14.13, Sunday 27 Sep 2015

Who Am I isn’t a question I spend much time thinking about, but it’s sufficiently complicated that when I do, I can’t quite get a handle on it.

My dad was from north London. My mum’s Indian, and what we’d call now a first generation economic migrant – she moved from Kenya to the UK at 18, for work. Met my dad, married, etc. She was born middle-class in Kenya, until relatively recently she’d never been to India: Technically her ethnic group is “East African Indian.”

So her family was part of the Indian diaspora. Her dad - my grandfather - my Nanabapa - was himself a migrant, albeit he was three years old when he was brought by his family to Mombasa from the Indian subcontinent.

What does being a migrant mean to your sense of identity? To be Indian in east Africa; to be ethnically Indian in London… but not part of the larger, more cohesive British Asian community? Displaced over generations. What does it feel like? What’s passed on? Apart from the obvious empathies I mean. What subtle, secret gifts have I been given? I don’t know. Food is love. The family is Ismaili, it’s a pretty liberal branch of Islam, and I have a pretty liberal family.

I’m mixed race, but I don’t look it. I look white. I grew up in a particularly white part of the UK, I speak only English, I’ve never set foot in a mosque. I’ve been to India on work, and to watch the cricket. Every so often white-appearing people say mildly racist things to me, or mildly Islamophobic things, expecting I’m like them. I’m not.

(Nairobi: Sitting at the back of my grandparents’ house eating fried egg and chips and buttered chapatis. The smell of the red soil after the rain.)

Being half Indian and not looking it. I’m met with scepticism when I tell people, white, Indian, and mixed. It’s another kind of displacement. What I’m allowed to claim and what I’m not. It can feel like I have a tenuous grip on my background, on my ability to honour my origins.

Sometimes when I imagine my identity, I feel instead an allegiance to the people of the future – 22nd century people of tangled roots and chai skin.

But we were on holiday in Sicily the last couple of weeks, and we got talking to a few young Sicilians. The culture of Sicily is incredible, Greece, Carthage and Rome all on top of one another; Norman castles with Arabic interiors; halfway between Africa and Europe, a powerful centre to the Mediterranean. People there have light hair and dark hair, brown eyes and blue eyes, all shades. Italian. We were chatting to one light-haired girl and her dark boyfriend: I’m Norman, she said, He’s Arab.

The Normans were Vikings who settled in France. They invaded England (and won). They came to Sicily a decade or two short of a thousand years ago. A thousand. The Arabs: Twelve hundred years ago. I’m Norman, he’s Arab.

I have a thousand hedged affiliations. Half-caste, is what we used to call ourselves when we were little, watching out for the shocked look in response when we said those crude words. I’m proud, is what I am.


Whenever I link to this post, a couple of people (politely! correctly!) point out that ‘half-caste’ is something that some folks now find offensive. The thing is, it is. And more than I realised than when I was a kid… the shock I saw in people’s eyes was real. But. It’s a term I can say about myself that others aren’t allowed to say about me. There’s a little shard of ownership I can hold onto there, something that I don’t really have anywhere else. It’s mine and I think that’s why I continue to use it. –Matt, June 2016

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