I am a 16-year-old British-Indian girl. Like most people of colour all across the world, I have experienced micro-aggressions and subtle racism throughout my life.
Growing up in a small town in England, I didn’t see colour. I didn’t understand racism could come in less explicit forms. To be completely honest, I barely understood racism. I viewed myself as just another kid, sharing the same aspects of my childhood with my classmates, but I still felt different. I remember being called ‘the colour of poo’ and being made fun of for my packed lunches. Sometimes, my friends would make fun of my grandma’s accent and instead of standing up for her, I would ask her not to pick me up from school. Small things like never finding a band-aid that was my skin colour and not knowing what colour to draw myself in self-portraits would make me uncomfortable in my skin colour.
When I lived in South Africa, I would always get questions about where I was from. My answer to the question would be British because that is what my passport says. Most times, the follow-up question, ‘where are you really from?’ would ring through my ears. Once I told them ‘oh, my parents are Indian’ I would watch the confused look on their face dissolve as they nodded their head in understanding. This taught me at a very young age that if you were any other colour than white, you would not be seen as British. You would be viewed as just another immigrant. I still feel uncomfortable answering that question to this day. I do not feel British enough to be British or Indian enough to feel Indian. With around a third of my life spent in an international school in South Africa, I am even more confused about my identity. Nevertheless, I am extremely grateful I have had the opportunity to experience so many different cultures and see so much of the world.
I remember being ashamed of being Indian for the longest time. Comments from my teachers like, ‘you look so exotic’ or ‘your skin colour is so pretty’ confused me. Even though it seemed like a compliment, it felt dehumanizing and objectifying. I never saw people that looked like me being cast as the love interest in movies I watched. A lot of the time in Hollywood, Indians play nerds with the strongest accents. People at the international school would make offensive ‘jokes’ and often did the stereotypical Indian accent. I would always laugh along and let them make fun of our Indian classmates who had accents, wore traditional clothing and brought in food like dal chawal. Many people did not know I was Indian and that saved me from a lot of ridicule from ignorant classmates. The people that did know called me a ‘coconut’. This all made me very insecure and uncertain about my identity but after a few years, I learnt to be proud of where I come from and my culture. I feel disgusted that I didn’t stand up for my classmates who were being taunted. I will never let that stand again.
Once I moved back to England a few years ago, I felt more sure of my identity. I started to notice micro-aggressions more. I had a massive shock when I moved from an international, co-ed school with over a hundred nationalities to a predominantly white, all-girls school in a small town. I was shocked to see how closed-minded and ignorant many students were. A classmate told me she was scared she would have to learn ‘African’ or ‘Indian’ to have to speak to me. I was asked questions such as, ‘do you have to get an arranged marriage?’ and ‘do you have to follow rules because you’re Indian?’. Some friends told me they pity me because my parents are from a different culture and do not share the same parenting philosophy as theirs. ‘Oh I feel so sorry for you, your parents seem so strict! I would hate that!’ Teachers will never get my name right, but what makes me uncomfortable is that they don’t even try. Sometimes they say, ‘come on, you can’t expect me to say this correctly!’ or ‘oh okay I’m not even going to attempt this,’ when they could just ask how to pronounce it.
The worst words that were said to me were, ‘well we owned you, so you can’t say anything.’ This was said to me by a teacher. To provide some context, a few classmates and I were having a lighthearted argument about how you pronounce different words. I remember saying something like, ‘In India, it is pronounced like this,’ to which my teacher replied, ‘oh! But England invented everything.’ Jokingly, I exclaimed, ‘nationalistic much!’ when he shut me down with that comment. Even though this was a joke with no intentions to hurt me, it made me uncomfortable and feel inferior. While the teacher was joking, a classmate said the same thing to me, with full seriousness and a confident smirk. I wanted to start ranting, ‘Why are you proud of that? Thousands of innocent Indians were killed by British troupes. Tens of thousands of Indians were killed in the world wars fighting for the British. Churchill was responsible for some of the worst famines, including the Bengal famine. Three million Indians starved to death. The partition has led to over a million dead and 15 million displaced. Valuable resources were robbed and the colourist values of colonialism are still embedded in people’s thinking today.’ But, I was the new kid, and also at a loss for words so I just laughed.
The sad truth is that people of colour will have to face comments like this throughout their lifetime. From being told to ‘go back to where you came from’ to being made fun of for eating food like dal chawal, we are made to feel as though we do not belong. Without immigrants, countries like the UK and the US would not be what they are today. Chicken tikka masala and chai are some of England’s favourite food and drinks. I want to remind all of my second-generation immigrant friends that we belong here. We are beautiful. We may be different, but that makes us more interesting. We can view the world from a fascinating perspective. We matter.