I can distinctly remember my introduction to the concept of race. It occurred when I was 5 – 6 years old. I was walking home from school with my mother and my older sister.
We walked between the now non-existent Salisbury Court and rear garden fences of the houses on Kings Drive. I turned to my mum and asked her that perspective changing question, “Muuuum, what’s a P*ki?”. Her grip tightened around my fragile hand instantly. I could see something was wrong by the concerned look on her face and thought I was in trouble.
“Why are you asking?”, she responded. I proceeded to tell her that a girl in the playground walked up to me and said, “Well, my mum said you’re just a dirty P*ki, anyway”. I won’t repeat my mother’s response. However, this ended up being a pivotal moment in my life.
The Falsehood of Identity
After this, I became aware of the fact that I was seen as a less than desirable member of the playground. And that it is because of one simple aspect of my identity, my surname, Singh. If I am 100% honest, I was still completely unaware of the reasons why being named Singh was undesirable. And completely unaware of the fact that it meant I was Indian.
Up until this moment I was sure of the fact that I am an English person, from London, with an English mother. I was sure that all of my mother’s family were super English. That they are all from a place called Hull, which was badly bombed out during the 2nd world war. I was even sure of the fact that they all spoke with weird accents which I loved to imitate.
All of this built up in my uneducated head to paint an incorrect picture of myself. I didn’t know my father beyond being a bloke who appeared once a year, and lives in Germany. Occasionally he would phone, but this was the 90’s. International calls were a myth and, when he did phone, I couldn’t understand him, anyway.
I didn’t know his accent is the weird amalgamation of a Punjabi born man speaking in German all day, everyday. I had no clue that my (albeit incorrectly spelt) middle name is as Indian as they come. Or that weird hat my dad wears is actually a turban and a sign of a Sikh man. Hell, I didn’t even know that there is a thing called Sikh.
As I grew older and the racism became more prevalent/violent I realised I had to do something. My home life wasn’t great, the last thing I needed was my social life to be the same.
If You Can’t Beat Them, Join Them
Taking all the above into account I quickly learnt that I needed to try and fit in. This lead to some decisions which, if I am 100% honest, make me terribly sad to think about today.
The fact that I, as a 6 year old child felt the need to lie to everyone I met, telling them my dad is German, leaves a bitter taste in my mouth. As does the fact I was ashamed to tell people I liked to eat curry (I would only eat it at home when I knew no-one else was going to come to my house).
The fact I asked for all of my school books to be replaced with ones adorning my mother’s surname on them, instead of my own, and that I asked my teachers to address me by the same leaves such a sinking feeling in my chest that I honestly well up thinking about it. No child should ever have to go through that. Ever.
But I did, and I am not alone.
Thank You Ms K
By the time I was in year 7 I was lucky enough to be placed in a maths class with a teacher who’s impact on my later life is immeasurable. At the time I didn’t know it, to me she was a strict teacher with an annoyingly good sense of hearing and equally as annoying eye for detail. I’ll call her Ms K for the sake of privacy.
Shortly after joining her class, Ms K pulled me aside. She had noticed that I wanted to go by my mum’s name and that I am legally a Singh. She simply held my shoulder gently and told me “never be ashamed of your heritage, son”. I didn’t know how to respond so I just nodded and left. It may seem like a really simple and dismissible sentence but this was the first time I had ever heard it.
Up until this point I had been actively trying to hide my heritage and doing so had worked. People weren’t being racist to me as often and I was being beaten up/bullied a lot less when outside alone. However, I always felt like I didn’t quite fit in. Like I was still treated differently by everyone around me. Regardless of whether they were white or Indian or anything else for that matter.
The affect of Ms K wasn’t that people magically stopped being discriminative to me, it was the simple acknowledgement of the fact that they were wrong for doing it. It also didn’t magically stop my desire to hide my heritage, but it did get the ball rolling.
Join the Gang
As is often the case with people from my upbringing, you end up joining the prevailing gang on your council estate. Although, I must admit, we never really saw it as ‘joining a gang’. We were just a bunch of poverty stricken children.
We had such a diverse mix of ethnicities in our little group that the racism on the estate pretty much stopped by the time I was hitting my late teens. Calling someone a racial slur was not something that ever ended well, unless it was one of us joking about with another.
That last part might sound strange but it was something which bonded us all. Most of the people in our gang (for want of a better phrase) were either an ethnic minority or someone who saw past peoples’ race and got equally as offended as the subject of the racial slur.
This gave us all the ability to take back control of the racism we had all endured as innocent children. It gave us the ability to see past it and move on with our lives. It enabled us to grow as humans and ignite a desire of understanding for each other’s differences.
It’s Still Weird
All of that being said, I still did not feel like I fit in 100%. The reality is that my sister and I were the only English-Indian children on the estate. As such, I felt I was never truly accepted by either ethnic group. Within our group there were an inevitable number of ethnical splinter groups.
I must emphasise that none of these splinter groups were ever pre-organised in any way. They just sorta happened. A weird quirk of said groups was the fact that they never actually referenced their existence. If I am to be perfectly candid about it. I don’t think any of my friends actually realised or saw that the splinters had formed in the first place.
Regardless of the origins or acknowledgment of their existence, there was no splinter group for mixed English-Indian children and I obviously stood out in each of the groups which did exist. So, inevitably, I sort of just floated between all of them.
This is something which, if I am honest, has followed me into adulthood. To this day I still do not feel truly accepted by any ethnic group. I have been told by my English family that I am not English and by my Indian family that I am not Indian. So what am I?
I strongly identify with, and love, my Indian family. Equally, my English family. However, anytime I meet either of them I instantly notice a sense of disconnect. This is something which I accept could purely be down to longer term effects of a turbulent and traumatic childhood, but I feel it is something which is not talked about enough.
I’m Not Alone
I’m lucky enough to be have been able to travel a lot of the world in my adult life. During my travels I meet and strike relationships with people from a mosaic of backgrounds. Included in those people are a number of mixed-race people who feel that same baked-in level of disconnect.
They find themselves behaving somewhat as an ethnical social butterfly and feeling as an outsider in most cultural scenarios. The only way I can explain the feeling is that of when you enter a vibrant room and it goes silent. It’s a weird analogy, admitted.
This is something which I find to be extremely interesting as, while they express the same feeling of isolation, not all of them experience the same levels of discrimination, if at all.
As an engineer I cannot help but to try and look for reasoning and explanations in the peculiar and, as such, I can’t help but to theorise why so many of us feel like this. Is it an evolutionary thing? Something to do with being raised by a single parent? A mix of both? Who knows.
Whatever the case, one thing I do know is that I do not posses the required education or knowledge to diagnose such an intricate issue. Instead I did the next best thing, write a blog post.
I wanted to write something that will let other people feeling the same way know that they are not alone. While attempting to start the wider conversation about the lesser known intricacies of being born to an ethnically diverse set of parents.
Love, peace and happiness.