Updated: Dec 30, 2020
This article was originally posted on https://angrybrownveganwoman.wordpress.com/2020/08/02/identity/
I have decided to write a little blog (it may be more accurately described as an article, or a stream of self-absorbed consciousness, or a piece of verbal diarrhoea) about myself and my identity. I thought being vegan and struggling to get onto the property ladder wasn’t enough to make me a fully-fledged millennial and that I needed to indulge my narcissism and write a piece of self-reflection to truly become part of the millennial community.
I should start by saying I am absolutely not qualified in any way, shape or form to write this – for those of you that don’t know me, I work in investment consulting, my background is in mathematics and the last extended piece of writing I wrote was done in LaTeX and was mostly just typing out lists of equations and proofs. Sadly, there will be no maths in this post – if that’s what you came looking for I suggest you hit up Numberphile instead. I also haven’t suddenly come to any brilliant realisations as I approach my mid-twenties (I’m 24 so I’m still counting that as my early 20s), nor have I made sense of my identity and what it means to be a brown British woman – I’m still confused and figuring things out. So this piece isn’t going to offer any useful conclusions or advice to people.
Aside from finding it therapeutic to articulate my experiences in written word, the reason I wanted to write this and share this was to find out if other people can relate to some of my experiences with coming to terms with my identity. I’ve found the more I read and hear about other people’s experiences, the more I realise that I am not alone and the more comfortable I feel with myself. I would love it if anyone who reads this and can relate to any of it could hit me up so we can have a discourse.
Most of you that know me will know that it’s difficult to have a conversation with me that doesn’t revert back to racism or food – and just to be clear, racism = bad, food = good. So unsurprisingly, a lot of my experiences in coming to terms with my identity have been shaped by race and by understanding what it means to be racialised as ‘other’ in the UK.
I want to clarify that there are a lot of people who can speak to this in a much more insightful and eye-opening way than I can; not just because they actually know how to write, but because they may not have had the vast amount of privileges that I have had that have made my life so much easier. I am really the most privileged type of ethnic minority person going in this country – I am from a middle-class, educated, loving and supportive family, I am culturally Hindu (although not religious) and so have never had to deal with the horrendous amount of Islamophobia that exists in the UK (and globally), I grew up in the 90s and 2000s when there was much less racial violence towards (non-Muslim) Indians than there had been a couple of decades earlier, I am able-bodied, cisgender and am in a heteronormative relationship and I am not Black. This means that although white supremacy disadvantages me in many ways, I also benefit from white supremacy and anti-Blackness to an extent because I am closer to whiteness in the racial hierarchy that our society and economy has been built upon.
When did I start thinking about what it meant to be Indian, or label myself as either Indian or British?
When I reflect on being primary school age, I try and work out the exact point when I realised I was brown. Of course, I always knew what the colour of my skin was, but when did I start realising what the implications of this would be? When did I start thinking about what it meant to be Indian, or label myself as either Indian or British? I can’t pinpoint the exact point this happened, although I have fleeting memories of feeling a mix of pride and embarrassment when we talked about Diwali at school and I was pointed out as someone who celebrated it. Even though I loved to celebrate Diwali at home (it generally involved gorging on delicious home made Ladoos and Vadais until I couldn’t move – some things don’t change) and was proud of my fun culture that allowed me to receive presents for both Diwali and for Christmas, part of me knew this cultural aspect of myself was something that needed to happen separately to my life at a (predominantly white) school.
I occasionally tell the story of the first time I explicitly realised that racism existed. When I was around 6, I remember being out with my mum somewhere and a random guy started shouting at my mum saying ‘I don’t know why they let people like you in this country’ . I was very confused - what did he mean by ‘people like her’ – did he not want dentists in the country? I asked my mum and she explained to me that some people don’t like people from other countries and this is called racism. I was pretty outraged and asked her why she reacted so calmly if that was the case – why didn’t she get angry and shout at him? My mum explained to me that, while its important to stand up for yourself, you need to prioritise your safety first and people like that can often get violent or have weapons on them so the best thing to do is to remove yourself from the situation. While this was an unpleasant incident, the reason I remember it isn’t because of the guy who said these things – I have no idea who he was and ultimately don’t care what his opinions are. This was the first time I realised that my safety was conflicted purely due to the colour of my skin and the way I look.
This was the first time I realised that my safety was conflicted purely due to the colour of my skin and the way I look.
