What do you tick when you come across a form and it asks you ethnicity or nationality? British? Indian? Asian?
I never know and I seem to pick something different depending on the day. To clarify, I was born in England, Manchester to be precise. So, it shouldn’t be that hard, should it? On my passport, like everyone else who was born here, it says I’m a British citizen.
The thing is, I don’t feel, and have never felt, British. My dad’s Indian you see, he immigrated here back in 1988 in his early 20’s so he’s actually lived here longer than he ever lived in India (he’s in his 50’s now). But I know if I asked him his nationality, he wouldn’t say that he was a British citizen. His home, his motherland, is and always will be, India. Does that make it mine too? Until I got to nursery, I only spoke Gujarati because my parents never spoke much English around the house when I was young, but it’s not like I’ve ever lived in India or have any real connection to India, apart from through my dad. So why is it that I feel a stronger connection to India than to Britain? My mum, on the other hand, was born in Britain like me. Her parents immigrated here before she was born, but unlike me she feels and wants to be British. She loves the royal family, she has a northern accent and she loves a good chippy. If it wasn’t for her skin colour, you’d think she was white. Growing up within these two polar opposite worlds I never really knew what I was, British or Indian?
The primary school I went to was situated in the middle of a council estate where most of the kids, including me, were part of working-class families. I’m mentioning this because throughout primary school I was never made to feel different, and so I never thought about my race or identity. I had friends from all different backgrounds because the school, in general, was pretty multicultural. The few times I remember being bullied in primary school, it was never to do with race or at least they never mentioned it and so, I didn’t feel brown, Indian or anything. High school was when it all started. I had to get two different buses to get to my high school and it was in a more middle to upper class (a polite way of saying white) area, it was called Hutton Grammar. It was an all-boys school and within my year, which had around 120 students, there were probably around 5 students who weren’t white. This, as you can imagine, is where I was introduced to the world of racism. This is where I began to hate the colour of my skin, my ethnicity, my heritage. This is where I began to hate everything Indian. We, as a family, would go to the cinema to watch an Indian film semi-regularly and I didn’t want to do that anymore. I didn’t want to listen to Indian music, I didn’t want to speak Gujarati, I didn’t want to be Indian. Everyone at high school would constantly hurl racist remarks, jabs and insults at me. Everything from curry jokes to the N-word for some reason, I never really understood that one but I took it all on the chin. I acted like I was unbothered by it all because I wanted to be one of the ‘cool ones’ who found the racist jokes funny, even my closest friends at the time joined in. Once, I remember asking one of my friends if I was attractive or not and they responded, “you’re attractive for an Asian”. He thought he was being nice but it’s something I constantly thought about and it further confirmed in my mind that being Indian made me worse, made me eternally “not good enough”.
The fact that my family were Muslim didn’t help either. Throughout my teen years, all being Muslim meant to me was being even more different. Because of it, or that’s what I thought anyway, I wasn’t allowed to go to prom, I wasn’t allowed to go on school trips, I wasn’t allowed to go to my friends’ parties and I definitely wasn’t allowed to have a girlfriend (Ironically, at the time, the only white friend of mine who didn’t throw racial abuse at me was a girl). All of this just made me feel like an outsider, like someone who was just watching the lives my friends lived with envy. I attributed it all to being Indian, to being Muslim, to be different. Near the end of high school, I took my first trip to my dad’s childhood home, and my grandparents’ current one, a small village in India called Palej. We stayed for two weeks and I hated every minute of it, largely because I had food poising or some sort of illness the whole time we were there. All I remember from that first trip is that every time food went into me, it decided to violently come out of me, almost instantly, and so I was stuck inside for most of the trip, binging on whatever English movie channel my grandparents had at the time. The cherry on the vomit cake that was this trip happened on the way back where I somehow managed to puke all over my legs just before the 13 hour plane ride, which made it very not fun for my mum (she had the incredibly unfortunate chore of having to sit next to me the whole way back).
