The world is increasingly obsessed with labels. The insidious need to categorise our fellow humans via a prescribed set of social constructs lurks beneath the surface of all small talk.
“What are you?,” is a question most of us have heard – but the answer reveals little about a person. Knowing someone’s racial and ethnic background doesn’t get to the core of who they are. It’s inconsequential and, at it’s worst, elicits varying degrees of prejudice.
I’m British-Iraqi. That’s what I say if I’m asked. Actually I have Irish and French on my mother’s side but that information usually makes people’s heads spin, so I tend to stick to the two. Growing up in a multicultural household is complex, personal and, depending on the circumstances or who I’m talking to, I feel differently about it.
If I tell someone about my dual heritage, guaranteed the first thing they want to talk about is the war. Do I have any family in Baghdad? Are they still alive? How do I feel about it? Sometimes I just say I’m British because I don’t always have the energy for those kind of questions. Not everyone buys it though. They push for information with an astonishing desire to quantify my ‘otherness’. In those instances, I say I’m from Oxford.
I appreciate where the curiosity stems from. It’s very human to want to make sense of the world around us by defining and categorising things. But let’s take stock of this scenario for a moment: you’re at a party, you’re exchanging pleasantries someone you’ve just met; at what point does it become okay to ask how many loved ones they’ve lost? The answer is: not at any point. Because a: how many bereavements a person has or hasn’t endured isn’t the sum of who they are, b: it’s a weird AF ice breaker, and c: it’s none of your f*ing business.
Visually, I don’t meet common expectations of what an ‘average’ Middle Eastern person looks like. I’m fair-skinned with jet black hair and dark eyes. Some folk really struggle with this. “No way!” they exclaim. “You’re not are you?” One particularly ignorant man – we’ll call him “Pete” – couldn’t get past my accent and complexion and defiantly told me: “You’ve got as much Arab in you as I have in my little finger.”
Reactions like this are frustrating but not rare. They happen in varying degrees of douchebaggery. Pete refused to accept my ethnicity because I didn’t match his expectations of what an Arab person should look like. Effectively, what Pete did was pick a side for me. In one thoughtless comment he denounced me, my family and my culture.
Being mixed-race, microaggressions are commonplace. When news of Trump’s travel ban broke, I expressed concern to an American friend. She didn’t think I’d have a problem getting into the US because I’m “one of the good ones.” There wasn’t a shred of malice in what she said. Just as there was no ill will intended when my last agent asked me to get some more “Arab looking” headshots. The latter being one of the stupidest things anyone’s ever said to me.
Currently we have a very limited view of what it means to be mixed-race in the UK. An inflexible mould, a black and white attitude that leaves a lot of multicultural kids feeling sidelined; inhabiting both ‘oppressed’ and ‘privileged’ status’.
Mixed-race people are the fastest growing ethnic minority group in the UK. The evolution of our multicultural society has produced beautifully vast combinations of ethnicity. As the decades pass the combinations of metaphorical boxes will multiply themselves into insignificance.
We are limited only by our need to label and categorise. The most important thing we all have in common is that we’re human beings, and as such, we all deserve the same rights, freedoms and respect. We don’t need boxes, we need acceptance.
Got that, Pete?
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