Let’s talk about MENtal Health

It’s a strange thing having to call the police on your own family. Especially when you know full well the damage the police can do to a person that looks the way you do, and let’s not pretend. We know. But when all else fails there’s a system in place that you’re supposed to trust, and desperate times call for 999.

My dads Mental Health hadn’t been great for some time. You suffer unexplained illnesses, get made redundant and eventually can’t work because you’re in and out of hospital so much – it begins to make sense, of course you’re not going to be the happiest person in the world. Particularly if you’re from a community where this is simply not something you talk about. But he’s damn near the most resilient.

You know what, people don’t give enough credit to the people who are literally pushed to their limit, plan to end it all and then come back. There’s a real strength in acknowledging your weakness, and for that lesson alone I’m grateful. But to be honest, it’s taken me a while to get to this point of being able to communicate it.

Selfishly I was angry for the strain it put me through. Truthfully, I was scared for the fact that I learnt that I myself wasn’t strong enough to confront it and face visiting the Unit myself. I grew up with such a stigma about Mental Health and ‘crazy people’, about asylums and ‘lunatics’ and then one day you need to go and visit your own dad in what’s probably the worst place imaginable in the world for someone to ever recover. It’s hard. *pause for my fragile tears.* Realistically, I was incapable of having to deal with that knowledge – the “what would people think of ME”. The great, now, how am I supposed to be? The, looking for comedy because sarcasms always (trust me bro, I’m an expert) the quickest way out.

See, my dad had attempted to kill himself whilst I was at Nandos. Half a chicken medium with peri salted fries & spicy rice had never tasted so bitter when I got that call to come home. (Don’t worry, I still rate and eat nandos, and one day I’ll be important enough that they’ll give me free chicken, but we’ll get there, #struggles).

He’d been talking about it for a while, mumbling to himself, acting erratic, far from the man I knew when I was growing up, the non-stop, I’ll work overtime bus driver/taxi driver/van drive/ just DRIVER, and yep, like Buju Banton said, this man did not stop at alllll. But, I’d ignored what I didn’t understand & I never really thought he’d do it. He’d grabbed at a lot of pills and taken them right in front of my mum and then passed out in bed is how the story goes…

So, sadly, I had to leave Nandos before I got the chance to fill up my “tap water” with more coke & make my way home. When I got in, it was a dark atmosphere, you know those ones where the tension is just mad thick, sort of like that year everyone was chucking glass bottles through the sky at Notting Hill Carnival and vuvuzelas were the in-thing. And yes, my references are random but if you know, you know. Pretty soon, the paramedics came, ran through some checklist on a scale of one to ‘kill myself right now’ how do you really feel though & gave their two pence. It wasn’t looking good.

It got more intense later that night when he was now awake, scrambling around the house looking for sharp objects and me and mum were frantically trying to hide every pill, knife, blade etc in the house. Somehow, my man still found a screwdriver and was pointing it at his own chest. It’s strange how someone else’s pain can make your own heart stop.

By this time, the police were there, it was pretty much like on TV. They were doing their job of coaxing him as best as they could, trying to level him out and bring him down. Bring him back. Me? I was still full from Nandos & fighting that urge for a post-food nap to be honest. But, sleepiness aside, I remember the chat with one police officer, he said he couldn’t forcibly remove him from his own home even if it was in the interests of his own safety. Except in this situation, I was the homeowner, technically this was my home. This was my decision. I remember the anxiety of wondering what would happen next. Where do you go when you’ve threatened suicide twice in a day in front of the Feds, the meds & your own family? I made my choice. I made our choice.

A few hours later, I had a phone call from the police: ‘your dad’s run away from hospital and we don’t know where he is. Wait, hang on, we’ve found him.’ Another phone call to tell me: ‘Mr. Khan,(please don’t call me that, it’s too popular & I’m unique ok?) he’s been sectioned under section 3.bla bla of the Mental Health Act and will be taken back to hospital. He was now under their authority.

