My younger son, indeed the son mentioned in an earlier post here, called me a half-caste yesterday. We are all used to children saying inappropriate things because they do not understand the meaning or import of the words they use. I once asked my father if he was a virgin. The tupar (slap) that ensued was not so much a form of punishment, but an act of levitation sending me first slightly upwards and then backwards into the sofa behind me. I don’t blame him. I was ten. I must have shocked him to the very fundaments of his being.
I had just been chosen to play the “Virgin” Mary in our school nativity play. It was a progressive choice, at the time, not because of my acting ability but because I was the only one in the class with dark enough features to play a member of the tribe of Judah. I say dark features rather than brown, because I am not brown, sometimes not even “wheatish”; come winter I am almost as fair-skinned as my Scottish mother.
I assumed that because Mary was called a “virgin”, the word must mean something like “really good”, “really nice” and “really special”. I thought if that’s what the word meant, it described my father perfectly. It was a fair mistake.
So when my son called me a name I have not been called since the late ’80s, although I felt a flash of anger, hurt, I was more interested in the reasoning behind his own mistake. We had been having a conversation about something, in which I had referred to myself as “mixed-race” (I can’t actually remember what it was about). He stopped me mid-flow and said “You’re not mixed-race. You’re half-caste, innit”. I could see him panicking slightly at my reaction and he launched into rather a muddled but rapid explanation.
He has just started at a secondary school where he is one of very few black or Asian children. Within this group there are even less of them who are mixed-race. Odd perhaps, considering their visibility and growing numbers in the rest of the country.
As part of the process of making new friends he has been explaining his origins, his Muslim name, his complex ethnic mix. I was shocked. I didn’t realise that 11 year old boys had conversations. All I ever hear are monosyllabic grunts interspersed with “FIFA 12”, “Xbox”, “Neymar”, “more toast” and the like. (Although to be fair I once eavesdropped on my sons having a conversation about the minimum wage, of all things!)
He explained to me that, when he told his friends that his mother was half Pakistani and half Scottish, they had said “Oh, she’s a half-caste.” He assumed from this that whilst he was “mixed – race” i.e. partly black, the technical term for someone like his mother who is half Asian is, yes, well … and so it goes on.
I had recorded the final episode of the BBC Mixed-Britannia series (beautiful, well researched and insightful documentaries) which dealt with 1965-2011, to watch at a time when I was completely alone. But suddenly the best time to watch it seemed to be at that moment, with my son as a viewing companion. I anticipated that there would be at least one interview of someone being called a “half-caste”. Sadly, of course, I was correct. It made sense that I watch it with my son, so that he could put that term into a cultural and political context. And then, never, ever to use it again. Because of all the things I was called in the ’70s and ’80s I think the term “half-caste” was the most repellent, although some of the other names were much fouler.
In the end, neither my son nor I managed to watch the whole program. My partner is like me half Pakistani, and like my sons a mixture of other things and shades of brown besides. She was the only non-white member of her family. They are bonded by adoption not genes. I love her family. (I think of her mother as my own.) But despite all their best efforts, no one could protect her from the savagery of prejudice she found on the street and at school from pupils and teachers alike. The interviews that dealt with mixed-race adoption; the arrogance and ignorance of adoption agencies and care homes of the time- these were almost impossible to watch. The things my partner went through I cannot begin to write here. One day I hope that I will find some way to tell her story. She unlike myself, does not bleat on. She is quiet, dignified and circumspect. Her story involves much more than harsh words, much more than sticks and stones, much more than broken bones.
And her mixed-race experience makes mine, as my father used to say, seem like “halva”, a sweet distraction, a walk in the park, a walk in the park on a very sunny day with a double rainbow. And yet, if I could change one thing about my life, it would be the fact that I am mixed-race. (This may seem odd, particularly in light of the fact that I have a “severe and enduring mental illness” diagnosis.) Just make me one or t’other. There were times as a child that I solipsistically, selfishly wished that my parents had never met.
Selfish indeed, because their love survived losing swathes of their families to prejudice, because they defied so many social norms to be together, because they endured racist abuse, at times sometimes daily, crossed not only a race but class divide. But most of all, because they really, really, really loved each other. I have never known two people to cherish each other more.
And yet, as a child, all I felt was unsafe. I became almost agoraphobic because people stared at my family, so fixedly without shame, when we were out. And I truly cannot remember one day of my life when someone did not remind me that I was neither white nor Pakistani. Which was always a shock to the system because I had been brought up to believe that I was nothing but Pakistani. But there is something about miscegenation which used to arouse almost an aggressive anger in people. I sometimes couldn’t put my finger on what it was that I had done, but I felt as if they hated me. The reality is – that I had done nothing, I just “was.”
Maybe even now, there is some of that. I have been shocked when out with my sons, particularly when they were toddlers, that people in the street have chosen to “comment” on the fact that I must have had sexual relations with a black man.
But, really, for me most of that is over now. My mixed-race experience is better than how it used to be. The worst that generally happens is that usually when I introduce myself someone will say “Oh how come how you have a Muslim name?” or “That’s an unusual name, why are you called that?” And when I explain that my father gave it to me and that he was Pakistani they will say “Oh, but you don’t look Pakistani” and then proceed to tell me that I look Turkish, or Greek, or Iranian or Italian, as if I have never been told this before (or indeed, as if I didn’t know already). And sometimes they go on to say things that attempt to negate my Asian upbringing. It’s hardly racism. It’s just inconvenient. But it is an inconvenience that serves to remind me of a time when I felt as if there was nowhere that was home. A time when “half-caste” was a descriptor, not an insult.
My mixed-race sons perhaps have different issues to deal with. They are for the moment without either black or Asian communities to belong to. I wonder if when we return to London soon, they will find themselves adrift, wondering which group if any to align themselves. I asked my younger son, once we had resolved the “half-caste” issue, how he would feel if friends rejected him because he did not seem Asian or black to them. “I would just think those people were stupid. And why would I want them to be my friends if they said that? Anyway I’m not Asian or black, I’m mixed-race like you”.