British/Indian | German/ (Cuban) American
My mum is British and Indian; my Dad is German and (Cuban) American. My Dad settled in the UK when he was in his early 20s, after he came here to study. My Mum spent most of her childhood in India and then also lived in Germany and the Netherlands before coming to England as a teenager. My parents met here in the UK.
Both sides of my family moved quite a lot over the last few generations. My Mum’s Dad and his family moved from Karachi to present-day India during partition. He met my Grandmother on Lake Balaton in Hungary on a student trip in the 1930s, though they were both living in London at the time, as he was a student there.
On my Dad’s side, my Grandfather was German, but he left Germany for the United States in 1939, where he met my Grandmother. After the Second World War, they lived in Germany, the US, the UK, Portugal and eventually came back to England. My Grandfather had also studied here in the early 1930s. My Grandmother spoke Spanish to her Mother as well as English. We had always been told that this was because her Mother’s family had moved to the US from Spain, but we recently discovered that her Mother’s family had actually migrated from Cuba. They had tried to erase this from their history when they arrived in the United States because they were trying to fit in. Apparently one of my Grandmother’s relatives moved to Panama, where he somehow had 96 children, so maybe I have some family there too! Like that story, there are lots of other bits of family history that have emerged only later, often because they weren’t spoken about or because records have been lost.
I felt ambivalent about recognizing myself as mixed myself for a long time, for various reasons. Who or what defines it? Being mixed is in itself of course such a mixed category; it means different things in different contexts and is experienced in different ways. It’s always a negotiation between how other people perceive you and how you perceive yourself. And that’s something I take as an ongoing question.
It’s a question that has been with me for a long time on some level, mostly because of the varied stories I’d hear as a child and the conversations we’d have. My Mother would recount her experiences of arriving in England as a teenager in the 1960s, for example, including the racism she experienced, and because she worked from on initiatives to decolonize the curriculum from the 1980s, that was a central part of her life and ours. I also remember starting a conversation with her about it directly when a friend at primary school told me that her Mother had said mine was ‘half-caste’, and I wanted to know what that meant. So, unfortunately, that’s also one of the occasions that I remember beginning to ‘see’ race in relation to the family.
Though those stories and experiences have shaped my perspective, I myself often have the privilege of being able to choose whether or not to identify as ‘mixed’ in the eyes of others, in part because I am fair-skinned. This is a privilege, but in the past, I have also sometimes found it uncomfortable. Sometimes people comment on how different I look to my Mum, or don’t realise we are related; although we have similar features, our skin colour/tone becomes the defining factor in what they first see. That’s understandable in that skin obviously still matters and has significance in the society we live in in terms of defining people’s lived experiences. But it used to make me feel uncertain about how to identify myself: on one level, I felt I should identify myself in line with whatever I imagined they were seeing, as if I were transparent, but that never felt quite right either.
I was on a date recently, we were talking about Brexit, when he heard about my background the guy I was with told me the Indian part was ‘all gone’, as if it were something only there if he could see it, or that I could take off. It’s true that I feel more British than anything else, having lived here my whole life. But for me, that now doesn’t mean simply identifying with (or against) some kind of stable idea of White Britishness; being British has long had a mixed history.
In that sense, I think it’s important to remember ‘mixed’ experiences which sometimes trouble people’s expectations of how you should identify. On a personal level, having my parents’ and Grandparents’ experiences and stories as part of the conversation when we were growing up has shaped my perspective and my world. And, for those reasons, I’ve become more comfortable with recognizing myself in this way.
The fact that my parents had both come from families which had moved between countries was a point of connection for them; they were both used to adapting to different contexts quickly, and having family spread out across different places. I think it shaped both of their professional interests too, in different ways. That said, their experiences of migrating were also very different for all kinds of reasons, but including race, wealth, family events etc. So, that is something that has often been a topic of conversation.
Their own families were mixed too. It caused difficulties for both sets of grandparents, especially at the times that they met (in the 1930s and 40s). On my Mum’s side, as far as I know, neither family welcomed her parents’ marriage initially, to say the least. On my father’s side, the families seemed happy, but as it was WW2 and my Grandfather was German, he got interned in the US not long after they met. We didn’t find out about the Cuban history until much later, but that absence in itself is I think also indicative of the prejudiced attitudes towards race and US nationality. The desire to present a particular narrative about the family’s roots, and how they got to where they did.
I think how you experience being mixed depends on who you are, and I am lucky. The only negative for me has been that, when they identify me as mixed, some people seem to feel uncomfortable and either erase or otherwise over-emphasise/exoticise that aspect of me, from, ‘but you’re so White’, to ‘you’re pretty because your Mum isn’t White’; ‘you and x are both mixed-race, so you should get on’; and even, weirdly. The latter ones are probably more obviously negative. But in the former case, it’s interesting how, when people are determined to define me as not being mixed, it sometimes has the opposite effect; that they feel the need to assert this and comment (pretty much always without my having said anything) seems to attest to the fact that they can’t actually read or place my identity as easily as they’d like to. If you take something for granted, or don’t see it on some level, I’m not sure you need to try to actively mark it out in this way.
Some of the main times that being mixed has become relevant or visible has been in a dating context, where I have sometimes encountered some ignorance, a lack of awareness, or also occasionally exoticisation.
Though we occasionally heard German around us growing up (because it was the language in which my Father spoke to my Grandfather) my Dad didn’t speak it to us all the time as my Mum doesn’t speak it. Later in life though, I learnt German, and I was always glad that I was able to speak a little to my Grandfather in his native language because I knew he appreciated it, though at the time I suspect I wasn’t particularly fluent.
My Mum would have spoken some Hindi, and Dutch and even some German when she was younger, but she claims to have forgotten them all, though some words seem to come out when she’s in stressful situations.
A positive has perhaps been that I’ve always thought of identity, especially national identity, as being formed through multiple and often mixed lives, stories and worlds. I try not to make assumptions about other people’s backgrounds, but at the same time it’s perhaps meant I’ve always been interested in hearing about those different stories that shape their identities and lives.
If I had the opportunity to be reborn I think I’d like to return as I am!