Like I said, it’s a strange thing to call the police on your own family. But love is a strange thing right? I’ll never underestimate the strength it took for him to spend a month in a place like that, to recover and rest in a place where you’re just reminded of stress. But I’m grateful. And I’m proud. I’m proud of what he taught me about the true measure of a man, of a human being, of what being pushed to your limits truly looks like and the importance of receiving help. I’m grateful for the lessons that night taught me about the limits I’d go to and the decisions I’d make just for the people I love. But more than anything, I’m grateful for what I’ve learnt about Mental Health and the understanding I now have about being open about your emotions and your feelings. About self care and about stigma, about talking and about acknowledging but most of all about sharing. About the importance of sharing your story.

This is why I’ve shared this story, not only to advertise nandos (for free might I add, again, where is my free chicken?) but also to shed light on something important and so necessary and on what is to me something which is absolutely vital to talk about. Mental Health, particularly in BAME communities is something so necessary to talk about, it’s a journey for my family & I and there’s still a lot to learn, but it’s a journey we’ve started. Let’s talk about MENtal Health.

✌🏽@TweetsByBilal

Grief in the time of Coronavirus

unnamed (1)My grandad died. Currently the world is closed, people bought all the toilet roll, it’s the one time in the UK the sun came out for days on end, and, worst of all, Nando’s is shut. Absolutely nothing seems normal, and here I am figuring out grief .

So, I should start by telling you a few things about him right? He was a family man, wisest person I ever met and knew seemingly the whole Bible and the history of the West Indies Cricket Team off by heart! He lived a great life and spent the last few years mostly housebound except for hospital trips, but surrounded by his army of daughters and granddaughters. The kind of Grandad who keeps telling you “it’s ok, never mind, you’ll get married someday” even though you’ve never once complained about not being married. A decent, funny and all-round good guy, got the picture? 

Grief is one of those few pain points in life we can all relate to, it’s an analogy I often use in my workshops on Diversity & Inclusion to separate the universal pain of grief from the individual experiences of oppression. Basically, we can all be sad, we can all lose something we love. But often, reading articles (A* English Literature A Level out here!) what pulls us through grief is the ability to have face-to-face support & taking care of yourself physically. Currently, the world has changed, I repeat, Nando’s is closed, but also, we are not supposed to be face-to-face with anyone but those we live with if we truly want to join the ranks of the Avengers & save the world. Gyms are shut and realistically, we are only meant to be out for a very limited amount of time per day, Amazon has sold out of weights and we all know home workouts just aren’t the same when the sofa is staring at you, begging you to come have a nap. Now, I can speak for my area where it seems as if absolutely no-one is following these measures, but say we do? What does grief look like in isolation?

Well... it’s a fairly lonely and individual experience, let’s be real, crying is never in anyones list of things to do for fun, but crying alone really isn’t it! I’m one of those people who would say that family is important to me, and, believe it or not I LIKE spending time with them (I know right?!) This death in the time of Corona has highlighted this more than ever. The fact I  broke the rules and went to see some of those I love being just one example. To be social distancing, afraid to hug those close to you for fear of what you may inadvertently pass on, particularly when people are grieving, that’s tough. Getting sent What’sapp pictures to share the memories that only exist in photo albums covered in dust is lovely, yet there’s something about it that just doesn’t feel authentic.

In a world on a fast-track to digitalising everything and creating virtual experiences for the strangest of activities, there is something truly inhuman about virtually experiencing grief. Put it this way, having a Zoom call with family who don’t understand what Zoom is, have an internet connection straight outta the 90s AND when you finally get through are constantly shouting “Hello? Hello? CAN YOU HEAR ME?!” at a screen, for me, doesn’t replicate sitting in a house playing dominoes, having some rum and sharing memories. God I need some Rum. For one, random strangers can’t turn up and claim they met you when you were only “this high” but also, it’s just not the same really is it?

As I’m writing this, today is the day of his funeral and actually today’s the day it started raining again. Whilst, I do feel like this is the Britain I know, and maybe things are returning to normal, it does feel like the weather itself is mourning for me (pathetic fallacy and that, I told you, English literature). However; whilst I’m outside on the way to work, I’m not at the funeral due to social distancing measures and guidance around the numbers of people allowed at a gathering. Whilst I understand why, I can’t help but feel like something is missing. The inability to say goodbye. The inability to hug those you love in a time of grieving. The inability to slam a domino down on the living room table and have all the uncles wonder how you learnt to win at both ends! There’s a gap there in not having that shared physical space to process your grief.

