I’ve deliberated about this post for a while. Partly because it’s about my identity as a person but also because there’s a lot I want to say which is nuanced and hard to articulate in the current landscape without inevitably coming up against gatekeepers and people who think they have the right to adjudicate the idea of belonging.
I write (a lot) about identity. I tend to focus on those places where I intersect with attitudes and opinions which would diminish me or seek to flat out ignore me. Often I’ve tried to talk about a lack of understanding which can lead to marginalisation for no other reason than a lack of language with which to engage. In my work for various literary prizes, through involvement with inclusion discussions at work and elsewhere I’ve become aware of something I think is worth talking about; the idea of majority vs. minority voices.
Much of the debate about race and identity at the moment appears centred around Whiteness. When I talk about that I mean it is about Whiteness vs, everyone else. As a necessary corrective here in the West (and wherever Whiteness is seen as some kind of innate virtue) it is also the gateway through which other identities are forged.
The problem is that in an effort to represent those other identities a lens of nationhood is used and the same kind of purity language is deployed by people on all sides as to what it means to be ‘X’.
I’m not Indian, nor White British/Irish/French, nor Ukrainian or Egyptian (the main identifiable nationalities of my grandparents) The rather provocative title above is meant to reflect how I feel so often among my peers. Among my South Asian friends I’m not really Indian – I don’t speak urdu, hindi and I don’t identify as Hindu or Muslim. I don’t have immediate family on the continent either, so my roots there are effectively non-existent.
Nor are we in contact with my father’s family for a host of reasons but it also means I have effectively nothing deeper than my parents. Yet I can’t easily look to my Britishness because I’m not White. I say Britishness as so many BIPOC do when referring to the UK because we long for the unity and togetherness the idea of the Union brings rather than the terrifying tribalism of English/Welsh/Scottish – a form of identification which seems a torn flag away from excluding us forever. White people ask me to talk about race, they ask me about Indian food (and hey, I’m a foodie so I can at least oblige) and they expect me to understand their awkwardness when it comes to talking about the colour of my skin – because it’s an ever present subject for them. On the one hand I’m not authentically brown enough for my Indian friends (and the word coconut is pretty pejorative, let’s be clear) but at school and in the street I’m just another Paki.
I write about this because I see a blindness occurring among allies which I want us to be aware of because it goes to the heart of who I am and how I engage with the world. As someone of mixed heritage I’m a liminal person. I don’t fit in with nationalistic or stereotypical ideas of identity. And people who do think of mixed heritage too often fall into the openly hostile or gatekeeping variety, demanding I align myself to one or other. ‘Why don’t you speak Urdu, man?’, or ‘I don’t think of you as coloured,’ being two of my least favourite.
Yet this is only half the story. As a friend of mine once astutely remarked – with my background there’s not a place in the world I could go where someone won’t hate me. Don’t get me wrong – I’m not all sad and depressed about this and I’m not asking for sympathy. I’m 45 – I’ve had plenty of time to get to grips with this state of affairs.
What I am concerned about is the conflating of majority non-White populations with anyone who’s not White. You see it in discussions about representation all over and about who is allowed to write what. Am I allowed to write about Indian characters because I’m a second generation immigrant who was brought up centred in White cultural norms? It’s a serious question I’ve asked myself.
People like me, people with mixed heritage OR who are second/third/Xth generation immigrants should not be mixed up with majority populations elsewhere. The fact that bestsellers in their own contexts like Cixin Liu’s books are being translated in English is fantastic. The fact I can read Nigerian SFF and watch Egyptian TV series about the paranormal are both amazing. Yet they are NOT representation in the ways allies tend to think. They are the voices of other majority populations, embodying their cultural values and their ideas about the world – and you’ll find no judgement from me in the arrival of those voices. I love it even if I think we consumers are too uncritical of those voices right now.
The problem I have is we let them stand in for proper representation, use them to substitute for doing the proper work of creating an inclusive society. It’s easy to commission the translation of an already best selling TV show or novel and we can pat ourselves on the back for bringing alternative voices to market. Except what we’re doing is again privileging majority voices. Because in each case there are more people with Chinese (c.1.4bn) and Indian (c.1.4bn) and Pakistani (c.230m) and Nigerian (c.200m) ID papers than British (c.70m) and the majority populations in each of those nations are engaged in their own battles about representation and what it means to be them with minority voices battling to be heard.
Giving voice to other majority populations is not the same as representation. It’s still a VERY GOOD thing for an open society but it is also too easy to use that to erase the need for voices from people who live among us, who live in our culture and are a part of our daily lives.
This last year I’ve become increasingly concerned that the focus on White supremacy is, while incredibly and persistently necessary, also creating a situation in which we simply lump everyone who’s not a White Supremacist into the same smoothed out bucket. It’s also making it that bit harder for criticism to be levelled against other majority populations in the business of suppressing and erasing their own minority voices.
Like I say, this is a difficult subject to write about because there are so many groups who can read what I’ve written and take offence (or even take comfort that they’re not the bad actors when they really are). The real world of representation is working with and serving those minority voices in our midst, not importing majority voices which are distinct from our own. The former is doing the labour, the latter is simply being an open society. I realise both are being challenged right now but honestly, the former is the more important because without it, and the cultural inoculation it provides, the latter will be used to power the machines of stereotype and to pedal soft power.