brown enough pt.1


"Hey, where are you really from?" ● is another question I often get asked. If you know me or have met me in person, you will know what I sound like - for those that haven't: I sound pretty English. The kind of English where I have "no accent" therefore I am automatically assumed to have been born in the U.K. like the majority of people around me. A part of me is like YEY (I have managed to infiltrate the system), but then another part of me is like UM HELLO SAY SOMETHING (you are not just English and you are totally putting your back up to your other home). So yeah, it's not always an easy conversation when people discover that I am not actually English by blood but English by everything else.

However, if you are a clever person who can suss things out because you are just clever like that - then there will be two tell-tale signs which might get you questioning my true "Englishness":
  1. 💂 I speak "Queen's English" - I didn't always used to (I was actually quite slang-heavy before secondary school), but sometimes I pronounce words like how you would from a textbook because the fact is: I had to learn English and learning English usually means it's from a textbook. Pops-chops has commented on it before, saying that I tend to speak "very proper English" - not like ye-olde-English or anything but just proper innit. No slang, no distinct accent, and no hint of anything "foreign" about my language - but also no sense or understanding of typical British sayings (which I regularly misquote and misuse).
  2. 🙋 I am brown - yeah, I know, I'm sure you hadn't really noticed. I am not just "tanned", I am actually the colour brown. Well, some would say caramel, or a milky-coffee, or dark-olive, or mixed-race - but basically I am brown. I don't look like the "average Brit" - though I would argue that in a city like London the average Brit could literally look like anyone from around the world so... shrug. But yes, I don't look typically "British".
Yep, definitely related. ●

🙅 The combination of these tell-tale signs will then tend to confuse most people that I meet for the first time. They are usually instantly intrigued because they can't quite place me. I don't look like any other races they've seen before so then enters the barrage of questions and pre-conceptions of what "race" I am. Not going to lie, I like to indulge in this little game with people because let's be real - it's the only time I can actually gauge how ignorant or curious a person is about the world. So I usually answer: "where do you think I'm from?" which can be met by one of three reactions - 1) confusion - crap I have to think of some countries in the world now, GCSE Geography this is your time to shine. 2) anger/frustration - what is her problem, why won't she just tell me?! 3) pure excitement - oooh oooh oooh I love this game! Luckily for me, most people indulge me - I give them three guesses and if they don't get it in three I'll usually tell them (unless they are just being a right rude-y, in which case I just leave them to fester in their annoyance of not getting it HA). The top responses I tend to get are:
  • Filipino - I have no idea why this is such a common response but a lot of Filipinos just embrace me like a sister, which I love. It's not far off where my ancestors originate (Indonesia) so it's never a bad guess - but I get this so much that I kind of feel like I need to go to the Philippines to experience life amongst my peoples.
  • Mixed - Another common response I get is that I must not be 100% one race/origin, and therefore most definitely must be mixed-raced (oh hello milky-caramel skin). In primary school, everyone assumed my step-dad was my biological dad, and that I was just mixed English and something else. But as I grew up, I realised that most people just assume that one of my parents is really brown and the other really white - hence me being oh-so-caramel. The oddest one I got for mixed was half Ghanaian and half Japanese - firstly, how specific and second, how creative LOL.
  • Definitely Asian, Definitely Not African - my favourite (not). I completely understand the Asian undertones of my features (oh hello again Filipino) but this one really makes my blood boil because some people automatically box me into a DEFINITELY CANNOT BE X or Y when they first meet me. I don't really know where people get the right to think they can automatically decide where someone is from or not from - but more on this shortly.
● Embracing my inner-Asian with my funk-sisters. ●