It’s peculiar how in death you recognise more about a person than you ever did in life right? I guess that’s in part because we never really sit for moments at a time actively focusssing memories of our time with friends or family but rather we just let those moments accumulate and pass us by. One of the things I’ve been trying to do is to reflect on what were the good qualities about my grandad, personally I’ve never once sat and tried to do this for anyone I have around me who is alive! Maybe there’s a life-lesson in there somewhere?

I guess all of this is to say, that as much as social distancing tears us apart, there’s something about grief that draws us together and makes us want to come closer to one another. We all share the emotions of pain and sadness and grieving alone for me has been a lesson. At a time in history where we are more connected but yet people report more loneliness than ever, I do hope this lockdown brings humanity closer, and more importantly, that Nando’s opens again.

So, I’ve been thinking… for who might grieving always be hard? Who can’t be there for their families when events like this happen anyway? Who doesn’t have access to What’sapp pictures of their loved ones? Perhaps if I’ve learnt anything in this, it’s to be empathetic and to not take for granted my proximity to having love around me. My grandad told me to aim high, and then aim higher, and, well, grandad my aim of this was just to share that I miss you, and I’m sad I can’t be there today. For me, to love someone and be loved is for me one of the highest achievements we can have in this life and let’s hope I can see you again sometime. Grief in the time of Coronavirus sure is a whole new social-experiment and it’s one I’m ready to get out of, anyway hope you’re okay up there, I’m off to find some rum.

I’m a brown man, and I’m not moving out the way when I’m walking

Picture this,

You’re walking down a street, maybe sipping a coffee or opening Instagram. The invisible lane in which you’re walking quite conceivably marked out for all to see because, well, you’re in it. When suddenly, your eyes flick up for only a brief moment and you notice the person walking boldly and unashamedly directly towards you, and worse, it’s a white man. In a suit. (Run for your life!)

Instinctively, you know you’re now locked in a battle as old as time, a game of chicken for who will be the first to cut out of line, rendering said lane walker victorious champion, guardian and now unrivalled owner of said lane.

You’ve got a good feeling about this one, you’ve got it! You’ll continue your march towards victory, maybe even make eye contact this once (in London?! God forbid!) to show that you mean business. The inevitable shall happen, that two step dance with strangers we all hate as much as being told to seek assistance when your oyster doesn’t work. But this time, you’re here for it, this time you crave victory. 5 metres, 4, 3, 2… TUTTTTTT!!?!? He stops in front of you. You remain unmoved. He huffs and puffs, the look of sheer shock and outrage descends upon his face. You?! A brown man in a dungarees and unkempt Reeboks should dare to challenge his lane? He shakes his head and mutters under his breath as he manoeuvres to one of the multiple empty invisible lanes nearby. It’s not the end of racism, but inside you celebrate this one small Victory. You continue checking Instagram, *like* (because you’re feeling generous) and walk on, ready for the next lane battle. Another day in the city.

I’ve long been thinking about what it is I hate so much about manoeuvring my way around a big city. The pollution? The traffic? The endless over-stimulation of sirens, lights and strange smells that only visitors recognise? All of the above? But lately it hit me. It hit me that what I really detest are the countless times a day that I’m reminded of my minoritised position in this world because of the colour of my skin. I’m reminded that I’m expected to move out of the way for white people. Now, I know what’s coming, the “whataboutery” the “you’re being over-sensitive!” And the “this happens to me ALLL the time too!” Save it Susan. I’m speaking here.

Because what I’m talking about is the microaggression that happens when a person of colour, simply walking around, is expected to move, to get back in their place, to allow space for whiteness to have the easier ride. Remind us of anything? *whispers: Colonialism* This dance may seem so commonplace in big cities, and yes, I’m not denying that there aren’t times in life you may also have had to move Tarquin, but I am referring to the reaction that comes time and time again that people of colour will be familiar with, the shock, the huffing and puffing, sometimes even the verbally calling out that you should move. And why? Well, because the assumption was we shouldn’t have been there in the first place. The dance, was racialised.

