I realised that I counted as a person of colour when I was 16 – a bit late, I know, but being adopted by a white family and subsequently growing up in white suburbia tends to lead to a warped perception of self. This phenomenon is also known as the Transracial Adoption Paradox which is marked by contradictory, yet true, experiences of being racial within a white family with all the associated privileges of whiteness, while simultaneously being perceived and treated by society as a foreigner, immigrant and racial minority.
A self-portrait by the author
And, to put it politely, the wider society in white suburbia was an absolute bitch. In America when I was growing up, I understood being racial or being a person of colour as synonymous with being black – and without having media examples of other Asian Americans, it was hard to realise that racism extended beyond the black-white binary. While I might have experienced racism, I didn’t know I could acknowledge it as racism – playground antics saw my peers stretch their eyes into slits while chanting I am Chinese, if I please. Others righteously informed me Chinese babies were hit in the face with a frying pan as a baby, and that’s why my face is so flat. One year, a white friend even gave me a bottle jasmine-scented lotion addressed to CHINK ❤ for Christmas.
These blatantly bigoted remarks eventually grew in micro-aggressions in which academic excellence reinforced how ‘model minority’ skewed the grading curve, or being told how I was good at sports ‘for an Asian’. In my school year growing up, there was only one other person of East Asian descent and two half black kids who people jokingly claimed made one whole black person. Even if we didn’t know how to properly address our experiences, I think all of us could agree that we were acutely aware of our difference.
Moving away from that environment to multicultural London and talking to other people of colour who grew up facing similar situations has been in many ways therapeutic. Knowing that my experiences weren’t mine alone has helped create this space in which I am allowed to love and fight for myself. Especially in the current political climate, I think it’s becoming more and more relevant for people of colour to share their experiences. Our voices and stories deserve to be told, so I talked to other people of colour about their experiences growing up in predominantly white spaces.
I’m Kazakh and Turkmen, but I was born and raised in the Czech Republic. Everyone would always assume I was from either Vietnam or China because of the large Vietnamese community there. And if I said I was from Kazakhstan, the Borat jokes would be nonstop.
I remember when my grandpa warned me that sometimes the bus wouldn’t stop for us because of our race – this was my first realisation that even if I was born in the country, I would never be from the country. That said, I went to an international school where for the most part people were very diverse and non-judgmental. However, I still have random memories of how I’d come home from school and say something like “My mom’s Japanese, my dad’s Chinese, so I’m Swiss cheese” while slanting my eyes the way the kids at school did to me.
For the most part, I would actively try to avoid the ‘Asian’ stereotype. I never watched anime just because people would expect me to. I would be loud about being bad at maths, when I ended up in a lower level maths class I would be made fun of for being the only Asian bad at maths. I couldn’t always avoid stereotypes though, sometimes I would cling to them because it felt like what I had to do. I chose to play the flute in band because I thought that’s just what Asians do. Also as a highly sexualised minority, another constant coming-of-age worry was being fetishized for my race… As I grew up, I had a revelation that the by subtle racism even in my international school bubble was not meant to be harmful, it was just ignorant.
With all that said about Czech Republic, I found that I still face more overt racism in the UK. I was really surprised to find that people here would just shout “Ni Hao”. I was literally pointed at and told that I was Chinese at Cost-cutters the other month. I’m not too bothered by it anymore, I know that I had a lot of privileges and that my parents probably had to face a lot more racism coming to Czech Republic 20 years ago.
I feel that I am white passing, so I often find it difficult in negotiations of identity or defining myself in terms of my racial identity. Despite being a dual national, I often feel disconnected from my Moroccan side because I cannot speak the language and was not raised there.
Instead, I grew up on one of the most deprived counsel estates in the UK, Blackbird Leys in Oxford. As the city is known for hosting one of the top universities in the world, inequality in terms of wealth and occupation felt more prevalent. So it is my social class, not race, that feels more integral to my identity.
However, even though I am not Asian, people at school would assume that I was Chinese or call me Chinese as a joke. It was funny to them, or seen as some form of humiliation. Being young at the time, I often got hurt by these comments because I was not Asian but I also couldn’t understand why they were making that out to be a bad thing. As well, I remember straightening my hair every day with a really cheap straightener because people would tell me it looked better. My scalp literally fell apart from heat damage, and pussed and bled and took over a year to heal. If I had the capacity to understand that these comments were racist, I would have tackled the situation differently. Now I embrace and like that I look different, but it took a while to see how it is something to be celebrated rather than normalised.