🙌 In summary, I get all sorts of responses because people can't quite place me. And of all the times I've "played" this little game - only TWO people have ever actually said the answer: Madagascar. I am always so shocked when this happens (that's how rare) that once I agreed to meet up with the guy again because I was just in awe he knew of Madagascar HAHAHA. Anyway, most people don't get it in three guesses - so then I tell them. What goes down after I tell them makes me laugh because it will again go one of three ways:
  1. "OMG LIKE THE MOVIE? I LOVE THAT MOVIE." - oh if I could get a penny for every time someone said this to me I would be hella rich right now, drowning in them pennies. When this is the response, I usually reply with a "yes, just like the movie - our national anthem is I like to move it move it." to which I usually get a blank face and then a "oh hahaha you're joking, funny." (Then it's a bit awkward.)
  2. "Mad-ah-gascar. Where is that?!" - ah my favourite response because it usually opens up a can of delicious worms depending on who is asking. Me: "it's off the coast of Africa, in the Indian Ocean" - them: blank face - me: "near Mauritius" - them: "oooohhhh wowwwww is it like... paradise?" me: "errr.. yes, and no..." - them: "oh." - me: "it's not Mauritius, it's just next to it - it's very different. It has some beautiful beaches, but it's also a massive island with all sorts of terrain - great for the adventurous types because it's not really heavily touristified like Mauritius". - them: usually by this point look very confused and have a million questions to ask me but don't know where to start - me: "let me show you some pictures on Google". (Standard)
  3. "Madagascar! I love lemurs. And vanilla." - this usually comes from those who know of and have heard a little bit about Madagascar but aren't really sure what they can remember when they googled it once other than it's an island famous for lemurs and/or vanilla. 
💅 Sorry if I am coming off a little sarcastic here as I do fully appreciate that not many people have ever heard, been to, or plan to investigate this not-so-little island off the coast of Africa (for reference: it's not like Mauritius at all because it is the fourth largest island in the world and twice the size of the U.K.). Therefore, ignorance is forgiven. What I can't forgive though is the number of ridiculous conversations I've had because ignorance has decided to merge with naivety and a judgemental attitude. To illustrate what I mean by this, I am now going to share a couple of stories with you that have genuinely happened to me in the last few years.

Rainbow pals on that wedding-party flex. 

🚫 "The tale of Brex-IN." c.2017

Last summer, I went to the wedding reception of one of my closest pals. It was hosted just north outside of London, in a barn which had been converted into a wedding reception venue - dance floor, tables, a buffet, a DJ booth, a bar... you know the drill. I had never really met any of her now-hubby's family so this was a proper first impressions moment. Half way through the event, the food buffet was announced open - I got myself a plate and looked around for familiar faces to sit with. I found our table and sat between another friend from school (who I hadn't seen in like 5 years) and a lady (related to the groom's family). About two minutes after sitting down, and one mouthful of potato salad, I was met with the familiar where-are-you-from-dance from the groom's family friend - and this was how our "conversation" vaguely went down.

WHO's WHO: 
👵 ● this lady wasn't a granny (maybe in her 40s?!) but this is the easiest way to distinguish her from me so go with it LOL. 
👩 ● me!

👵 ● "I'm not racist, but I voted Brexit."
👩 ● "OK." (In my head: nice to meet you too / here we go.)
👵 ● "My husband (points to the gentleman next to her talking to my other school friend) voted Brex-in."
👩 ● "Right."
👵 ● "Thing is, I just think people who come to this country need to have a strong work ethic."
👩 ● "I have a strong work ethic." (F*CK why did I even reply.)
👵 ● "Oh... where are you from?"
👩 ● (Contemplates whether to play the game, decides not to.) "Madagascar."
👵 ● "Oh right, do they not have any job opportunities there?"
👩 ● "Um, over 75% of the population live in poverty so probably not if I went back."
👵 ● "Oh right. (Thinks for a second) So, how did you get here?"
👩 ● (Should have responded: in a boat, but thought wisely. Actually responded:) "I came with my mum, she had a job with the US Embassy and met my dad who's English."
👵 ● "Oh... OK. Isn't vanilla the biggest export of Madagascar? I really like vanilla ice cream with Madagascan vanilla in it."
👩 ● (Firstly, it's Malagasy not Madagascan. Secondly, WTAF.) "Err I guess so." (What has this got to do with anything?! READ MY FACIAL EXPRESSIONS AS IT REACTS TO YOUR "QUESTIONS" LADY.)
👵 ● "Hmmm... so do you have brothers and sisters?"
👩 ● "Err, no."
👵 ● "Ah, well at least your mother is intelligent enough to not have more than one child."
👩 ● BLANK.