I was sitting with a friend recently (hi Priya!) when we were talking about the benefits of whiteness – riveting conversation I know. We settled on one fundamental benefit being quite literally the ability to walk around and occupy space that people like us are expected not to occupy. When you are used to being seen as the support staff and not the manager, or being praised for speaking articulately or simply having eyebrows raised when you appear in a corporate environment, this dance does not come as a stand-alone event. This dance is a dance you’ve danced a thousand times before. This dance becomes symbolic of the power & privilege dynamic that exists between white people and people of colour. It becomes the visual image of centuries of history that’s allowed for the world we live in, a world where white people get to walk wherever they want and not have their right to be there questioned.

It occurred to me what’s at stake in this dynamic, yes, I could move out the way, sure. But doing this time and time again? Almost subconsciously? What message is this sending to White Person X who once again gets to move without barriers through the world about my legitimacy? Am I, simply by moving out the way, sending an unspoken message that this is the way it should be? That Minoritised people should be jumping out the way? (And let’s be even more mindful of what’s at stake when we add the compounded layer of sexism that it would take nothing short of blind ignorance to not recognise when this applies to minoritised women!)

There have been times when I’ve even analysed my position post-microaggression. Was it me? Was it what I was wearing? Do I look threatening? Perhaps it was the “way I was walking?” Please sense the ridiculousness in this. And I’ve now come to the conclusion that none of that matters. No Tarquin and Susan, your time is up. I am no longer moving simply because your privilege affords you the ability to take up space, if we can have dreams and take seats on busses, then I can continue to walk in my lane. You may be shocked, you may even huff and puff, perhaps mutter under your breath at the audacity of a brown man with battered Reeboks to write something so outrageous. But, I have hope for you. When this happens to you enough times, perhaps you’ll begin to think about why it was that you ever thought you owned the lane in the first place.

‘Men are Trash’ & how we clean up the litter

Men are trash, men are dogs & well, masculinity is ‘Toxic’ *cue Britney Spears*. If you’d told me any of this 10 years ago, matter of fact maybe even 5 years ago, there’s no way I would agree with you. In fact, younger me with less of a beard & more of an attitude would probably argue with you as to why it’s ‘you feminists’  who’ve got the wrong end of the stick. See, I’d have probably said something about how women are fighting for rights they already have. Or, perhaps something even more ill-informed about why we actually need to start fighting for Men’s Rights because it’s political correctness gone mad…

Yeah – I wasn’t just stupid, I was Vote-Brexit-To-Get-Rid-Of-The-Immergruntz-Stupid.  The sort of stupidity that unfortunately, is less about actually making an informed choice in order to believe what you’re saying, and more down to a complete lack of information, and in fact, being given mis-information in echo-chambers. Echo chambers like being at the back of the bus as a teenager, with a bunch of guys your own age who are all sweating pints of pubescent testosterone to mask the thick stench of Lynx Africa & 4 for a pound chicken-wings (I can smell it already, & I’m wincing). Guys your own age who will slander and defame girls and women simply because they believe it’s the right language to use, because they heard it somewhere else, or an older boy had said something, or maybe because they’re literally stealing words or references right out of popular culture like music or film. The mis-information that girls or women are a certain way or their behaviour makes them a b*tch or a slut or a hoe that I hold my hands up and say I was a part of perpetuating, & why? Because quite frankly I knew no better. See if you’d told me then, sitting at the back of a bus with a matching tracksuit (God forbid) whilst banging out T2 ft Jodie – Heartbroken from a Samsung held together with Sellotape, that men were trash, I’d have probably told you that you had no idea what you were talking about. And neither did I.

Skip the clock forward a few years & through reading, being around the right people & simply unlearning a lot of the language that I used to navigate my way through certain social situations, I recognise now the need for a new and better understanding of Gender. I was recently given the opportunity to be part of a panel of men on BBC Radio 4’s Women’s Hour on a special show talking about Masculinity in the world today. I suppose me being me, I meet a number of intersections & tick several boxes (Anyone from any Diversity Boards reading, get yer chequebooks out). I’m young, sort of, I’m not-white and I’m still clinging on to my working-class roots so I suppose I can speak about life from a fairly nuanced perspective. But, for me, the real honour in this was I was speaking specifically about young people, and what young people have to say about masculinity today. See, the career path I’ve had, facilitating workshops in schools across the UK about social issues has really opened my eyes to the whole spectrum on which young people sit in regards to how clued up they are on issues pertaining to Gender.

