Last week I attended parents’ evening at my four-year-old’s preschool. As I sat talking to my son’s key-worker, enjoying a custard cream and praying the toddler-sized chair beneath me wouldn’t collapse, something caught my eye.
It was a very little something; just three words on the admin pages of my son’s progress folder – “ethnicity: English/white” – but it gave me pause. Actually, it gave me a series of pauses.
Let me explain. My pale-skinned, blue-eyed, yellow-haired son is, of course, English-slash-white, just like his pale-skinned, blue-eyed, yellow-haired, English-slash-white father. I, however, have brown skin, brown eyes and black hair.
Even though I know my son looks “white” (as does his brown-eyed, brown-haired younger brother), seeing the product of half my genes classified so baldly made me, momentarily, a little lightheaded. Luckily my tiny chair continued not to collapse, and the preschool staff were free with the biscuits.
I didn’t know who had noted my son’s ethnicity, and I wondered whether I should ask for it to be corrected. But then, I thought, what would I say? Because it’s not such a straight answer as “his father is white and I am not”; that’s not strictly true. I’m mixed – mostly European with an Asian grandparent thrown in.
For the most part my overarching brownness leads people to assume I’m Asian. Some ask my ethnicity, which is welcome so long as they do so politely. Others decide for me: calling in unnecessary translators without asking if I need one, or assuring me their restaurant cuisine is halal, again without any exploratory questions about my dietary/religious preferences.
I rarely correct people, mainly because I’m so mixed it’s generally a longer conversation than I’m willing to have – and also because with certain types of people it doesn’t make any difference.
My white-slash-English husband is actually one-quarter German. I am only one-quarter Asian – although, even once people know this, they continue to refer to me as “Asian”, while never refering to my husband as “German”.
None of this is particularly racist, per se, but it can be awkward, and a little wearing given that I was born and raised in rural West Sussex.
And now my children are even more mixed than me. In actual fact, they’re English-German-French-Italian-Spanish-Indian-Nepali (every year, my brother-in-law threatens to make us all T-shirts explaining this via pie-chart).
Perhaps it’s a blessing that, unlike me, their appearance doesn’t lead them into sticky cultural situations. The sad truth is – particularly as the area we live in isn’t particularly multicultural – they might get an easier ride through childhood.
My children might not, for instance, be passed up to play the baddy in the school play, purely because “we don’t want people to think we’re racist”. In the workplace, they may not casually and unapologetically be referred to by the names of any other brown people in the vicinity, as though they’re interchangeable. Perhaps people won’t ask them so often what their names “mean”. My greatest hope is that, unlike me, they won’t be chased down, called a Paki, and repeatedly punched in the head.
I consider all this, and when my son’s key-worker asks if there’s anything I need from her, I elect not to ask her to correct my son’s ethnicity details. We can deal with any fallout when it happens.
My kids may “pass” with more ease than me in a mostly-white environment, but school – and life – is rarely smooth sailing. Rather than try and make the world deal better with my children’s blurred cultural identities, I’d rather learn from my own outsider status, and be there for them with empathy and compassion if they do run into trouble – whatever colour that trouble ends up being.