A CRE eConference · 4-6 September 2007
|First person: Eve Ahmed (Eve Ahmed, freelance journalist)|
|30 July 2007|
First person: Eve Ahmed
Posted on: Monday 30 July 2007
When I was growing up, life was bleached white. At all three of my schools - infant's, primary and secondary - there were two or three lonely-looking African Caribbean and Asian girls, while everyone else was definitively pale-skinned. That's what south London was like during the 1970's and 80's. There was no-one else around like me. I was the sole 'beige' person, with a Pakistani dad and an English mum.
And because there was no-one else around of my colour, people reacted to me either cruelly or intrusively, which led to me feeling weird and isolated, and not at all 'special', however often my mum, with her hippy-esque idealism, assured me that I was. She'd been part of the Sixties generation which believed that, if everyone mixed with someone from a different ethnicity, the resulting rainbow nation would sound the death knell of racism. But as soon as I was old enough to go to school, I found out that she was out of step with the rest of the world, which hated ambiguity and rejected anyone who did not fit into rigid pre-ordained black, brown or white race categories.
White girls made it clear that I was lucky they would condescend to consider me as one of their own, because I was just about pale enough to pass, at a generous pinch, as one of them. My best friend Andrea once said: 'My dad says you can't come in the house anymore to play; we have to play on the pavement instead. He says it's because you're half caste - he doesn't want you inside.' By then, aged 11, I was already so used to being made to feel like a dirty outsider by racist whites that I didn't feel fury at this bigotry, but just grateful that Andrea's dad hadn't banned her from playing with me altogether. 'Go back to where you came from, half caste,' skinheads shouted at me as I walked home from school. I am British born and bred, and can pass as white, but racists have the ability to sniff out the different. The black girls in my school told me that I should stick with them. I suppose that, because there were so few of them, they wanted to recruit me to their side for reasons of safety in numbers, as the BNP at that time was a big vote-winner in local elections. But I didn't look or even feel black. I very definitely felt mixed, but no-one understood that. Meanwhile, when asked, as mixed people always are, where I came from and replying that I was half Pakistani, I had Asians telling me I wasn't a real one like them, so I didn't have the right to have a Muslim name. I had no answer to these people who wanted to place labels on me and, finding that none of them stuck, made out that therefore I was wrong, I was a mistake.
Not surprisingly, by the time I hit my teenage years, I was a mess. Who was I? Where did I belong? Why did people either reject me or claim me as one of their own, instead of seeing that I had a separate identity, which was nothing to do with them? Society saw race in binary terms but I didn't understand why I had to deny one part or another of myself, to be allowed to fit in. There was no mixed race consciousness back then, no community I could call my own. I felt worn-out with constantly contorting myself into who other people wanted me to be even, at one stage, hating what I was so much that I started bleaching my skin with peroxide, to try to be as light as the favoured dominant race.
But at last change is in the air. It's only very recently that being mixed has started to be counted as a stand-alone identity. In 2001, a mixed ethnicity category was included on the national census for the first time and, since then, along with the influence of the mixed race movement in the United States, which is politicised and articulate, there has grown, slowly but surely, an awareness that the category to which I belong has its own particular issues, as well as its joys. Maybe it's the fact that we are predicted to be the fastest growing ethnic minority in the period 2001 to 2020 which means we can't be ignored any longer.
Mixed kids are not born inherently confused, or 'identity stripped'. What seems to happen to perfectly normal and happy young biracial kids is that they can start feeling confused about their identity once they hit adolescence - if they're from privileged families, where they've been cocooned by money, location or social class - and sooner if they're not. Then, with the input of an often hostile outside world, they can get into difficulty. But I do not want to 'problematise' mixedness, because that would be falling into the hands of the likes of the BNP. Because, emphatically, we are not 'tragic mulattoes'. Society has to acknowledge that there are some issues associated with being mixed and to find solutions, rather than, as has traditionally happened, blamed mixed people themselves for them. That means, in my opinion, realistic preparation by parents planning to have a mixed baby about the challenges that child will encounter, in a world which continues to see identity in monochrome. What these parents need to be aware of, more than anything else, is that every biracial child needs to have meaningful contact with both sides of their extended family to emerge with healthy self-image. I didn't get that, unfortunately.
I survived my own identity crisis and I now love being biracial - mixed people like me are the zeitgeist. I'm proud that our special status confounds society's ancient obsession with race. Multiracial kids challenge the core of racism and almost all will, at some stage, receive racist glances and words, including, of course, that ever-present question, 'well, what are you?' To which I reply: 'I'm a citizen of the world.'
About the author
Eve Ahmed is a freelance journalist. She writes opinion pieces and articles on lifestyle issues for a number of national newspapers.