You’d think in a  changing world where people are constantly walking into the office saying ‘blimey, hasn’t time flown‘ that perhaps our understanding of social issues would also be accelerating on fast-forward. And, to an extent, you’d be right. Except, that whilst in general, younger generations are more accepting, left-leaning and progressive than generations before them, the amount of understanding they have about exactly what the issues are, remains largely the same comparatively as it was 10 years ago. Take myself for example, now I’m not saying I was your ‘top lad’ degrading women for ‘banter’, spouting out lines I’d learnt from my favourite pick-up artist whilst walking around Westfield in my Ecko tracksuit from JD Sports (*shivers with embarrassment, yes I did have one of those*). BUT, the lack of understanding I had around what the issues for women were & why an intersectional & ever growing Feminist movement was needed remains largely similar with young people today. The fact is, that whilst young people grow up in a time where it’s brilliant that people are becoming comfortable enough that movements like #MeToo can exist, it’s sickening still that the world still largely protects & endorses the toxic, trashy behaviours of men whose ill-doings have given way to said movements. As young people today largely condemn such actions, it would be great to move forwards and have the spaces for conversations about what the issues, terminologies and language that we use around Gender are so as to mitigate & eventually end this toxicity.

When on Radio (this one time, on Radio 4 Camp…) I tried to get across that there is a gap between the expectation of young people to be more understanding & progressive & the education of young people about the issues they are supposed to know. I remember going over and over what I knew I wanted to say in my mind (flashback to GCSEs), and it’s this: today, to “be a man” comes with the weight of a history of men being & inflicting the problem & that needs to be both understood & accepted in order to move forward. When boys see Feminism as a movement ‘not for them’ and in fact a movement against them, simply because they don’t understand what it’s about, there is a problem. When boys feel that there is only one archetypal ideal of masculinity, your traditional Alpha-Male, super-buff (large up Anthony Joshua though), dominant character, there is a problem. When boys don’t understand that they can cry, that they can talk about mental-health or that there is such a thing as emotional intelligence, there is a problem. The idea that ‘men are trash’ is born out of centuries of oppression and recent decades of continued problematic men in all sections of society but for a generation of young people growing up today it is important not to mis-inform, misguide and misdirect before we end up with the cycle continuing once more. *drops mic*….

*picks mic back up* It takes men from an older generation to hold their hands up and admit to the wrong use of language, to apologise and admit that unlearning is key to truly bring about change. To advocate for & support movements in favour of Women, to acknowledge male privilege and speak out. Toxic (you can’t deny Britney is in your head) Masculinity is damaging to everyone, men, women & future generations but to truly clear up the mess of the insurmountable trash, we must begin to more openly and accessibly have conversations about gender, masculinity & femininity with the generations to come or just like T2 & Jodie, we’re going to end up ‘heartbroken’ once more when the cycle continues.

(For a link to the Radio 4 conversation, to chat about this or just reminisce about the tunes you played at the back of the bus, hit me up on Twitter @Tweetsbybilal)

P.S. My matching Ecko tracksuit was cool at the time.

Why I speak about my Mixed-Race identity so much.

It is difficult to be me and to not speak about race. If you asked me to describe who I was, it is most likely that ‘mixed-race’ would be the first category by which I would describe myself. I’d then probably say I’m male, 26, from Neasden (inhales) but my parents come from a lot of different places actually, like my mum’s from Jamaica and my dad’s from Kenya but my mum’s also mixed and my dad’s grandparents are actually from Pakistan but back then it was just India and my mum’s dad looks Oriental so like…. (and breathe). Complex.

See, to be me is to have lived through this lens but also to have been perceived through several others AS several others. Race is simply a fundamental feature of my life and has defined my experiences of, and participation in the world. There’s an idea that non-white people living in the West tend to speak about race ‘too much’ or that we are ‘fixated’ on race. There even exist people who look like me who claim that we need to stop talking about race with each-other so much and just move forwards, that the world is ‘post-racial’ (imagine).