And so, I bid farewell to the hell hole full of snobby, entitled white kids I called my High School (it wasn’t actually ALL bad, there was just a lot of racism). College was where it all started to change, like my primary school, it was pretty multicultural and so I never really experienced any racism. I had finally found friends who were also Indian for the first time since primary school and I realised (again) how great it was. How much fun it was to speak about the Indian films we used to watch as kids, sing the Indian songs we used to listen to, complain about our Indian parents, talk about our favourite Indian foods and (maybe the most fun) sitting at the back of the class talking, and giggling, about all the white kids in Gujrati. All the hate that was there previously had dissolved, and it was replaced with love, I started to enjoy being Indian, I started to love my skin colour and love being brown.
Coincidently, during this time I also became obsessed with Malcolm X. Partly because of a well-timed Eid present an aunty randomly got for me, and partly because of a history teacher I became enamoured with because of how passionately he spoke of the heroes of the civil rights movement. In High school I remember being taught very little about Malcolm X, he covered a little blurb in the history text-book we learnt from, whereas Martin Luther King dominated most of what we learnt about civil rights in America. He was the peaceful one who spurred change, while Malcolm X was the violent one. Then, I read his autobiography. It was like someone switched a light on and I could actually see for the first time. I read about how from the moment he was born, he was constantly beaten down because of his skin colour, how he realised that the system in which he lived was inherently racist and how he rose above all of it to become one the most inspirational, hopeful and brave men to ever grace this earth. I knew how he died so I could never bring myself to read the end of his book, it made me really upset. However, I finally had a hero, a role model, someone who made me feel proud to be me. Someone who told me to love myself, someone who tried to explain and give reason to all the racism we, as coloured people, suffer through. His story permanently inspired and changed me.
I actually went back to India not long after this and had a much more positive experience than the last time (having said that the bar was set pretty low, so just keeping my food in made it a much better trip). This time, I got to experience a lot more, I sat in a rickshaw which was absolutely fucking terrifying and incredibly fun at the same time because it’s basically a moped with a rickety carriage built around it, bombing down motorways at definitely unsafe speeds where hard shoulders are just used for oncoming traffic. I (kind of) learnt how to drive a motorbike and I got to visit a few of India’s cities which was eye-opening, never in my life have I seen a more densely packed city than Mumbai. I came back from the trip just shocked as to how differently the other side of the world lived, obviously it has its issues but the sense of community I felt there was special, everyone was so welcoming and more than happy to suffer through my broken Gujrati, it’s something I’ve never felt in Britain. I’m not saying India is a perfect place, far from it. Sexual harrasment, honor killings and accusations of witchcraft, yes you read that correctly, are still major issues for women in India so it isn’t the safest or most progressive place, and that’s putting it lightly. Like any country India’s still got alot of problems but I’ll go into that in another article.
Nowadays, with the rise of shit stains like Nigel Farage, Tommy Robinson and (soon to be prime minister) Boris Johnson, I feel less and less welcome in Britain by the day. It seems like politicians are okay with, and are even encouraging, intolerance. All for the incredibly insignificant prize of political power. Brexit really didn’t help either. My dad told me about something that happened to a friend of his shortly after it all where someone asked him “so, when are you leaving?”, this person obviously assumed that Brexit meant no more immigrants, another lie politicians fed to people during and since Brexit.
However you feel about Brexit, no one can deny how it’s created an extremely xenophobic discourse around immigrants while also vastly increasing violent hate crimes and racial discrimination toward minority groups.
A recent study in the Guardian reported that “71% of people from ethnic minorities now report having faced racial discrimination, compared with 58% in January 2016” and that “racially motivated hate crime has increased every year since 2013, doubling to 71,251 incidents in England and Wales in 2018, according to the Home Office”.
Aren’t we supposed to be getting better with all this? Aren’t we supposed to be MORE progressive and tolerant, not less? It seems like the country I was born in, and that I’m a citizen of, doesn’t want me here anymore. It seems like the majority of people in Britain think I’m worse than them because of my skin colour and beliefs, all the while a country I’ve never lived in and have little connection to welcomed me with open arms. Right now, largely because of everything that’s been happening, I don’t feel British and I’m not going to beg for the acceptance of a country that doesn’t want me. I think I’m going to be ticking that Indian box on forms from now on.
Written by Junaid Patel