express to others why a nation such as Britain – which colonised half the world and then proceeded to colonise its own education system so no one could learn the true extent of the horror it inflicted – cannot be ‘post-racial’ until it addresses its inherent and deep rooted history of oppression against people who do not conform to that narrative.
I was never more acutely aware of my lack of belonging than when I was asked the dreaded question: ‘so where are you reeeeeeally from?’. This is a probe that is all too familiar to people of colour in Britain. For many years I was in denial, I thought I was being asked this question because of my hybrid Glaswegian and Surrey accent but any time I answered with ‘oh a small town outside Glasgow called Paisley’, I would immediately be asked the inevitable follow up: ‘oh yes but originally?’ The ‘originally’ always sounded like it was italicised. What was really being asked of me was how I had brown skin and how far back in my family history you would have to go before finding the culprit who I inherited my melanin from – the original interloper. Being Scottish and Pakistani/Indian most definitely made me feel like an outcast in Surrey and London where I spent the majority of my formative years. Struggles with belonging and identity are inherent to the process of becoming an adult. They are unavoidable, but as a non-white British person you have a variety of other adversities to incorporate into your adolescence. I never saw reflections of myself in the books I read or the television programmes and films I watched. I did not have silky straight hair or a slender frame like Rachel Green. Self-love was a hippy concept and conformity was à la mode so I never felt as if I had found my place. I thought I could find a home in the vast Pakistani and Indian communities of Britain and they in turn thought I was too white – I could not possibly understand their experiences as people who were less racially ambiguous than I. Of course they were right, I have the privilege of being of lighter skin, I am able-bodied and I slot neatly into hetero-normative societal structures. Nonetheless, this was a crushing blow to me; my mother had gone to great pains to make sure I had grown up fluent in Urdu and with the ability to make exceptionally round rotis, it seemed it was all for nothing. I lived in a limbo, a strange purgatory in which I would facetiously be called a mongrel.