For me to speak about race in relation to me though, it’s probably easier to speak about culture in the sense that I experienced different cultural upbringings as a result of mixed-race identity. I had a broad understanding of my cultures growing up, my parents were keen not to like shelter me from either aspect of my heritage, & whilst there’s probably no question that I received an upbringing of Jamaican bias (Curry Goat for President) there is no way I could ever argue I wasn’t exposed to the parts of me from a Muslim, Asian culture. For a longggg time I didn’t eat pork, I remember it being this secret thing that me and mum went to Wimpy on weekend mornings and I got them Frankfurters and I wasn’t allowed to tell my dad. My mate from primary school tells me she fondly remembers me claiming I was allergic to sausages back in Year 1, imagine, a whole me, allergic to sausages. I remember when I learnt that it was unclean to eat with your left hand after being told not to by my dad’s sister-in-law and I had to ask why. I enjoyed Eid at my grandparents because Dadoami (grandma) hands-down cooked the buffest Pilau Rice this world has and will ever see. I learnt to emulate the actions of Islamic prayer both times in the mosques when they died. I was never a stranger to this side of myself, but it was just the friend I didn’t see that often, the ‘we should should catch up soon’ but we never really did…

See, I also experienced numerous visits to Jamaica and Miami, fried plantain and family functions with men slamming down Dominoes and sipping Red Stripe. I was your typical ‘lives with Nana’ Caribbean boy and she would rub white rum on my tummy when I was sick because somehow that’s the cure (who knows man, who knows). I’d get air-mail letters in blue envelopes from my grandma back in St. Thomas and it was John Holt’s Christmas Album for the entire festive season (take a listen, it’s a good one, I’m not even getting commission for this). I was no stranger to this aspect of me either, my mum would take me to talks during Black History Month so that I’d hear Anansi Stories and learn about Marcus Garvey, Nanny of the Maroons & Paul Bogle. I knew and still know who I am in this regard.

But with this came the prejudice. The dual aspect of systemic and structural racism that whilst I’ve arguably ‘overcome barriers’ and achieved ‘beyond my class and race’ the things that just cannot be erased as factors contributing to my life and my personal experience of living as me, Bilal Harry Khan.

I feel like there’s a question constantly hanging over my existence on the tip of other people’s tongues but exactly what this question is I can’t say. Maybe it”s a number of questions, questions that force you to choose, to account for, to answer for and realise how your experience of being you makes you different from the majority of the country – even the majority of people who would tick that exact same box ‘mixed-race’. For this anticipation of a question not to affect a person would be a wildly naive assumption, I feel as if the years of living in a family who taught me to celebrate and appreciate my cultures for what they are have fought a battle with a world full of subtle microaggresions and box-ticking.

To celebrate and enjoy being who you are in a world that forces you to answer for it constantly, or compares you to another ‘so much like you’ (you might even know them, I’ve been told) makes you feel increasingly isolated and in that sense, increasingly defensive, protective even of your cultures and your identity. A friend said to me the other day, you’re only ever mixed-race on a form, the rest of the time you’re whatever they project on you. Make of that what you will, but for me, the importance of talking about race with my people, with the people that understand and will not problematically question is fundamental to my ability to celebrate being me.

When your very introduction brings questions and your answers bring labels and the labels bring boxes, to be able to speak openly about race, is for me a process of finding solidarity and sharing similarities. As a feature of my life that seems to have altered so much of my experiences, it will always be a topic which I enjoy talking about in space and with people where it’s beneficial. My cultural upbringings have of course been a result of my mixed-race heritage, I’ve written about that before, but for me there’s something powerful, and something beautiful in speaking about race with my people. For that, I’m always grateful.

Bilal

* Full Disclosure, this is mostly an extract from the book I’m writing and I wrote this in a few mins on the bus one day.

‘Rah, you went to Cambridge!?’

How would you describe yourself?

I would describe myself as a 24 year old, I’m mixed-race, from NW London and I work… I’m male, I like going out; there’s things I like doing with my friends, you know, I the normal things people our age would be doing.

