Like many children of first-generation immigrants, my identity has undergone a series of phases and shifts. Each time I felt as if this was my ‘final’ self – as if such a thing exists. Living in contemporary Britain has forced me to come to terms with the fact that this country will not recognise you in your whole, it will not appreciate the complexity of your identity, nor will it allow individuals from ethnic backgrounds to feel truly at home. The hostile political environment in Britain has forced many of us to suffer, simply because we do not fit the image of an ‘ideal’ member of the British public. From the Windrush scandal to the rise of hate crimes against British Muslims, our government has failed to represent Britons from black, minority and ethnic backgrounds.
But this is nothing new.
I grew up being told I was not British enough nor Pakistani enough, and it was white people themselves who told me this. Who were these people to dictate exactly what my identity was? The struggle of BAME (Black, Asian, and Minority Ethnic) women was and still is engulfed by narratives of white middle-class feminism. My white school friends protested misogyny by celebrating their sexuality and wearing whatever they chose. In response, I stopped wearing desi clothes and covering my hair, whether this was in solidarity with them or in repression of my faith, I never quite understood. All I know is that after this I followed through with a refashioning of myself to fit what was ‘acceptable’ in my school. This involved behaving, talking and acting in opposition to how other girls from my background. This is what I thought would make my teachers recognise my potential, and what would appeal to my white friends. My teacher’s told me, “I thought you were Indian,” and my classmates said, “You’re not a real Muslim though.”
In those days, I had no idea that this confusion about my identity was a shortcoming of these people and not myself; the people of my past had a lack of knowledge of my culture and religion. No amount of half-interested questions could compensate for this nation’s systematic alienation of immigrants and their children.
In my experience, women from BAME backgrounds face alienation on multiple levels, but the most devastating is that which denies them the title of being British. We are denied this by those who have the privilege of dictating what and who constitutes as British because ultimately, Britain is theirs, not ours. Who are we to lay claim to Britain? After our ancestors and the generations before us suffered under their colonialist enterprises, and after our immigrant parents and grandparents aided in building this country from the ground up.
To this day, I still think about a classmate who told me that she ‘did not do white privilege’. When I called out Britain’s colonialist history, which is something many people in this country fail to recognise as historical fact, another classmate told me that I could not be Pakistani because I was British – this was his attempt to silence me in raising my voice against the inherent racist structures of British society. This country will recognise and ignore your difference when it serves the purpose of absolving this nation of any fault.
Growing up in twenty-first century Britain as a child of immigrants meant that your school curriculum taught you nothing of your history, it didn’t explain how you ended up there, nor how 2.3 million Indians served in World War II on behalf of Britain before the 1947 Partition. Living in Britain in 2019 means fighting for a representation that satisfies us, rather than a token representation, which gives the false impression of a multi-faith and multi-ethnic Britain. It seems as if BAME voices are only recognised when agreeing with dominant pre-existing narratives of identity. The representation we deserve should not just be about simply existing in Britain, but rather, we should be able to create our own narratives and platforms, without conceding to the rules of a homogenous British identity.