British | Italian/Indian
I would identify as a straight, mixed Agnostic Atheist. I strongly believe that a higher being does not exist, but with the presentation of real, compelling evidence, I am open to being proven wrong. I do tend to tick ‘White’ in the ethnicity boxes, though. Perhaps from a lifetime of habit, perhaps from a weird bout of Imposter’s Syndrome. I’m new to this.
Growing up, I didn’t realise I was mixed-race. I mean, I knew, but I didn’t know, you know? It was fairly obvious that I wasn’t entirely English, but the family story of having Italian and Portuguese blood fit my olive skin and dark features nicely. When I was 25, I took an AncestryDNA test which revealed the Portuguese side of my ethnicity was actually Indian, owing to my family’s involvement in the British Raj. I’ve therefore had a bit of a strained relationship with my ethnicity over time, but I feel I’m finally at a place now where I’m content with it.
My dad is White British, my mum is light-brown British. She likes the term ‘coffee-coloured’. Her mum is half Italian (but fair as can be) and her dad is – we know now – half Indian. My grandpa was born in Kolkata, then called Calcutta, during the British Raj; the English side of his family had arrived there many generations before. Grandpa was convinced his mother was Portuguese/British, having apparently met her parents and being proud that his grandfather was ‘the perfect Welsh gentleman’, but a DNA test in 2016 proved that this couple couldn’t have been his biological grandparents, as his mother was near 100% Indian. Even a loose tie to Portuguese-Goa was ruled out when we found her birth certificate, registered on the other side of the country. I can only suppose that claiming to be Portuguese was a way of making sure her children got the best opportunities in a White-leaning society.
Grandpa moved to England in his late teens and met my grandmother while serving in the RAF. My mum was their first child, the other being my blonde-haired, blue-eyed uncle, and mum recalls many a time growing up when people would ask if Grandma had adopted her, or even refused to let them leave shops together, thinking Grandma had kidnapped a child.
My parents met when they were 18 at a club, and as far as I’m aware, race was never an issue between them. There were, however, a few raised eyebrows amongst the oldest generations of my dad’s extended family when he brought her home, just as there had been on the other side of the family when Grandma brought Grandpa home. Luckily, my mum would never let this change her direction, and she’s the kind of bubbly person who is hard not to like.
I grew up in a village in Berkshire. Things have shifted now, but at the time, the village itself was particularly White, and I remember clearly the day at the age of 7 when I saw a Black family in our local area for the first time and thinking ‘wooooah’. Things got way more diverse when I attended secondary school in nearby Reading. I see my childhood as being pretty privileged, surrounded by a lot of love and opening up fantastic opportunities for my future.
When I was 3 and my sister was on the way, I would ask my parents whether she would be ‘brown like Mummy or pink like Daddy’, so it’s apparent that I was aware of differences from an early age. When I was 7, my Christmas list to Santa asked for blonde hair and blue eyes. I struggled to find characters in the media that I could relate to, and so while I had zero interest in little fair-haired baby dolls or the classic Disney princesses, as has been mentioned before by other profiles on MixedRaceFaces, I developed obsessions with Pocahontas, Esmeralda and Princess Jasmine. Not much discussion or emphasis was ever put on race by my parents, though, perhaps because we haven’t inherited any of the cultural side, only the phenotypes. My sister and I were just brought up to know that everyone is different, and that’s ok.
Over the last decade or so, I’ve managed to swing between active denial of any Indian heritage to not feeling mixed enough to claim a mixed background. The truth is that my Asian portion is relatively small (12% according to AncestryDNA, alongside 15% Italian), but ultimately it shows enough that I’ve been asked ‘but where are you really from?’ probably once a week on average over the last 10 years. When I found out I was not just mixed within Europe, but also across continents, it was an odd kind of relief that suddenly – finally – all these feelings I’d had about race and otherness were validated because I wasn’t just a non-White-passing White person after all. That allowed me to feel welcome in joining the discussion on race and its place in society, something I always felt I had experiences in but that they were somehow invalid for what I was on paper.
I haven’t always been so ready to accept my heritage, though. When I was a child, I had a very good friend who was Indian, and remember her experiencing racially-fuelled bullying. Although I didn’t think that I too was Indian back then, I was often mistaken for it by others, and this kind of solidified in my mind that if I wanted to avoid this kind of abuse then I needed to make sure people knew I wasn’t Asian (in hindsight, fighting to stop racial bullying at the source would have been a better tactic, but unfortunately that’s not often how 9-year-olds reason).
As I got into my teenage years, amongst my wider group of friends nothing was an off-limits topic for joking about, and so I was given the freedom to get rid of ‘the elephant in the room’ and let people know I wasn’t a ‘real’ POC through the medium of tasteless jokes, before they could jump to any of their own conclusions. People often made assumptions off my appearance on the type of person I might be – that I might disapprove of drinking alcohol, I might be super religious, I might not speak good English, I might be saving myself for marriage and therefore not interested in having a boyfriend, or my family might not accept a White boyfriend – and I was desperate to show them that I was just a normal English teenager. It was probably also a coping mechanism for not really understanding where I fit in (English people knew I wasn’t really English, and Italians knew I wasn’t really Italian. Portuguese people knew I wasn’t really Portuguese. Where could I go?) on top of the usual angst of finding your feet in the world as a young person. I guess I felt that if I showed I was comfortable to talk or joke about ethnicity first, the people I was with wouldn’t be uncomfortable in feeling they had to tiptoe around what I may or might not be, and then maybe I’d be part of the ‘us’ instead of the ‘them’. I was fiercely proud of the heritage I thought I had, and so I grew more and more snappy when people continued to tell me they thought I was Indian or Pakistani or Middle Eastern. The weirdest part is that I still maintained good friendships with many people of colour during this time; possibly because they understood this method of protecting myself, or maybe it was just a sign of the times. Looking back, I saw the same deflective style of joking in a few of them, too.