At this point, I think I just tuned out, nodded a couple of times to whatever this woman was saying, and then eventually just said "I need a beer" and stood up. I don't actually drink beer. I actually just wanted to leave the room. Another close pal saw me suddenly leave and followed me outside. I didn't (and still don't if I'm honest) really know where to start with analysing what just went down - but I feel like it's important to share this example exchange with you all because I literally cannot make this sh*t up. Sadly, this is a type of conversation I face maybe once (or if I'm lucky twice) a year. If I could sum up my emotions post this interaction, I would say:
  • 😡 Anger: Not at the woman, but more at how I responded. This would have been a prime opportunity for me to educate someone about how they are interacting with others in the completely wrong and most ignorant way. However, I was getting more shocked by each question that all I could do was nod and say: "OK." So, I am mad at myself for not calling it out - because now, this woman will highly likely have the same type of "conversation" with someone else that doesn't look like or come from the same background as her. (Also, did she seriously just insult my mother?! F*ck me.)
  • 😕 Sadness: I can't get mad at this woman, and I will tell you why. Everyone's perception of life and how they digest and make sense of what's in front of them is completely different - and based on what they've experienced and been exposed to. If they don't regularly interact with people not from the U.K. then of course they are going to question, challenge, and transpose an image onto not-from-England people that their family, friends, the media, and more portray to them. This bit is not necessarily all of their fault. However, what is their fault is their lack of curiosity or ability to try and educate themselves. We live in a world now that even if you're a farmer in the middle of nowhere (anywhere in the world) - the majority of us now have this thing called a "mobile phone" and this infinite search site called "Google" which we can learn about things wherever and whenever we want. This is the bit that makes me sad. That she hadn't even bothered to open her mind and her immediate world. 
Flexin' our inner Africa post watching Black Panther. #WAKANDAFOREVER 

"The tale of African-ness." c.2000-2018

This tale, sadly, is not a one-off. So, I've just explained to you all that Madagascar - though it is an island in the Indian Ocean, is part of the continent of Africa. Just like Zanzibar is part of Africa or Japan is part of Asia, the island of Madagascar is part of a continent called Africa (fact). However, there are many (let's call them for this story) "people of mainland Africa" that just seem to not want to accept that Madagascar is in Africa, and therefore I (Cathia) cannot just associate myself as being British-African on these lovely tick-box forms I occasionally have to fill. And this is a classic tale of how I've learnt to accept my place as a non-African:

WHO's WHO: 
👨 ● for the purpose of this story (could be male or female) a "person of mainland Africa". 
👩 ● me!

👨 ● "Oh, where are you from sister?"
👩 ● "Where are you from?"
👨 ● "(Insert a country of choice from mainland Africa)"
👩 ● "Ah, nice. I am from Madagascar - I guess we are African brother/sister/sisters."
👨 ● "Eh? Madagascar? Where is that?"
👩 ● (Does usual spiel) "...off the coast of South East Africa - next to Mozambique."
👨 ● (Thinks really hard) "Ah... OK. So, not in Africa."
👩 ● "Um. Yeah, Madagascar is part of Africa."
👨 ● "But you just said off of Africa."
👩 ● "I know, but it's still recognised as a country in the continent of Africa."
👨 ● "Oh. So you must be mixed?"
👩 ● "Nope. I am 100% Malagasy."
👨 ● "Oh. You don't look very African." (Looks doubtful about everything I've just said.)
👩 ● "Yup. Malagasy people can look very different - some have ancestry from South East Asia (like me) and others from Mozambique and mainland Africa."
👨 ● "No, no. You must be mixed no?"
👩 ● (Blank face - is this person really arguing this?!) "No."
👨 ● "Right. So, Madagascar."
👩 ● "Yes, Madagascar." (by this point I am usually tempted to say: what? Am I not brown enough for you to be African? But then I regain sense and politely get out of the conversation. LOL.)

