Too foreign, but not quite foreign enough: A mixed-race experience

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Too foreign, but not quite foreign enough: A mixed-race experience

I became fascinated by and proud of my multifaceted heritage (Picture: Stéffie Banatvala)

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Sitting on the assembly floor, I braced myself as the primary school teachers inevitably struggled to pronounce my surname. 

Living in the English countryside, my dark features stuck out amongst the paler, blonder girls and boys – the Hannahs, Laurens, and Sams. 

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At just nine or 10, I took my fathers’ razor to my thick Indian unibrow – after all, the value of cultural interest and unusual heritages was not covered in PSHE. 

I am half Parsi (Iranian Zoroastrians who fled to India during the Islamic conquest) and half French. 

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But I was made in Britain, English born, English and French speaking. 

Yet growing up in the countryside, my experience was framed through racialised/white, immigrant/citizen, them/us, and outside/inside prisms.

Too often, my family were the only ones to be checked in airports and ferry queues. 

While shopping, my father was once told ‘to go home’. 

Later in school, we were mocked for being French, which led to me emphasising my Parsi ‘other’ side. 

As I got to secondary school, I began to learn and value my Parsi history from family stories, Nowruz celebrations and the family Dhansak. 

But with that came more anxiety.

After a trip to Mumbai, the vice principal yanked my henna-adorned wrist into her office and scolded me. 

At my explanation of the cultural significance, she fumed: ‘You should have said no to your family. You cannot have henna in our school. Try harder. Rub it off everyday until it’s gone.’ 

The principal, well versed in multicultural identity, sorted it after my father complained. But the part that sticks with me is being disciplined, of course.

I’ve started to notice how uncomfortable I am in spaces with only white people

Worse, my hair was dark, puffy and long – below my hips. Kids tugged at it, stuck pens in it and asked how it was washed, as if it was alien. 

Through the corridors they shouted at me to cut it, which did not seem to faze the teachers. I froze as students laughed that an Indian teacher ‘smelled of curry’. I was often asked ‘if everything was OK at home’, pointing to my dark eye circles. 

In Religious Education, girls imitated Indian dancing and told me I had no education because I would have grown up dancing instead.

Around the same time, I was becoming both fascinated by and proud of my multifaceted heritage. 

But I also could choose not to recognise certain aspects of my race, to fit in. I felt stuck between categories, unsure how to navigate my multicultural upbringing with light skin.

After school, I searched for universities and cities that prided themselves on their diverse population and culture. 

I thought I could meet people I might identify with, and even learn about the colonisation of my family’s country. 

Sadly not.

When I spoke to a history tutor about the white Eurocentric curriculum, he said I was just ‘being whiny and rigid’.

When I formally complained, the university said the curriculum was just a matter of ‘academic judgement’.

In a bar, a white couple said I looked ‘exotic’, took photos of me and asked the dreaded question: ‘where are you really from?’

Similarly, in halls, my flatmate’s boyfriend mocked the Indian and Iranian music I discovered travelling and subsequently listened to, seeing no irony in the fact he was vocal on social media about colonialism. 

My only option has been to try my best to publicly embrace my race, rather than just at home, as that feels most authentically me.

I wear my Indian jewellery proudly, all from the little shop by my grannie’s childhood house in Mumbai. I mix traditional clothing with contemporary Western aesthetic: a choli with jeans. 

My new housemates love to hear about the spices I use to cook and joining a university Asian society has connected me with people I can connect with over our shared heritage and anecdotes. 

But it is still difficult to reconcile this with the white people who challenge my race, like the close friend at university who tilted their head and said ‘come on, but you are white really’. 

I’ve started to notice how uncomfortable I am in spaces with only white people. It’s not that this has changed, but I never used to acknowledge it.  

My race already takes up so much brain space, so it can be frustrating when someone challenges you or asks questions, even out of curiosity.

I find it more helpful for people to say, ‘I’m interested in learning this aspect about you at some point if you feel like chatting about this’.

This is far more easy than just blundering in with a question.

Unfortunately, that becomes harder when I talk about it to the white friends I grew up with.

They often don’t think to let me know before an event if it’s all white, showing a lack of awareness about the reasons why I might not want to come. 

It caused some tension between my best friend and I for a bit, because it wasn’t territory we’d covered before.

When we chatted after taking a few months’ space, we agreed it was something we’d both have to continually work at.

So, yes I do celebrate Christmas and I have had many Sunday roasts. 

But still, in Britain, it is my cultural heritage that has permeated strongly and really mattered – and I’m going to take better ownership of it going forward.

Do you have a story you’d like to share? Get in touch by emailing jess.austin@metro.co.uk. 

Share your views in the comments below.

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