What’s your country of origin?

I was born here, in England. In London if you want to be specific. My parents? Mum’s mixed too, her heritage is from Jamaica, Dad’s born in Kenya but his heritage stretches back to South Asia.

Which college were you assigned to and how did you find it?

So I went to Sidney Sussex right in the middle of town. Before I applied I did the usual look through the prospectus thinking where to go but it’s tough! You’re looking through the prospectus and they all sound the same! You’re just picking based on which one sounds posher than the other on, which one sounds more “normal”. My mum was the one who really helped me with it all like ‘which one you going to?’ and I was like ‘I really don’t know!’ Eventually we narrowed it down to about 3 or 4 of them and because I honestly couldn’t decide I picked the final choice out of a hat. All that was more interesting about it at the time was that it was opposite Sainsbury’s. But I’m telling you, that proved to be best thing over the years. It meant that whenever friends went into town they were going past there and came to see me, they’d turn up in my room when I wasn’t even there! Sometimes I’d be on the street outside my room and look up and see my friends just sitting by my laptop and I’d be thinking ‘What you doing bruv?!’. But Sidney was a small community as well so it was easy to make friends. We had a college bar that was pretty central to people’s friendships as drinks were cheap and most people were fairly easy to talk to. The College staff were great and always helpful. For me, one time I needed support in getting the right bursary and the minute I brought it to their attention they did what they could to make sure I had everything I needed to do that.  The porters were helpful too, they’re like the gatekeepers of everything going on around college. One of ‘em, even lived in Neasden when he was little and we would always have jokes, now I think about it, I’ll never forget how helpful they were and how welcome they made me feel.

Would you consider yourself well off

Haha, you’re kidding right? No. Not at all, not in anyway. How do I put this… So I lived in a one bedroom flat as a child, so I spent most of childhood home-life on a sofa-bed in the living room or at my Nana’s not far from where we lived. I went to a private primary school, I know, people often hear that and don’t get that that one fact doesn’t tell the full story. My Mum and Dad worked hard so I could go, my Nana worked too so I could go. You say private school but actually the socio-economic background of the area it’s in and even of the students doesn’t quite fit with the stereotypical image of what a private school is. Put it this way, there were just a handful of white kids. At the time my mum was a nursery worker and my dad for much of that time was a bus-driver, it meant for them a lot of overtime, my dad worked hard, often working nights, holiday days and weekends.

You move forward a couple years and my dad got sick. For some of secondary school this meant he was on benefits, there wasn’t much money to go round. Now I’m not saying I’m relatively poor because I know full-well that my family worked hard to secure our financial position but what I’m trying to say is that me, like many others, I’m not well-off.

Did you feel you lacked things when growing up?

I don’t think you can ever know if you’re lacking material things unless you’ve got something to compare it to. When I got to secondary school, I was in a Grammar school so some of the friends I made opened my eyes to what a ‘middle class’ lifestyle was like. I had this one friend and he’d invite me round to his and they’d be having Sunday Roasts at the dinner table. Even that was different because I didn’t have one at my own house. We ate with the plates on our laps sitting in front of the TV. I felt I had enough, I had the games consoles, the clothes, the things you pester your family for and never really think to be grateful about, but in comparison to others they seemed to have more. The school Ski-trip that everyone’s going on, and you’d say you needed to go too because everyone’s going. For people around me it was probably easier to get the money to pay for those things but for my parents, looking back now I’m sure it meant more overtime and working late. You know what? You don’t realise at time the sacrifices that are being made for you but I suppose it was around age 15 I realised I didn’t have as much. People would be having their violin lessons and clarinet recitals, their families went to football matches or played sports and seemed to have these hobbies that were just part of their life. My life? It wasn’t like that. You start to realise that your reality isn’t everyone’s reality, sometimes it’s just that really subtle look on a friends face when you invite them to your more humble home that gets your brain thinking. The world never seemed as open and available to me in the way that it seemed to be to so many people I met at university. I feel like it never really is unless you take the initiative to make those connections with people, people with a different background to yourself.

Before University did you have networking connections?

