This piece is one of many in the Are You Racist ANU? x Woroni series in association with the ANU BIPOC Department . Want to write for the series? Email firstname.lastname@example.org with a pitch or draft.
“Where are you from? Like from from?”
It’s questions like these that make my mind race a million miles an hour. My answer depends on who I’m in front of and how much I’m mentally prepared to enter into a conversation about it. This is how I navigated my identity and my need to ‘belong’ in racist institutions like the education system.
The answer to where I’m from sounds something like this: I was born in the UK and moved to East Africa a month or so after I was born. I stayed there for the next three to four years as my father’s side of the family was from there. From there, we decided to move back to the UK, where my mother was largely raised and her side of the family mostly still resided. I stayed there until I was thirteen, and then we made the move to Australia. All these places, languages and cultures have had a strong influence on who I am. But the last one that has also shaped a lot of who I am is my ancestral culture, my Indian side. My family was forced to migrate from Gujarat, in North East India, to Africa for various reasons. However, that didn’t stop my grandparents and parents from trying to sustain their Gujarati heritage and culture, even if we couldn’t maintain a link geographically. This has meant that I have grown up as an Indian, East African, British and Australian.
When I lived in the UK, it was in a highly diverse community. This community had a lot of Gujaratis, so I was never too far away from kids that looked like me and had very similar experiences of co-existing in both Indian and British cultures. I saw myself in my peers and felt like I belonged. We recognised each other and immediately knew our Indian community existed on the outskirts of the wider British community we were also a part of. Yet even back then, I still encountered subtle remarks. My mother told me that there was a group of girls who would regularly bully me and tell me I couldn’t play with them because of my skin colour and yet I still thought they were my friends. She went to the principal and fought for an apology from them, but it wasn’t until she told me about the incident again in my twenties that I saw how ingrained institutional racism had already become within me. I wanted so badly to play with these kids, even if they were racist bullies. Five or six years later, my family moved to Australia.
While I’ve grown to love living here and embrace the good with the bad, as every country has, I struggled with my identity, amongst other things, as I made my way through high school.
I went to a Christian High School and College, which lacked diversity within my peer group and the teaching staff. There were 4 brown kids in my year of around 250. I say brown because there exists a plethora of South Asian communities and while our heritages might be geographically close, they were all so different and all had completely different languages.
Going to that school allowed me to receive the education and make the friends I have today, so I’m grateful for that. However, going to that school didn’t help me confront the idea that racism, in subversive or overt forms can and should be challenged.
One day, while I was still in Year 10, I’d left the classroom for some reason and while I was gone, a girl in my class made a comment about ‘Indians smelling bad’ and said something along the lines of me being no exception. I wasn’t there so I’ll never really know what was said, but a friend of mine let me know after class, what had been said in front of everyone, in front of the teacher too. No one said anything to the girl who had made the comment. No one, except that friend, said anything to me. I didn’t say anything to anyone.
That was the moment I truly felt othered.
I had thought about my ethnicity and heritage from time to time, but never to the extent I had at that point. I had also never felt so ashamed. I was angry with her for saying what she’d said, but I never confronted her about it because I was paralysed with my own anger and shame and figured that if a teacher hadn’t said anything, then who was I to say anything?
or someone who until that point had believed in working to the point where ‘you’re so good they can’t ignore you’, that experience made me understand something that I stand by to this day. That even if I do work harder and smarter than my – at the time – predominantly white peers, take part in all of the extra-curricular activities I could and shove down the Indian-ness within me, essentially whitewashing myself to fit in, I would never fit in completely. This was something that I felt so insecure about until I was 21. Imagine not believing your friends truly like you for who you are for that long, just because of internalised racism? It was exhausting.
Interestingly, I was catching up with some high school friends a couple of months ago and that incident came up in conversation. One of my friends recalled it and said she felt ashamed she didn’t call out that behaviour in that moment. That was powerful for me to hear because I’d never known if anyone else had cared enough when I was that age. They did, they just didn’t have any role models who had taught them that calling out racism was better than being a bystander.
The institution, and I mean teachers, class curriculums and pastoral care needs to be better. If I’d known I had the backing and support of people like my teachers, I would have felt safer; maybe if my peers had been taught some of these morals and seen it in practice, they would have been more likely to say something. As much as I can say I went to a Catholic school with less diversity than some of the public schools around me, that’s no excuse for a lack of understanding of basic racism from teachers. This lack of understanding is the very thing contributing to the bias of many young people’s futures and opportunities. That teacher not saying anything, along with all the white supremacy I had already internalised changed the way I interacted within my varying communities, pushing away all the Indian parts of me for so long.
Coming to Australia, I had not only moved countries and lost some friends – which was everything back then to thirteen-year-old me – but I had also lost the cultural linkages to my ancestors. Incidents like the ones in that classroom only cemented this loss further. In Leicester, I was just one of many Gujarati kids whose family had moved from East Africa and built a mixed cultural life there. In Canberra, I was ‘the British person’ because of where I’d geographically moved from. This was confusing for some people to wrap their heads around as I didn’t look like a stereotypical British person – and that’s verbatim been said to my face. Having family who had Indian culture from the seventies, a splash of East African culture of the eighties and nineties, and then some British culture of the noughties made us belong to so many places, and yet never fully belong anywhere. My family sometimes speaks Gujarati, Swahili and English in one conversation and it flows for us. In the same way, my cultural ideals, values and tastes flow from Indian, East African, English and Australian all the time. Riz Ahmed expresses it beautifully in his latest album, The Breakup:
Maybe I’m from everywhere and nowhere.
No man’s land, between the trenches.
Yeah I make my own space in this business of Britishness
Your question’s just limiting, it’s based on appearances.
Stop trying to make a box for us
I’ll make my own and bruck your poxy concept of us
Very few fit these labels so I’m repping for the rest of us
Who know that there’s no place like home and that stretches us
Who code switch so don’t piss me off for a cricket test for us
Or question us about our loyalty, our blood and sweat’s enough.
Born under a sun you made too hot for us
Kidnapped by empire and diaspora fostered us
Raised by bhangra, garage and halal southern fried chicken shops
A junglist and jungly
I’m Mowgli from the Jungle Book, I’m John Barnes in the box
I blaze hard after mosque
I bend words like brown and west until they just spell what.
My tribe is a quest to a land that was lost to us
And its name is dignity
So where I’m from is not your problem bruv.
I wish teen me had people like Riz to listen to and know that I’ll never fully fit in anywhere, and that it’s okay because I don’t need to fit in anywhere to be ‘valued’.
Having role models and spaces I could feel like me in were important in relearning that I wasn’t less than because I didn’t and could never fit someone’s “poxy concept of me”. Even though I was never very active in the Ethnocultural department, it was just good to see the group out there on social media and providing spaces for me if I ever needed or wanted it. Hearing artists like Riz Ahmed – and many other creators – helped me understand that the institution was not going to advocate for me, they weren’t going to give me a space to be me, because it hadn’t been built by people who represented me. If I wanted that space, I had to make it for myself.
I stopped feeling as though I needed to be someone I wasn’t so I could belong. I figured I might as well just be this complex, South Asian woman, who had grown up with influences from East Africa, India, England and Australia and if people didn’t like it, that was okay.
It took me well into my third year of university to really believe that, and I still waver sometimes, but less so. My hope is that young people of colour can exist within these institutions feeling safe to explore their identities. I want them to know that they have role models, confidants and teachers, that reflect, represent and advocate for them within the institution. I want teachers and the institution to give young people the tools they need for high school and college, but also what they need to explore their complex, rich and beautiful identities safely.