You tick ‘British-Asian’ on official documents because that’s how they expect you to characterise yourself. You know they don’t really see you as British, so the only way to exist is to cast yourself as simultaneously British and Asian. What really is ‘British-Asian’? A cultural identity that resembles whiteness with the socially palatable level of the “exotic” perhaps? Yes to Bollywood style weddings, I’ll pass on Friday prayers at the mosque thank you. The underlying sentiment of this type of assimilation is that Brownness is foreign, Brownness loses authority as soon as it leaves the motherland. Brown will never belong in the West. Not in any substantial way at least, beyond the occasionally chic set of thick brows, appropriated bindis, and Friday night butter chickens (could I have some poppadams with that please?) Our Brownness does not belong here, we’re told over and over again, however implicitly: questions of where we’re “really from” are uttered from the lips of skeptics.
This bicultural middle becomes a site of continuous accommodation - a common struggle that unites various communities of Asian Britians. Exclusive bonds are formed between people based on their shared socio-cultural intersections, the subtleties of social pressures sculpting the way that we as oppressed communities view ourselves and other members of our group. However, being Asian in the West can feel especially impossible when your experiences and struggles are not echoed somewhere.
As a South-Asian woman from Singapore coming to the UK in adulthood, I found myself constantly having to navigate socio-cultural norms and expectations, even within communities I found most familiar, that is, amongst other South Asians.
I hate to admit this, but I sometimes resent the burden of traversing my own cultural hybridity. South Asian communities, while providing spaces for cultural intricacies to flourish, can be fraught by an undercurrent of competitiveness. Intra-ethnic divisions in University for instance, manifested themselves in the politics surrounding cultural societies on campus, and exclusions from regional cliques. I came to quickly learn that socio-cultural expression of South Asians in the UK was quite different from that of the diaspora in Singapore.
The reality is: we are not all in the same boat. Racial hierarchy is not a binary in which all Caucasians occupy the leading boat and all people of colour are stuck in the boat left behind. Rather, racial narratives resemble a ladder with different communities occupying various rungs of political, economic, and cultural power. Racist ideologies rely on maintaining hierarchies, which often play out in our own socio-cultural spaces without us realising it. We become complicit to the creation of in and out groups when we intend the opposite; when what we are hoping to achieve is solidarity. But inclusion and exclusion are two sides of the same coin, the very cultural traits that bring people together, have the potential to exclude others by omission. We can only truly begin to eliminate internal hierarchies when we accept that we’re not immune to exclusion as people of colour ourselves.
The Brexit referendum has exposed significant differences within and between minority groups, while sparking renewed debate over immigration rules, hate crime and legacies of empire. The vote has also led to a greater acceptability of xenophobic discourse, making ethnic minorities in Britain more vulnerable to racial discrimination and intolerance. It is especially important not to feed these institutional prejudices that plague the lives of ethnic minorities in Britain, in a climate of national anxiety that scapegoats an entire racial or religious group as the assumed enemy.
Ethnic and cultural groups do not exist as monoliths. Each (sub) community comes with its own set of values, expectations, and hierarchies.
What does it mean to be an ethnically South Asian woman, of South East Asian nationality and residing in Europe? Surely, I can’t be expected to echo the same attitudes of a South Asian woman raised in the UK, or a South Asian woman who’s only ever lived in Singapore or Sri Lanka – and yet there seems to be an entire network of stereotypes, cultural tropes, and memes dedicated to this very purpose.
What does that say about our expectations of identity, and how some categories of identity (ethnicity/geography/religion etc) are seen to supersede others. We make and remake ourselves in the image of what our culture finds desirable. With ties to the motherland diminished, and dominant nationalistic cultures violent toward any attempts at fringe identity, we’re left to rot or escape into the shelter of other communities, shape shifting through time and across continents. However, we become no better than the colonial gaze itself when we allow often reductive categories to feed internal reproductions of oppression.
Constantly shifting patterns of migration are changing ideas of who we are and how we identify. Terms like ‘coconut’ and ‘fresh off the boat’ reveal a fixation on established accounts of migration. We’re seen as either failing to assimilate or casting aside our family heritage, with little room to navigate between. But identity is fluid, cumulative, constantly evolving.
The term ‘coconut’, like any slur, strips individuals of their individuality, negating the intersections they embody and turning them into a caricature.
Slurs embody the polarized, and toxic way in which we conceive identity, vestiges of an imperialistic rhetoric of distinguishing between ‘us’ and ‘them’. It’s about time we recast notions of East and West – ideas we are told to be contradictory and fundamentally incompatible – as a cohesive whole, allowing a multitude of cultural spaces to coexist.
If we wish to subvert white hegemony, we need to make concerted efforts not to subject other people of colour to the very cultural guidelines we are held to when existing in the West. We have a long way to go with discussions about race, inequality and structures of power. There’s never a right time to ask for space, to demand visibility, but talking to each other about respect and equality is a good place to start.