Let’s Talk About Race, Racism & Feeling Like The ‘Other’
I’ve pondered a while whether I should write this post, to air my views and explore a subject that frankly, needs more airing and exploring.
A grey area I’ve shied away from writing.
For fear of being judged, of being considered ‘too white’ to have experienced racism, for concern of not being taken seriously.
Thank you to my great friend, the brilliant writer Uju of Babes About Town for encouraging me to get this on paper (digi-paper) and to hit publish after a many a chat about ethnicity, belonging and identity!
…You see I am considered White European as both my parents are Greek Cypriot, I was born in Leeds, Yorkshire and am British.
When I asked my Mum if she considered herself white, she said, ‘olive’ and that’s what we are, olive skinned-although to be fair, that term makes no sense to me.
Cyprus geographically is considered to be part of Europe, but it is an island equally close to the Middle East, and my ancestry is no doubt, as with us all, mixed by neighbouring/conquering countries over history.
I am perhaps ‘in between’ to some, a little bit ‘different’, I often see people struggle to quite place me and I’m used to the question, ‘So where are you from?’, usually on a daily basis. Funnily enough, it never means which part of Leeds!
Granted, I could be from anywhere, we’re all global citizens after all and in my 35 years on this planet, I’ve been asked if my origins lie in so many different countries, I’ve literally lost track and count. Some from memory though include whether I’m: Latino, Spanish, Italian, French, Mixed Race, Asian, Middle Eastern, Israeli, Turkish, Greek, Moroccan…the list goes on. And on.
…I’m always stopped in Paris and asked for directions by tourists assuming I’m a local.
When I lived in Rome, the Italians were stumped daily that I couldn’t speak their mother tongue.
I’ll never forget ( and it happened on many occasions) when Spaniards and South Americans would speak Spanish to me on the tube, or in clubs in London.
I’ve also been asked if I’m mixed race, Asian, Mexican and more-
And all that is wonderful, that so many people assume I look like they do and can connect with me. Truly.
And that old age question, ‘Where are you from?’ is natural no doubt, particularly when you live in a majority White English country, but it can be loaded at times too and rather complicated.
The fact I am being asked firstly makes me recognise on a daily basis my ‘otherness’.
I was born in Leeds, I’m British, my parents were born in Cyprus, but were half-generation immigrants, moving to the UK in their tweens and late teens respectively.
We all feel British- but we equally have a strong sense of our ethnicity, we are connected to our community, our Greek Orthodox religion, traditional food, films, music and of course values we hold, that are tied in part to our background.
I’m proud of my heritage.
There are downsides too to that deep connection to both-my host society and identity of Britain and my origin.
I have been asked if I’m British by some, most unaware of what being British actually means, questioned on whether I feel ‘British’ or ‘English’, patronised, I have endured racism and was even asked once, if my fairer youngest child was my own, by a new teacher who assumed I was a nanny.
I even directed and produced a series of documentaries on exploring what being British means through the eyes of children in need of social cohesion. You can watch each part on the Guardian’s website: Divided Camps, Am I British? and Building Bridges.
…For me, my frustration lies in the fact others feel they have the right to ask those questions, or make those statements in a way that shows ignorance which can hurt or harm. Rather than assuming I was the nanny, why not ask first if I was the mother?
So much of the problem is in the context and/or delivery of the questioning.
I believe in the power of micro politics and in all honesty, I’m annoyed that I’ve not always taken a stand, spoken up or fought in some small way the too-often uninformed and racist attitudes of others.
I need to be more confident in calmly stating to the offender they don’t have a right to make a statement. To remark about my ‘exotic looks’ or make me feel unusual.
Thank goodness we are striving boldly towards greater equality, since my own childhood at least and improvements have been made.
I distinctly remember school teachers at my private all girls school telling me I was loud because I was Greek throughout my school years (quiet Greeks do exist too, people)- and the sheer lack of diversity in toys and on TV growing up, played its part in fuelled an ‘otherness’ in both myself and my brother.
I was also raised bilingual. My mother told me that after my first day at school I announced to her and my father I would never speak Greek again. Not a word.
I wanted to fit in.
I understand it is entirely natural to feel that way, particularly as a child, ethnicity aside, but looking different to a majority white British populated school and quintessentially English town of Ilkley, served to exacerbate that desire.
Having a Dad who would encourage friends over for tea, to try Greek food they were scared to, made me crave for fish fingers and normality! 10/10 for effort though Dad!
…Moving to the larger city of Leeds, aged 7, Leeds, connecting with children from more diverse backgrounds (we moved to a predominantly Jewish area) and the start of the love-hate years of Saturday Greek School helped me realise being Greek was pretty cool after all.