It was during a university seminar on ‘Gender in the Workplace’ that I first truly understood that even if jokes aren’t directed at someone that they would affect, and even if you mean it in genuine jest with no actual hatred behind it, the simple telling of an offensive joke or stereotype perpetuates the broader institutional problem – whether that be in sexism, racism, ageism or whatever you may choose – and that Eureka moment seriously hit me like a truck. While I’m not proud of the stage that I can only refer to as an extended identity crisis, I am proud to say that following that learning my attitude more or less changed overnight. Over the next couple of years, I put in the time to educate myself on the extent to which I was going about life all wrong, and what I could do to make things better, and even now, I’m still learning. What helped immensely was a shift in how we as a society use social media – it’s no longer for micro-blogging what you had for breakfast, and more for sharing information about the world we live in, documenting the injustices in communities we wouldn’t otherwise be exposed to and how we can help solve them. This part of my youth is still a difficult thing for me to discuss freely, and maybe I’m opening myself up to backlash here, but perhaps it can at least help someone who is going through the same feelings to start liking themselves for who they are. Writing it all down for the first time is actually pretty therapeutic.
Reading this, one might think that finding out I actually WAS in part Asian all along might have been a bad thing, but strangely enough, it made me incredibly happy. A big weight had been lifted. I had answers to all my questions about why I was different, I had validation for all my past feelings of otherness, and I had an exciting new culture to learn about (albeit from afar). It was something I could proudly embrace rather than have to fervently deny. Right now, I feel nothing but pride for this side of my ethnicity, but perhaps if I had taken the DNA test 5 years earlier, my feelings would have been different.
Into adulthood, I don’t think being mixed has changed the people I choose to socialise with – my socioeconomic status has had a greater influence on my circles, but hey, I guess these factors are all intertwined to some degree. I have POC friends that I can relate to so many experiences with, I have white friends who try their very hardest to understand racial issues, and I love them all for it. The people I surround myself with do tend to be well-educated, and so perhaps we suffer from the echo chamber effect to some extent.
I’ve dated people from several races, but mostly White. It was during a conversation with a mixed guy I used to date that I experienced the revelation that these feelings of otherness and being between camps weren’t just something I’d made up in my head. Now, my 2 years best friend, 4 years boyfriend just happens to be white. We don’t sit down and discuss racial identity every day, but we talk about it enough that he understands that it’s important to me, and why.
In my early twenties, I tried to learn Italian as a way to connect with my roots, but having no one close with which to speak it, that fizzled out pretty quickly. Now that I’m living in Colombia, learning Spanish is a lot more useful! Ambiguity means I’m a bit of an ethnic chameleon, therefore people here usually assume I’m Spanish-speaking, and it was getting embarrassing when I couldn’t understand what locals were asking me, so they thought I was just being deliberately rude. I’ve had a lot of dirty looks from it during my time here! My boyfriend is the one who speaks fluent Spanish, so there’s always confusion surrounding us. On the plus side, if I keep my mouth shut, I can often get local prices, and I don’t stand out as a target for petty crime.
The sad thing about my family history is that we’ve lost connection with all non-British culture. My grandma’s Italian mother was forbidden from passing down any language or culture to her children due to raising them during WWII (not a great time to be Italian in the UK), and my grandpa has tales he can tell us of India, but only from the viewpoint of being ‘in the club’ amongst the Europeans. Despite being raised around Indian house servants in tropical heat, his upbringing was still very British. Growing up, I think I definitely resented those who had their cultures passed down to them. I used to view my brownness as a negative thing and thought perhaps having the richness of culture might make up for that.
When it comes to the question ‘where are you from?’, it really depends on who is asking, and in what context. I understand the curiosity side of it, I get curious sometimes too; not to be able to label someone but to understand how their different cultural upbringing may have enriched them and see if we have any common experiences. I’ve only met one non-related person with the same mix as me, and we wouldn’t have ever known had we not had that conversation! I personally don’t mind discussing my ethnicity, nor my family background – most people don’t have such an interesting history to tell – but only to those who seem sensitive to the subject and are asking with good intentions. It’s fairly obvious when someone is trying to put you in a box or work out if you’re from a community that they view negatively, in which case I’ll usually wind them up with obtuse answers until they get bored. I like asking people to guess first, so that at least I’m getting some entertainment out of it too; I’ve had answers ranging from Brazilian to Turkish, Spanish to Iraqi.
I think being mixed allows me to connect with more people. Not only can I relate culturally to my fellow Brits of any race, but I can also relate on a whole other level to people who have lived life in two or more camps, even if none of those camps are shared between us. It’s amazing how many experiences resonate between mixed people.
Now that I finally enjoy who I am, I wouldn’t change it. I would just hope that if I had my time again, childhood experiences wouldn’t mar my view of ethnicity so much, and that I’d have the strength to embrace my ambiguity and see it as something that adds to me, rather than makes me less than. Being mixed is cool and I have so much to be proud of.