Famalam-lunch on this island called Madagascar (which btw is in Africa). 

This type of conversation ranks highly in the stakes of genuinely upsetting me. Caveat: I am fully aware that not all people from mainland Africa treat me like this, but it is incredible what % still do to this very day. And it upsets me because it can come across as if I can't be part of some "club" that I feel and believe I identify with. I also hate that my reaction to these types of situations is to try to defend my right to be in this "club" called "African" when (ironically) I don't even want to be part of any club. Like anyone else, I just want to be able to identify, relate, and learn about the context of my heritage and genetic make-up, and also of others from a similar background. The colour of my skin and my features shouldn't have to play a role in where others decide to "place me". If I could sum up what shocks me most about this type of interaction, they would be:
  • 💩 My skin colour literally has nothing to do with it. Often, because the majority of my friends are white and my step-dad is white, then this assumption that I can't be African because I am "mixed" aka a relatively lighter shade of brown must be a logical explanation. Not only is this an odd label to force on me (I hope that of all people I would know if I was half Malagasy-half English), but if this person really thought about the African continent they would realise that a lot of East-Africans have the same skin-tone as me (my aunt actually got mistaken for Ethiopian once #truestory) and also due to migration there are all sorts of people of Asian descent living in Africa and identify as African (like friends of mine who are of Indian heritage born in Kenya).
  • 👀 What you "see" is not what I see. Whatever it is in question, what I see will never be the same as what you see - we are all influenced by what our brains have learnt over years and years of experience. This whole notion that some people feel they can define others because that's the only way they can compute and interpret someone else is beyond incomprehensible to me. Why would you challenge someone if they are outright sharing with you what their identify is to them - be it via a birth certificate or where they feel most "at home". No one has the right to decide where someone else is from - the only person you can do that to is yourself.
That time the flash loved all of the work-girls' and my nose. 

⚡ I want to start a conversation. Race, like many things in life, is complicated. I've started to talk about it more openly with friends over the last year because to me it's starting to feel like something that exists but some don't feel like it's important to talk about. And I can understand that - the fear that others might judge our points of view, or inflict their own perceptions on us, or at its worst just won't care enough to listen. I'm not going to lie. It's a gamble - even writing this, so many questions are going around my head (mostly centred around what people will think, or say, or whether they'll misinterpret what I've said or how I feel about all of this). But ultimately, I have decided that it is important to talk about this stuff - because race, sexuality, religion, I could go on... are all social constructs which we (as humans) have built around ourselves, and as a result something we live by without always questioning why they exist. This most definitely won't be my last post on this subject - I want to explore more about race, identify, culture, society, share more stories, and also hear stories from other people's experiences - because this is what makes each and every one of us "us". I might as well try to understand it all better, instead of living in a bubble and becoming my own worst enemy.

🙆 See y'all soon!

Comments

  1. I just loved reading this. I love the way you think and see things and you are right in your views, at least you are in my opinion. But, I think that this is what you are talking about - opinions, and what they are based on or where they originated from and how do we change or challenge our own opinions about how we see the world and the people who live in it. I am Irish, a million generations of it, but my 11 year old daughter is Vietnamese and reading your blog makes me worry in a way as to whether or not she is facing similar challenges to yourself. And, if you think that there is some kind of cultural melting pot in the UK, I can assure you that Irish people have only just started living in a multi cultural society and racism in my country is shocking, particularly towards our own indiginous travelling people. We have such a long way to go and after reading your blog I truly wonder if there will ever be an end in sight. I mean, the very valid points you make about why there is no reason in this age of technology for any person to be ignorant about anything is very valid and yet.... Anyway, you are a great woman. Thanks so much. I look forward to seeing more from you. Dearbhla

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