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Ticking the right box

At the age of thirteen I was sat in registration class when a form landed on my desk. I absent-mindedly ticked my way through, until all of a sudden I came to a section entitled ‘ethnicity’. I was stumped. I looked to the left and the right of me to see which box my classmates had ticked. ‘White British’, I did the same. Seconds later, clocking that I’d copied her, my friend that was sat next to me started to laugh. Confused, I explained that I didn’t fit any of the other categories listed and I’d always thought of myself as white. After some deliberation we agreed that I should tick ‘other’. This was the first time I had ever really called my identity into question but it wouldn’t be the last. 

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aged six and pre-identity crisis

This week Azealia Banks said this to 1D singer Zayn Malik, “Do you understand that you are a sand n—-r who emulates white boys’ renditions of black male hood? Do you know how lost and culture less [sic] you are?” Not only is her disgusting use of racial slur enough to make the blood boil but so too is her complete disregard for those struggling to come to terms with their cultural and ethnic identity. It is a pity that someone that has made such brilliant observations about systemic racism in the past would invalidate her voice with hypocrisy.

My mum is British and my dad is Iranian. I grew up in Wales in an area where I was one of less than ten non-white people in a school of just over one thousand. My upbringing in Wales was typically white. I am privileged. I lived in a good area and had a comfortable childhood. Unlike many I have not faced systemic racism, I have a positive relationship with the police and as a teenager I thought that I could probably go to law school if I wanted to because if Elle Woods did it, so could I. But just because I felt as though I were white, it doesn’t mean that everyone else did.

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Downtown Tehran

At the age of eight I cried in the school toilets when I was called a Paki for the first time. At the age of fifteen I felt ugly when a group of passing boys shouted racial slurs at me when I walked by and by the age of seventeen I had started to feel uncomfortable when people called me ‘exotic’ and asked me where I was from. I was in many ways proud of the fact that I was different; that I sat around a tablecloth on the floor to eat Iranian food at home, that at sleepovers I said goodnight to my mum and dad in farsi but I also felt that those differences were never really enough for me to be able to label myself an ethnic minority.

Some people saw my colour, and others didn’t. I was always on the fence. In many ways I wanted to be more Iranian, I felt embarrassed that I couldn’t speak farsi to my family when my nana called but at the same time I often wished I looked more like my friends, didn’t have dark hair on my top lip and had a normal British name.

The divisive nature of my identity resulted in a persistent internal struggle. From a young age I fiercely stood up for anyone that was picked on because of their race and I still do but at the same time I always felt that I was never entitled to speak on behalf of people of colour. I almost didn’t feel quite brown enough, as though 50% just didn’t quite cut it. Passing for white, people would often forget that they’re not supposed to make racist comments when you are around. And when I got offended, laughs of ‘you’re not like them’ only further alienated me from both sides of my identity. I feel a strange sense of solidarity with other non-white people but at the same time feel guilty for feeling that way. I am not oppressed. Who am I to try and relate myself to people of colour?

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Working the classic 2009 side-fringe on the streets of Tehran

But growing up and moving away from a small town to a big city made the world of difference. In recent years, I’ve gained a lot of perspective. Your identity doesn’t have to come from who your family is, how you look, or how others perceive you. It only matters how you perceive yourself and even that doesn’t need a label. I love Sunday roasts and tea with milk and I have the typical British sense of sarcasm. But I also love to haggle for a bargain and take pride in cooking ghormeh sabze for my friends. I feel blessed to be able to take the most wonderful parts of each culture and call them my own. My cultural background has helped to shape my values, beliefs and world-view but it is not who I am. I don’t have to feel guilty for not being brown enough or white enough, it is enough just to be me.

When it comes both to forms and life in general, we spend so long trying to put ourselves into boxes. Which is great, if that makes us happy. So long as we realise that we don’t need to box ourselves into an ethnic category to satisfy someone else’s demand that we label ourselves, and we certainly don’t need to let other people choose the box that we fit into either.

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