Micro-aggressions have been part of my life for as long as I can remember. From my earliest memories in the hairdresser’s chair, fair or tanned (depending on the time of year) I aroused curiosity with my hair and eyebrows ‘too dark and thick to be English’.
“Where are you from?” they’d ask.
“Where did you get such dark and lovely hair?” they’d ask.
The response of “Bristol” never seemed to bring them satisfaction.
Spoken as a compliment, I never questioned the tiptoeing around my origins but I quickly learnt it wouldn’t cease until my mother mentioned “her father is Indian”…
Then the responses of, “Oh that must be it!”, “I knew there was a bit of something in there”, “lovely dark features”, or “a bit of an exotic look”.
As I got older, I adapted. To the question, “Where are you from?” I knew the easiest solution was to give a brief family history… Born in Bristol, Mum’s from a small town north of Belfast, Dad was born in India but grew up in London and I lived in California for 3 and half years so have a bit of the accent… I got used to it. And it felt less painful than tiptoeing around the answer they seemed to want. They seemed more comfortable with this; they knew where to place me, there was no uncertainty.
I never questioned why I had to map out the history of my existence to avoid sitting through the painful experience of being asked every question apart from “but where are you really from?”, because while they knew that could come across ‘the wrong way’, that was really the one they wanted the answer to.
I never thought this counted as racism; people were just curious. Stating I was half Indian was generally met with nice comments, so why did it feel uncomfortable?
It was only later that I realised this was having an effect on me. I didn’t feel English enough to be English (despite being born here) I barely had a connection with Ireland anymore and I’d never been to India so didn’t feel I could call myself Indian. But racism was too strong a word to use for all these small interactions I thought. I hadn’t experienced a hate crime, been discriminated against or called a slur (unfortunately, that did come later), so why did it make me feel uncomfortable?
It wasn’t until I went to University and took a class entitled ‘Racism in the Western World’ that I started to feel I had the language to describe what I’d experienced. Each week, reading a new author’s experience or reflections on racism, I found myself thinking, ‘I’ve felt like that’, even though I hadn’t identified it as racism at the time.
The whole concept of ‘othering’ finally gave me the language to describe so many of my childhood experiences when meeting new people. I’d been made to feel intrinsically and resolutely different due to my parental heritage, my origins becoming the most important thing about me. Reading and discussing works on race, racism, and identity was not only generally interesting but made my own experiences make so much more sense.
I still struggle to navigate meeting new people and sensing the tiptoe questions on the tip of their tongues. I never know if I’m being too sensitive so I often gaslight myself into thinking that I’m overhyping it as I know they aren’t bad people and they don’t usually have bad intentions.
But I’ve grown tired of giving my full life history so more often now, I let both myself and others sit in the discomfort of them not having the answers that their curious eyes crave. However, I think many people in the UK don’t always recognise the privilege they have of not being questioned, made to feel like they don’t belong, or having to justify their ‘Britishness’. I do acknowledge that I also have a lot of privileges myself and I make sure to reflect on them often. My experiences are in no way comparable to those who face overt racism and violence which impacts their everyday experience much differently than my racial identity does mine. I’m writing this because I feel people should reflect that no matter how well-meaning they are, their questions have the potential to make a child feel like they don’t belong, who grows up into a person who still doesn’t feel like they fit somewhere.
There’s privilege in never having to wonder what someone means by ‘Where are you from?’ other than making sure they don’t insult your home sports team in front of you.
This blog was written by Niamh Munglani and you can connect with them on Linkedin at: LinkedIn