When I was much younger, my dad took us to London for a day trip and he tried to take us to Edgware Road. The ‘Arab’ spot. I kicked up a fuss and told him I’m not Muslim and don’t want to be a part of this. My reaction was obviously influenced by my experiences at school where kids used to be extremely Islamophobic. I obviously knew it was wrong and extremely disrespectful to my dad but at the time I didn’t know any better. Shame is a legitimate issue many BAME people face.
I attended a quite multicultural school, so the transition to university in a multicultural city, London did not feel weird. But inequality seems to be deeper in POC working class identities, and when POC move to affluent white areas they sometimes lose touch with the reality of their racial communities living in poverty. While my university is filled with open-minded people who do not tolerate discrimination, I feel like people have to remember that universities are still white middle class spaces, dominated by rich kids who don’t know the struggles of council estates or how it feels to be the first in their family to go to university.
I moved to Paris from Lebanon, and I went to an international primary school that was quite multicultural. But I had to change schools for middle school, which happened to be a private Catholic school. The classroom was predominantly French white people, and that’s when I felt like I was different from other people. Especially during lunchtime, my mom put me on the lunchbox plan because she didn’t want me to eat pork. And the French kids would come with their little sandwiches and juice boxes, and I would bring leftover dinner and rice. I love my mom’s cooking but it smelt, and their food just looked cleaner. I felt like I was always being looked at and judged, like they were almost disgusted – like, what’s in your rice? It’s so stupid because it’s food but I used to hate lunchtime because of it.
The Iraq War was always referred back to by other students that were with me, and by teachers as well, and they would always talk about it like it was a good thing – Americans were there to get rid of the terrorists. But when we would go to gym class, in the boy’s locker room, the French people would goof around by hitting each other while shouting ‘sale arab’, which means ‘dirty Arab’ – like I’m an Arab… Why is it being used as a curse word?
As well, there were a lot of difficulties in learning in French – you need to have parents who can help you with the reading and the writing. And at school, they would have my mom come in for meetings and would ask her what language we spoke at home. And she would say Arabic because we’re from Lebanon. The teachers would then tell her that it would be better if we spoke French at home – but my mom would have none of it. She would ask them how they would feel if they moved to Lebanon and people made them speak Arabic even at home. Language is so linked to culture, and it was almost as if they were trying to further remove me from my culture.
I don’t think I’ve ever talked about race more than from when I’ve moved to London. I always thought that there wasn’t racism here, but there is. Honestly, if I had a penny for every time I was asked ‘But where are you really from…’, I would be rich. I accidentally said once that I was from France – I was born there and grew up there most of my life, it’s only valid to say that I’m from there. But there’s almost this pressure to say you’re from Lebanon if you’ve got an Arab name, if you’re Muslim, because that’s where you’re really from.
I spent my early childhood in an inner city working class area of London where all of my friends were BME or white migrants. My ethnicity was never judged, ridiculed, or looked at with any prejudice. I remember being able to openly discuss my culture with my Pakistani, Jamaican, Kenyan and Indian friends, and learning so much from them too. Then at the age of 11, we moved to an affluent white area because my mum wanted me to go to a safe school. There were some Indian kids, maybe one or two in my class, but they were often 3rd generation immigrants with no sense or knowledge of their background. I found that really weird when I first moved, and it made me feel alone as I didn’t have shared experiences with anyone.
I got teased about body hair a lot so I would literally shave (sometimes wax) my whole body. Like everything. I even spent almost £2k on laser hair removal because I used to be so embarrassed of looking ‘dirty/ethnic’. The Iraq War was also going on whilst I was at school, so often the white kids would talk about it and tell me how great it was that those rag heads were getting what they deserved… and then they would turn to me and be like, ‘Oh no, not you. You’re different, it’s ok. You’re not one of them’. The head boy of my school even came to my 18th birthday/Halloween party dressed up as a terrorist – bin Laden mask and all – and was like, ‘Ohh Mona look I’m dressed up like one of you’. I would always denounce my faith/culture to English people in order to justify myself, like saying that I wasn’t Muslim and I was born in the UK, etc.
I found that Tumblr helped a lot with body hair positivity, activism, etc. If I had stayed in that toxic environment, I would have probably become a horribly messed up person with a lot of internalised Islamophobia, racism and a whole lot of other insecurities.