Pick an evening from my late teenage years when I was living at home with my mother and the chances are that you’ll find us arguing about race. My mother’s father was a Pakistani immigrant who came to Hartlepool some time in the late forties or early fifties, and for most of my upbringing I had been warned not to let anyone know because if they find out they will think about me differently. Perhaps they won’t speak to me any differently, or treat me any differently, at least not to my face, but things will be different.

Up until this point, mum’s been the word, but I’ve started to grow uncomfortable about it: uncomfortable about what that says about the people around me, and even more uncomfortable about how emotional my mum gets when I try to challenge her about it.

As a teenager, I simply didn’t understand what it was like for her growing up mixed race in the North East, and the threats and violence she faced on a regular basis. To me, these are stories from a different time: I had been an out-and-proud gay man for several years, and had grown accustomed to the unkindness of strangers in my native Scunthorpe whenever I’d gone out with a full face of make-up, Cuban heels, and a silk scarf, but I never backed down from a lively exchange of ideas with hecklers on the High Street of a Saturday afternoon, and so far no-one had ever tried to hit me. In fact, more often than not, after spending some time talking to me, most people came to the conclusion that despite looking very strange to them, I was actually not so bad. To me, my mum’s attitude was outdated. Having never encountered physical violence, my frame of reference for the kinds of experiences my mother faced was woefully inadequate for the kind of mature conversation we should have been having. So instead I resorted to being pompous and any attempt at conversation would end in tears and the slamming of doors.

The irony is that my mother barely knew her father. My grandmother was a widow with one child from her first marriage, my mother’s half-sister, when a friend introduced her to my grandfather. They were married by an imam in the fifties, and had two children together: my mum and my uncle Phil. Then my grandfather went back to Pakistan for a time, and returned with his previously-unmentioned Pakistani wife and children, much to the horror of my grandmother. They separated immediately and my grandmother found she was back where she started, only now the single mother of not just one but three hungry children. While my mother did see her father occasionally, he wasn’t a big part of her life, and she was far-removed from his cultural heritage: she didn’t learn to speak Urdu, she wasn’t raised Muslim, and the most connection she seemed to have with her father’s culture was a recipe for curry and the skill of folding up pieces of chapatis to use as a scoop. But despite being raised a Christian by a white woman from Birmingham and having fair skin and green eyes, she had a foreign surname, an Asian father, and jet black hair, so to everyone around her that meant she was ‘half-caste’. Standing in our kitchen I would observe that if the smallest denomination of a caste is a half, then surely no-one would even register the dilution of my Englishness by a quarter. This was the kind of smart comment my mother knew was wrong but couldn’t answer, which made me feel terribly clever and made her terribly upset. Looking back on these evenings I don’t feel very clever at all, and wonder how I could ever have been so stupid and so cruel.

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