Throughout my travels I’ve frequently encountered people who ask where I’m from and then aren’t satisfied when I tell them what my passport says. They want to find a label for me other than “British”. I could politely smile upon their interest in my physical appearance, give them the answer they want to hear and not read more into the question, but I’m actually baffled by the unwavering preoccupation strangers have with this labelling exercise and I think it touches on something quite important. Fairer-skinned British counterparts aren’t questioned about their roots; why am I? Does some fundamental aspect of our persons and the text in our British passports vary because our ancestors were Norman or Celtic or Nigerian or Indian?
I was born in the UK, I grew up in UK, I was educated in the UK, I work in the UK. Trying to find a label for me other than British or English (complicated distinction, not touching on that here!) is the kind of simplistic categorisation mentality that engenders differences between people of disparate origins based on their racial appearance, and inhibits the integration of these people within a country in which they have all chosen to reside by ascribing to some a second and subtly conflicting nationality (more on that in a minute). I’m not saying you can’t be British and have other racial or national labels too – that’s your prerogative and your choice and depends on what passports you have. I’m saying that someone with ancestors from South Asian lands doesn’t have to identify as Indian any more than a white British person with ancestors from the Roman Empire needs to identify as Italian.
But seeing as so many people seem to be fascinated by it, here it is for me. I was born and raised in England by a wonderful mother and father who were born in Kenya and Uganda respectively. Dad’s parents were born and raised in those two countries too; Mum’s were born in India and spent their lives across three countries. The people who contributed to my fabulous genetics prior to my grandparents were based for many years in the lands that are now called India, and before then hung out somewhere in the land that is now called Afghanistan. I think before that they were cavemen in the Eurasian planes, but that’s mostly cos I like to think I had a cool great^10 grandma like me who lived in a cave and lived off the land but was still a vegetarian.
That casual history serves to highlight why I find the insistence of many strangers (at least three yesterday) that I am Indian so bizarre – in doing so they are attempting to conflate the different concepts of race and ethnicity and nationality. I do not have any genetic roots in the nation of India. How can you have genetic roots in a political construct?! Sure, my most recent ancestors before my grandparents lived in lands that are currently within the borders of India and were of the same ethnicity as some of the others residing in those lands. But at that time nationalism and the concept of a nation of India was still emerging and so to label them Indian is more a matter of convenience than historical accuracy. (I wrote an essay on the origins of early Indian nationalism for my MA, it’s certainly not amazing but if anyone wants to read it or get bibliography suggestions drop me an email). Regardless, I do not have any right to claim Indian nationality. I am not a citizen of India! If I wanted to be, I’d have to go through the same application process as any other British passport holder. Just as I’d have to if I wanted to be Indonesian or Canadian or South African.
I am proud to be descended from my ancestors. None of the above denies that. But what I recognise is that the family and heritage we grown up in are unique to us all. Of course, there are key influences on that – in my case, the many places we and our ancestors have all lived (Chorleywood being my greatest source of inspiration, of course!) and the many awesome relatives and friends we’ve surrounded ourselves with. Our family and heritage is also shaped extensively by our family’s religion and culture. Religion and culture, though, are not exclusive to, and should not be defined in terms of, race and borders.
The places that my family has come from, the communities we identify with, our religion and our cultural traditions – these things packaged together are what I understand the concept of ethnicity to mean. I’m very proud of my ethnicity and I’m happy to talk to you about these things. But if that’s what you want to know, please ask me to tell you a little bit about who I am, not where I’m from. None of it can can be reduced to labels, anyway, but at least the answer you get will be something more meaningful.