Did you catch Pharrell Williams recently talking to Oprah about his controversial idea of “The New Black”? He said: “The New Black dreams and realises that it’s not pigmentation: it’s a mentality and it’s either going to work for you or its going to work against you. And you’ve got to pick the side you’re going to be on.”
His comments were met with a barrage of criticism in the social media, not least for dismissing every occurrence of racism ever experienced by ethnic minorities, as if you can overcome racism by simply ‘picking a side’. He also sparked a hashtag frenzy when writer and blogger Feminista Jones created the Twitter hashtag #whatkindofblackareyou? This resulted in tweets such as “I’m the ‘How tall are you? Do you play any sports?'” Black; to “the kind of Black that gets fed up with disconnected Blacks like @Pharrell not recognising that they are Black too”.
Their comments highlighted that there isn’t simply one way to be Black, new or otherwise.
In the past I’ve often felt disconnected from my Asian identity (and apparently I’m not alone in this, according to a new study). The fact is I’ve never been the “kind of Asian” that avidly listens to Bhangra, watches Bollywood films and takes pride in driving a BMW or whatever the other stereotypes are.
I grew up in a very white area. There were probably about four other Asians in my year-group in high school, none of whom were my good friends. I hung out with English girls. They were a bit of a popular clique. Guess who I was in the midst of that? Yes that’s right, the token Asian person, the tagger-along. Every now and then I’d be allowed to go to my friend’s houses after school or at birthdays, and these glimpses into their family lives made me long to be a part of an English family because their lives seemed so simple. Their parents didn’t speak with an embarrassing accent and never seemed as strict as mine. They weren’t constantly reminded that ‘they weren’t from this country.’ They weren’t at odds with the society around them, as I often felt. Growing up I shied away from being Asian in favour of the other culture that surrounded me. By the time I was in my late twenties, I resigned myself to the notion that I was probably a coconut: brown on the outside, white on the inside.
Coconut; Bounty bar; white-washed; gorah-fied. Why do we as a community have such cruel labels for other Asians who don’t fit the mould? Because the truth is there is so much diversity in our community that there cannot be ‘one kind’ of Asian, in much the same way there cannot be simply one kind of black. I was the ‘kind of Asian’ that was raised without compromise to be Asian. My parents adhered strictly to the traditions, religious rules and cultures they brought over from their home-country. But outside the home my experience was totally different. My peers, teachers and role models- in short, all my influences were Western and English. As a result today, I, like so many others like me, occupy that curious space called British Asian.
We’re not fully British, but we’re also not fully Asian. There is a dual identity at play which means that you identify with both cultures, but it’s never as simple as saying “I’m from India” or “I’m English/Irish/Scottish” or whatever. Having access to these two cultures means you get the unique experience of dipping in and out of both; but sometimes this makes you feel like you don’t fully belong to either. If you are lucky enough though, you do have the advantage of taking or leaving the bits you do and don’t like.
If we’re going to have a discussion about identity, it’s important that we go beyond the stereotypes, and allow ourselves to do away with the mould. As a community we must be free to accept the diversity there is amongst us- Hindu, Sikh, Muslim, Punjabi, Guajarati, Bengali, Pakistani and so on- there are so many more permutations. There are so many communities and heritages encompassed under this blanket term “British Asian” that, to talk in singular terms would simply not do it justice. And with diversity comes a richness of cultural experience- just think of the melting pot of traditions and culture that we can bring when we come together as a larger community.
Today I have done away with any damaging self-labels such as ‘coconut’. I allow myself to be ‘the kind of Asian’ that celebrates her roots, heritage and all the culture that comes with it- and I actively pass this onto my daughter. I also recognise that there is a lot of British, English, Western in me, and I enjoy all that that offers me too.