I filled in a form recently that asked me for my ethnic background for the purposes of research; scanning the options, I was surprised that there were fewer options than I was used to seeing. For the 'Asian' category, I had to choose between 'Indian', 'Pakistani', 'Bangladeshi' and 'Other'. Considering I approach most tasks as if they are a test I have to pass, I hovered over the boxes, thinking I could probably answer this seemingly innocuous question by a process of elimination. Ten minutes later I switched off my laptop in what can only be described as a huff. I was extraordinarily put out that a simple form had triggered in me an entirely unexpected crisis in identity.
Many years ago, in my formative years, I settled on being an 'ethnic minority' and would have ticked the conveniently neutral and all-encompassing 'British Asian' box. But this form, this meddlesome piece of foolishness, was only allowing me to define as three things I am not or as 'Other'. Anyone with an English degree will understand the connotations of the word 'Other' and even if you don't have an English degree, you can probably work out that the concept of 'the Other' does not carry with it the warm and fuzzies. I wish I had the time to outline the many reasons why using countries to define ethnicity is, at best, terribly naive, and at worst, downright lazy. Sociological discourse on race, culture and ethnicity deserves more time than I have ever given to it.
"Go on then, angry brown person," I hear you say, whilst wondering whether it is socially acceptable to call me brown. "How do you define yourself?" I would define as British East African Asian. And clearly, there isn't a box for that on said form. And now, I'm no longer an 'ethnic minority'. I'm BME.
When did I become an acronym? Does it carry with it any special privileges, like tea with the Queen? Do I get to put the letters after my name?
Anyway, the form was a minor inconvenience and eventually I conceded defeat and ticked the 'Other'. There was no room to define any further. But it did make me realise how many times in my life, I am made to feel 'Other', even in the relatively liberal sector that is education.
The Lazy (and Irritating) Assumption
Let's imagine it has been a long week at a new school. Let's also imagine that the nicest thing in the world, after a day of teaching in a non-air-conditioned room, would be going to the pub and having an ice-cold beer and you are waiting for someone, anyone to say the immortal phrase: "Swift half, Miss?" whilst make the universal gesture for drinking an alcoholic beverage. In this scenario, if your skin tone could be euphemistically defined as 'olive-hued' or 'like milky coffee', you might have to face the fact that your new colleagues don't know whether they should ask you to the local. Because, in the entire Asian diaspora as far as I am aware, only one religion (and I italicise pointedly as religion is not the same as race) expressly forbids the consumption of alcohol. But, you know, brown equals probably Muslim, right? Because there's no possibly that I could be any of the other Asian religions, right?
What I should do in this scenario is just politely explain that I am a lapsed Hindu who drinks and has tattoos, but then someone always asks you to explain Hare Krishnas (see below - Pointless: The BME Edition). I can't help with that, sorry. I don't get it either. Add this to kids asking you whether you are the sister of the other Asian teacher, whether you require Halal or Kosher (I know!) meals and you might get what I mean about a world of confusion.
The Actually A Little Bit Racist Assumption
Staying with assumptions, even though I'm exhausted just explaining this to you, I'm not easily offended and the situation above - whilst being mildly irritating - is actually just people's faltering attempt not to offend, so I get it and thank you for trying. What I can't be down with are assumptions that are based on stereotypes.
It's never a good start when you walk into a school reception for a senior leadership interview and you are asked if you are the Science supply teacher, when the non-BME woman in front of you sails into the interview holding-pen after receiving what feels like a deferential bow. Why do people a) assume I teach Science, Maths or ICT and b) present themselves as being impressed when I say I teach English? I know there are a large number of medical professionals and Science, Maths and ICT teachers who are of the Asian persuasion, however, it could be construed that people believe the ability to educate young people about language and literature must be confined to the ethnically British. This is when I usually want to point out that I come from a culture that spawned Indo-European languages. Language and literature are an intrinsic part of my culture.
But of course, I haven't pointed it out in this scenario. Not when students assume the same, not even when a new acquaintance actually says: "I would never have guessed that you were an English teacher." At the risk of sounding like a teenager: what does that even mean? Is it that I am not wearing dangy enough earrings? Should I be carrying my dog-eared copy of Anna Karenina?
Pointless: The BME Edition and 'Other' Games
I am not, nor have I ever been, a nominated expert in all things ethnic. There is a lot of crossover here with The Lazy (and Irritating) Assumption. On a daily basis, I am asked questions about people from ethnic backgrounds, about Asian religions and culture that I genuinely can't answer. The fact that I can't answer the questions does not stop the curious from asking, I have learned this from bitter experience. And the questions can be extraordinarily obscure. What's the name of that Asian woman, who did that thing? How many sections does the the Indian Holy Text have? What do Muslim women do when they (insert overly intimate detail here)? Who was that God who defeated that other God? Why are your Gods blue? What are the rules about that subgroup of that Asian country eating that particular food?
This the game I like to to call Pointless: The BME Edition and it's a game I never win. There is a lot of playing games as a BME educator - another one I like to to play is Odd One Out. Try walking into a paid for training session on Ofsted, breathless and later than everyone else, and realising that NO ONE LOOKS LIKE ME. And the only chair is in the middle of the room, wedged between people with too much stuff. Incidentally, the Ofsted training has a lot in common with the last Ben Howard concert I went to. Both overly long and dull, both provide opportunities for rounds of 'Spot the BME Person'.
I am facing the distinct possibility that I have worn you out with what appears to be my jaded and sarcastic approach to being a BME teacher. The truth is: I am worn out. The fact that there are not that many Asian women in senior leadership in teaching means that the ones who are here have to work harder to build cultural, ethnic and racial understanding. But we field a range of assumptions on a daily basis and it is wearying having to constantly explain your identity.
To avoid this just sounding like a rant built on frustration, I'd like to challenge you to consider your assumptions when you meet someone who could be defined as a BME teacher. Don't be afraid to ask questions about them, but know that they do not represent the whole BME experience. Consider whether your questions and actions are loaded with assumptions about racial, cultural and ethnic identity.
It's a small thing that makes a huge difference to someone's daily experience. And I'm thanking you in advance, in the way that teachers do. Sorry about that.