Lots of people are shocked when I tell them this story, and rightly so as this was a pretty overtly xenophobic encounter. But these overt acts of racism aren’t the ones that have affected me to my core or shaped my identity – they have made me feel cautious but I was ultimately aware that there was only a small minority of people in the population who would be so outwardly cruel and physically racist towards me.
The types of racism that really got to me and that I ended up internalising were the types I didn’t even realise were racism at the time. Racism is so much more than just being spat at and called a P*ki (although for the avoidance of doubt, I have experienced that too).
Racism is people telling me things like ‘I don’t think of you as Indian’ as a compliment, or teachers consistently ignoring me and not letting me answer a question when I had my hand up because they felt too awkward about trying to pronounce my name. It was people making jokes about Indians in a way they didn’t realise was offensive but made me understand deeply how we were seen in some of our white peers’ eyes. It was Indians being poorly represented in media, only cast as the nerdy side kick in TV programmes and movies, and never portrayed as desirable or sexual beings. It was the colourism that came from within my own community, being told to stay out of the sun so that I did not ‘lose my colour’ because fair skin was always portrayed as more attractive. This has been so difficult to unlearn that I still panic every time I get a tan, even though I understand where this notion comes from and how wrong it is.
Racism is the British comprehensive school education system teaching me how the ‘Great’ British empire was a good thing where British people went around civilising the ‘savages’ in other countries – something that conflicted directly with what I was taught at home about the Indian independence movement. It is the way I was taught a white-washed version of how slavery was abolished (newsflash – William Wilberforce didn’t independently make slavery end) and the lack of acknowledgement as to how this country contributed to and benefitted from the slave trade.
Racism is people telling me things like ‘I don’t think of you as Indian’ as a compliment, or teachers consistently ignoring me and not letting me answer a question when I had my hand up because they felt too awkward about trying to pronounce my name
Racism is the way people talked about brown and black people living in countries in Africa and South Asia as though they are intrinsically inferior and needed white people to come on voluntourism trips to save them.
Racism is being used as a bipartisan political scapegoat for the root cause of all the problems in this country that are actually caused by late-stage capitalism. Racism is the assumptions people make about how to have gotten a certain job or to have access to a certain white-dominated space, I must have come in through some kind of diversity scheme, or must have been hired for the sole reason of improving diversity and not because of my own abilities.
Racism is people trying to anglicise my name to make it more palatable for their white tongues, stripping me of my cultural identity in the process. My name is beautiful and represents my culture and background and it is something I am proud of, even if I do have to spell it out every time I speak on the phone (‘my name’s Laasya, do you need me to spell that?’). It is also seriously not that hard to pronounce!
During my teenage years my focus was on survival, and though I hadn’t explored the reasons behind why I needed to do this, I knew that I needed to keep my British identity and my Indian identity completely separate in order to survive.
Of course it took me a long time to realise that all of these micro-aggressions that happened consistently through my life and through my formative years growing up as a teenager were acts of racism or were feeding into my identity. If you had asked me if I had ever experienced racism at that stage of my life I would have referred to the very few times I had racial slurs shouted at me or had people telling me that I or my parents should ‘go back to where we came from’ (to which my response is always ‘you mean my mother’s uterus?’). During my teenage years my focus was on survival, and though I hadn’t explored the reasons behind why I needed to do this, I knew that I needed to keep my British identity and my Indian identity completely separate in order to survive.
This meant that when I was in school or with my white friends I would never talk about any of the things I did like celebrating Indian festivals, learning Indian dancing (and I spent a lot of my time doing this – I was classically trained in Bharatanatyam and I generally love to dance) or even hanging out with other Indians - I would make up some vague excuse as to where I had been if it was something related to being Indian.
If I had been to an Indian event and was wearing Indian clothes or a bindi and my parents wanted me to pop into the shops on the way home to pick up milk or bread or something I would refuse to get out of the car – I was terrified about what would happen if someone from school saw me and worked out that I was in fact, different. This is why it difficult for me when I now see people appropriating Desi culture and wearing a bindi at festivals or Indian-style clothing as a costume (and there is a big difference between cultural appropriation, where people exploit and profit off other cultures without acknowledging where the cultural contribution came from, and cultural appreciation where people celebrate and respect a different culture). Why was it unsafe and unacceptable for me to wear clothing that came from my own culture, when white people could wear it and be seen as fashionable, alternative or interesting?
During those super fun teenage years (seriously, who in their right minds looks back on their childhood and thinks it was the best part of their lives) I would cringe internally if someone asked me what my name meant or where my family are from (even if it was from the parents of my few friends of colour from school) because to me, that was just drawing attention to this difference I had that I didn’t want.
