What do you think of when you hear the word “gorah”? Or “chav”? All labels, however crude or unkind have been defined by society. We all eventually accept our personal label: Asian; British Asian; Black Person; White Person and so on-and all the baggage it comes with. Being Asian isn’t just a case of circumstances: the family you were born into, your country of origin; and we aren’t born with an awareness of it. At some point in our lives we come to a realisation of our racial difference.
I was 7 when it hit me. We had recently moved to an all- white neighbourhood. I started school mid-way through the year so everyone else knew each other and had little friendship groups. If that wasn’t bad enough, after a couple of days of my being there some of the boys started to call me “chocolate face”. At that young age I realised they were saying this because I looked different to everyone else. They singled me out for my race because I was different to anyone they had seen before and they didn’t know what to do with that. I was mortified. And I never forgot it. I went home and realised too that my mum was different- she dressed differently to all the other mums at pick-up time. Over that year I gradually started seeing that I was different. We ate different food. My parents spoke another language. And so it began: all the ways that you see and experience racial difference.
It’s heart breaking and confusing and disappointing. You realise that inequality is all around you. And it’s not just defined by skin colour but cultural practices. Not eating a roast dinner on a Sunday. Not being allowed to go to sleepovers or the school disco or have a boyfriend.
Being different is not easy.
But then as an adult, I learnt another word to describe all this: diversity. And that’s a good word!
It’s also a buzzword that people like to band around to sound inclusive and fair minded. There are diversity awards, diversity programmes, diversity initiatives, diversity policies….
You know when you say a word over and over it loses all meaning? That.
We need to reclaim diversity so it has some meaning to us, as individuals- where it’s more than just a programme or initiative of some HR manager. Growing up, I was acutely, painfully aware that I was different to everyone else and I tried desperately to hide my racial difference- I would make up stories to sound the same as the other kids, like what we had for our Christmas dinner- as if! I know all kids just want to fit in, but I wish someone had told me it was ok to have brown skin and have parents from a different country. Because difference can be exciting and fun; and what’s more, being different is what makes us individuals rather than a herd of sheep.
And FYI, if you have a child or teenager that denies their racial heritage or identity, like I did, give them time. There will come a point when hopefully they will stop wanting to just blend in but understand a bit more about their background and their heritage. Cue you, the parent, to answer their questions and share your experiences.
So how do we reclaim diversity? Well can I suggest that ‘owning’ your racial identity is one way- rather than trying to hide it like I did. Be an individual! It’s ok to be different from the culture that surrounds you, it’s ok to even be different from other Asians.
And wear your difference with pride. Look at Pardeep Bahra Singh, founder of the fashion blog Singh Street Style– who does that quite literally. He celebrates the fact that he wears a turban through his photography. By doing so, he normalises his sense of style which is different to mainstream fashion. He makes his culture accessible to others by saying: “this is who I am and how I dress and I’m not ashamed of it.”
People of colour spend a lot of time talking about the negatives of racial difference. We focus on our negative experiences too much. It is good to share these types of stories because there’s a sense of unity that comes from that. But we must also talk about our racial differences with pride. It’s the racists and the ignorant who want us to just curl up and go away. Their vision is for a country with no multiculturalism, no diversity, they want to deny that racial difference is a reality of 21st century life. It’s up to us to reclaim it, not just to silence the bigots but to silence that inner voice that screams “you’re different, you don’t fit in, you don’t belong….”
Share your stories of when you first realised you were Asian- and then a positive one on what you love about being Asian.