English/Irish | Pakistani
I identify as mixed-race: English, Irish and Pakistani. I am agnostic and heterosexual. My Mum is White, and my Dad is British Pakistani but they both grew up and met in the UK. I’ve never met my Dad. I’m not sure of the first time I ever recognised I was mixed-race, but my first memory of properly defining myself as mixed-race was on the 2011 census when I was 13. Before that, mixed wasn’t often an option on forms that asked about race and my Mum would just put ‘White British’. Being mixed-race is not something I really talked about until I went to university. When I moved to Oxford I was placed in an environment with predominantly White, wealthy people for the first time made me much more aware of my differences in race and class.
I grew up in Reading in a pretty diverse area, but I grew up with my White Mum so for a long time I just identified as White. As a kid, however, I had darker skin, so it was more obvious that I was not completely White. In my teens, I moved school and a girl on the bus exclaimed very loudly that she ‘hated pakis’ so I made up a convoluted lie about my race until sixth form.
Being mixed is definitely something that affects my sense of self and how I fit into the world. There are a lot of behaviours I exhibited as a kid that show I was aware of my difference and wanted to change such as wanting to dye my hair blonde, googling skin lightening creams and thinking that if I exfoliated hard enough the brown layer of my skin would come off. Some of these I still maintain today. I have not had completely natural coloured hair since I was 11, I never wear foundation in case it makes me look too dark and I slather myself in sun cream and sit in the shade the moment the sun comes out.
A challenge that occurs often is people being aware that you’re not 100% White but being too afraid to ask or dropping a classic ‘Where are you REALLY from?’ into the conversation. For me, this was always quite anxiety inducing as that question leads to further questions about my upbringing and family life that I used to not like to talk about.
I used to insist I hated any kind of spicy food to make me seem Whiter and only recently have I realised how much I was depriving myself! I don’t have any connections to my Pakistani heritage and would love to understand the culture more, but I engage with a wide variety of music through my degree and in my spare time, so I do not necessarily feel culturally deprived.
One positive that has arisen from being mixed-race is connecting with others who also identify as mixed-race and hearing about their experiences. Although it is inherently a varied identification, it is interesting how many things we have in common in terms of experiences. I have learnt so much about how other people identify and how they come to terms with their heritage. I am aware that my light skin allows me to blend in easier than other people of colour, but in a more intimate setting it is much harder to disguise my race. Although this is a privilege, it leaves me wondering sometimes whether someone has noticed yet and if they’re wondering where I am really from.
I thought Oxford would be full of people more cultured, wealthy and confident than me. Doing music ensembles as a teen, however, meant I had experienced middle, upper-middle class White people from aged 11 so I kind of just thought it would be more of the same. I was always a bit apprehensive about applying to Oxford and I am glad I had several teachers give me one final push, otherwise I probably wouldn’t have considered it. A few of my perceptions have been right, but equally I am glad that spaces and societies exist for people of colour, first gen students, disabled students and more. It shows there is desire for change in Oxford, even if it is slow. It is so hard to know whether what you have experienced is noteworthy or not, especially as my race is often ambiguous or unidentifiable to most people, so it feels unreasonable to get super annoyed about it. For example, I had a porter be really harsh to me when I was trying to go to a Mixed Heritage Society event, taking away my bodcard and giving me incorrect directions. It is hard to say, however, whether this was racially motivated as everyone else attending the event didn’t experience the same thing.
I’ve also had a few people be puzzled about why I choose to identify as mixed when I am White passing enough (in their opinion) to just say I’m White. I feel like they also see me as White given that I play the violin and do music: a subject that is particularly bad for access, so they associate me with a predominantly White environment. I think some of this confusion partly comes from people not really understanding or ever thought about what it means to be mixed race. The terminology may be better known today but I think there are a lot of people who haven’t thought about the potential, unique issues we face compared to other people of colour. In general, I would say talking about race in Oxford is often quite difficult as people see it as a taboo or an attack on their privilege, which is not the case. That’s why I am glad Oxford Mixed Heritage Society takes an inclusive stance on discussing race, because Oxford’s access problems won’t improve by excluding people from the conversation.
To be completely honest, I do not think Oxford is welcoming or inclusive. It does try and there are some people who genuinely care about making it a better place, but I can’t say that I will leave feeling like I was fully part of the university in the same way as my peers. We all react differently to situations so some of these sentiments are due to my personality, but equally there is still so much that needs to be done to break down the entrenched privilege that keeps out diversity in all forms at this university. I feel much more aware of my race in Oxford than at home. I often say, I never felt so Brown until I came to Oxford. At home, there is such a large population of people of colour (particularly south Asian) that no one questions my heritage, whereas here I feel like I stick out even if in reality I don’t. That said, these sentiments have allowed me to come to terms with my mixed identity and experiences as a child and incorporate these as part of my identity.
I feel a little more represented now that there is a society for my racial category, but I rarely encounter someone with a similar mix to me, so I still feel ‘different’ to some extent. It is hard as a person of colour to feel represented at Oxford at all, but hopefully that will change. OMHS has definitely connected me to people I would never have met otherwise, especially since I had never really done anything extra-curricular outside the music bubble. It is nice to know that there are people who understand your experiences and can relate to them, as well as having their own unique experiences to share.
I don’t think I would ever want to change my race, but if I could change anything it would be how ashamed I was as a child and teen. Of course, that was partly down to societal influence and being self-conscious, but I think a lot of it was linked to self esteem and anxiety about not fitting in or being different.
In the context of the University of Oxford, we hope our names; faces and stories will emphasise that there is a place for everyone at Oxford. According to last year’s admissions data, 700 Oxford undergraduates identify as mixed. In 2016, BAME students accounted for 15.9% of the undergraduate intake. Oxford is diversifying, albeit slowly. We hope to empower mixed heritage students at Oxford and foster a community where they can safely share their own opinions, experiences and stories.