Before I started university, I remember having a conversation with one of my other brown friends from Swansea about being worried about being ‘stuck with the Indians’ when we went to university – that only Indians would want to be friends with us or that we would be labelled due to our race immediately. This makes me so angry now. We were so desperate for approval from white people that we were ready to put ourselves down and put our own people down. Though I didn’t realise this is what we were doing at the time, when I reflect on it now I think that this way of thinking was just ingrained – part of us knew that we needed white people on our side and needed to assimilate to survive.
The amount of energy I put in to hiding my Indian identity and keeping any aspects of my brownness separate to my life at school with my predominantly white peers made me feel quite isolated as a teenager and certainly had knock-on effects to my mental health and self-esteem.
Things started to change for me in the way I related to my identity as someone who is British, Welsh, Indian and Tamil when I went to university. I went to Warwick and my experience there was a very multicultural one, much more so than my childhood growing up in Swansea. In my flat in first year, about half of us weren’t white, there were people from a fairly wide range of ethnic backgrounds on my course (the gender balance was another story though) and I joined a number of Indian dance teams that meant that I met a huge variety of brown people that were all from very different backgrounds and had a huge variety of interests.
Being in an environment like that finally made me realise that I could be Indian, and I could be proud of being Indian, without that being the only thing that defined me – and I could do this while simultaneously being British and Welsh. This may seem obvious to some of you, but realising this felt like a physical weight off my shoulders, like I didn’t have to channel all my energy into hiding my brownness and I didn’t have to feel like a representative for all brown people, given we were so diverse and varied as a community.
I have learned so much from this side of social media and it has helped me to accept myself, so although there is certainly a toxic and dangerous side to it too, I am aware that if I had been growing up before social media existed, I probably would still be just as insecure about my identity and my brownness as I had been as a teenager.
I remember reading the Namesake by Jhumpa Lahiri and feeling so shocked that someone who didn’t even know me was able to articulate and explain so many of my feelings and experiences in a way I hadn’t even realised I felt myself. It made me feel so emotional to finally see representation of second generation Indian immigrants like me – it felt like I was being seen and like I wasn’t alone in feeling this way. Since then I have made the decision to almost exclusively read books by diverse writers, especially by women of colour, and aside from these books being brilliant, hilarious and entertaining it has just been so powerful to be able to relate to characters in a way that I never had growing up, when I mainly read books by the male, pale and stale authors that dominated our school curriculums.
I have a lot of issues with social media and often have to take breaks from it – I hate how unrealistic people’s depictions of their lives are on it, I hate the excessive amount of adverts I get for laxatives disguised as weight-loss products and I hate the amount of time I waste scrolling through absolute rubbish on there. But one thing that I love about social media is the access to community you get through it, the ability to hear from people who are talking about these kind of things and who look like us, the people who have accounts full of useful educational material and reminders to be kind to ourselves. I have learned so much from this side of social media and it has helped me to accept myself, so although there is certainly a toxic and dangerous side to it too, I am aware that if I had been growing up before social media existed, I probably would still be just as insecure about my identity and my brownness as I had been as a teenager.
There are a lot of other things I could talk about that have also played into my identity and my understanding of myself and my background – my brilliant parents and the journey they had coming to this country and being the archetypal ‘good immigrants’, my connection to my mother tongue language (Tamil), navigating interracial relationships and racial fetishisation, as well as my experiences in the workplace balancing being a visible minority but also joining my firm at a time when the investment industry was finally waking up to the necessity of diverse and inclusive work forces. Perhaps I will cover some of these topics in other blogs if anyone actually wants to read that (not that my lack of talent or interest from people stopped me from writing this).
Sometimes I look to the future and wonder how my relationship with my cultural background and with myself will continue to change. I wonder what will happen if I decide to have children one day. Will they consider themselves to be British, Indian or both? Will they be perceived by society to be a proper British person, being further distanced from their Indian cultural background than I am both through time, genetics (my partner is white) and their birth right to British citizenship (although I was born in the UK, I didn’t get my British citizenship until my parents got theirs, which I think was when I was around 6). Will my children feel the need to hide certain aspects of themselves? Will they feel proud of their identity?
I don’t even know if I want to have children, it seems like an environmental disaster and also I can’t even look after a plant right now, let alone a child – but if perhaps in 30 years’ time I decide that’s something I want to do, I hope that me being comfortable with my own identity and being proud of where I come from is something I can pass on to them.