Now with new British Greek mates, I gained a renewed sense of a pride in who I was. I wasn’t alone, the only Greek in the English village!
Plus, speaking a language only you and your Greek mates know can be all kinds of hilarious!
And now? I’m instilling that confidence and self-belief in my own children, I want them to know my background and their father’s (English) and appreciate both cultures and to ensure they will hopefully feel they fit in anywhere, in the world.
There’s only one race, the human race, after all.
I fully embrace who I am, I love the fact my looks can frankly fit/conform to so many ethnicities (a kind of instant passport offering me automatic residence anywhere) is liberating. It allows me to engage, relate and connect with so many.
I just wish this feeling of freedom existed for my own parents whom moved here from Cyprus in the 60’s, my mother aged 12, my father 16, they both met at university at 19.
Both from middle class backgrounds in Cyprus, my father attended an American boarding school, my mother’s father spoke 6 languages, the economic situation meant my Mum’s family moved to the UK, having to start again from scratch.
My father’s situation was different. His parents were comfortable in Cyprus but he too arrived in the UK, having to support himself.
My folks both studied and gained MA’s and MSc’s (my Mum also a PGCE and she started a PHD)-and eventually both went on to have successful careers.
Both, however were subjected to racism and despite being highly educated, struggled when it came to job opportunities.
This only spurred my father, an entrepreneur on. My mother was a teacher and university lecturer, focusing on fittingly, sociology and English Literature.
Ironic that only last year my Mum and I were subjected to being spoken to SLO-OO-WLY on two separate occasions in a well known department store.
That assumption that we might not speak English or in fact, even if we didn’t, needed to be spoken to as children, is casual racism.
Sad and baffling.
Then, last week, a white male (seemingly middle class), who also appeared rather intoxicated approached me in a store, while I was shopping with my husband and kids, firstly pointing to a nightie on a stand advising me I should buy it- (weird, uncalled for, sexist…) before asking my husband where I was from?
Am I now voiceless too?
Objectified, he began playing a guessing game, proceeding to blurt out a list of countries from Italy to the Middle East, before asking me where my parents were from and if I was Jewish or Christian?!
Highly inappropriate behaviour that needs to be called out, correct?
When I replied that I’m British Greek Cypriot he told my dumbfounded husband that women like me are the most beautiful but the hardest work.
The whole thing was a cringefest of the highest order.
There are ways to ask about people’s backgrounds of course, this, I’m not silencing, but is it appropriate to bombard a stranger, to make them feel ‘the other’ in their home town, going about their business, to air misguided assumptions and proceed to play a game of ‘what’s your ethnicity’ with them?
I’m proud of my roots (Leeds and originally Cyprus)-I am British. But these comments, someone stopping me in a public place asking for their history, my parent’s history and making remarks based on unfounded stereotypical notions, is JUST NOT ON.
No one must feel dismissed, talked about, laughed at, less than.
Ask questions, show interest, YES, the more we understand about one another’s differences, stories, experiences, the better. The more open and nourished we will feel.
The more difference is naturalised and celebrated, the more empowered and less fearful we will be and become. No doubt.
This post and my views do not want to call a stop those discourses, those important conversations, but rude, ignorant and racist statements must be stopped. People must think before they speak.
Her post gave me the final push to write this today.
Like Laila, I too, never know which box to tick on forms-‘White British’ doesn’t adequately represent me -people often can’t be bothered to even try and say my surname-and I’ve seen first hand as a screenwriter and director how limiting representation is on screen both here and in the US. How few ethnic minority gatekeepers work in the industry to get important, other, different stories and ways of ‘being’ made and on screen.
I don’t want race to be an issue for my kids whom are of mixed origin. I don’t want stories like my own TV project on warring kebab shop owners in London, to be hard to cast and greenlit because there are so few Cypriot looking actors, famous enough to make it happen. The case right now.
You only have to look at the #Oscarsowhite situation to despair.
Maybe the worldwide discourse on this lack of diversity in the media and the release of the much anticipated My Big Fat Greek Wedding 2 (the first film was the highest independent grossing film of all time when it was released) much to the surprise of most of the industry many who passed on it as a screenplay, might JUST help ‘other’ stories become more mainstream, commission-able, the norm.
And not just narratives revolving around ethnicity either. We need protagonists who just happen to be Black, Greek, Turkish, Hispanic, disabled, lesbian, transsexual.
I DO NOT want there to be a lack- and yearning for equality in 2016 and beyond- yet the road is long and so much is needed to transpire, and happen for change.
Is it too much to ask for an openness, for an interest and respectful approach to understanding and accepting one another and all our differences? For tolerance, thoughtfulness and a commitment to challenging those against equality.
I don’t think it is.
Let’s do this.
I’d love to read your thoughts.
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