Nah. Wasn’t really a thing for me man, I wasn’t thinking about it. I didn’t.

Starting University did that change?

I think so much of the networking you do at Cambridge is not the kind you plan on doing. Maybe the person you talk to drunk at bar who’s now a random friend on Facebook knows people who know people. You’re on your News Feed and see So-and-so updates status, or the LinkedIn email that bla-bla is now doing this. As people we never really think about those background people, the decoration or fluff to our social media pages but one day they’ll be sitting in a suit somewhere dictating what everyone else’s life looks like. They’re worth having in your Network, these are the people you genuinely just do life with, drink with, party with, walk past and give that awkward social interaction of a head-nod to everyday. But of course there are the socialite types and if you’re into it, the opportunities to network your way to the top in that way.

Did you do any internships?

No I didn’t because I work in Charity and that sort of stuff is never really an option in the third sector, to be totally honest I wasn’t bothered either. I worked in my holidays, actually, I got a job selling Christmas trees because the man who ran the company went to Oxbridge, that’s a sort of hookup. I sold Christmas Trees if that’s what you’re asking. But it was obviously the case for so many people around me, you’d hear the conversations every summer term ‘what you doing this summer?’  ‘Oh yah, internship/ travelling yah’. If that’s what you wanted it seemed accessible, easy even. There were networking events and careers fairs, that seemed to be how it worked.

Can you talk a bit about the Social dynamic and how you found it?

This is interesting! Where to begin… So Brent, where I live is one of the most multicultural boroughs in the UK. There aren’t many white British middle class people in the area. Not many at all. In fact I saw some the other day who looked like they had got off at the wrong stop and all I could think was maybe they’re going to Ikea. Before Cambridge, I thought I wouldn’t fit in because I’m ‘different’. I won’t pretend that wasn’t the case, I got there and yep, I was. I remember the first day we had this talk in the College gardens and my mum was looking around and all I could think was, great, how am I gonna get my hair done in this place? I felt like I was this one person in a sea of white faces. It was quite daunting thinking that would be home for the best part of the next three years. There were lots of people from privileged backgrounds and strangely it was me who felt like crossing the road and guarding my Blackberry (God Forbid anyone steal and appropriate my Grime). At first it really was me who had to deal with my own fear of difference and prejudice of what I expected ‘Cambridge people’ to be like. I went home really often in the first few weeks, I even left half way through Freshers Weeks to get seasoning and other life-essentials. I turned up there with one plate and one fork (stupid). I’d be on the phone or go home a lot at first just to eat normal food until I learnt how to cook better than my Nana and my mum (if either of you are reading this just be proud I’m writing something and ignore that last sentence, I don’t mean it).

I mean, you know what it’s like when ‘your white friends’ are playing music and people are having conversations about music that sound like a whole new language because you really just have never heard of any of these bands in your life. But then, you begin to learn the new language of music and share a bit of your own, its different, you start to like it. Ultimately you figure out you can’t get by for three years just lip-syncing Sex Is On Fire in club and throwing your sticky VK’d arms around everyone when Wonderwall comes on, its sweaty and fun but really that won’t get you everywhere.

But then the barriers you/society/socialisation put up are broken down by the unifying force of alcohol and you start really talking to people. Actually you figure out someone else is on a bursary too. Someone else knows what Lidl is. What? You know Charmaine De La Rosa was 14 too?! My preconceptions began to change. I realised that people worked hard to go there after all and there were some actually cool people in that town, many of which are my best friends even now.

Cambridge is so often described as bubble and it really is. It’s this microcosm of a very strange society, one not the same as Neasden or Brent or even London, it’s an upper-middle-class-white-well-educated-background. Now that’s obviously not the full picture of the rest of the world. When you’re different like me you’re instantly thought to be cool. You become the cool one just by living your life; but then when you go to a party ‘cause your friend invited you and one of the people in the house escort you out because you must be from the other Uni you realise the bubble you’re in. The ‘other black friend’ invited you, he’s asked ‘Who’s your friend from home?’. To paraphrase a church saying, where two or more are gathered… one of them must be from home seems to be the philosophy some people go by. The reality is that when you look a certain way you genuinely are in the minority, but, over time you navigate it, you learn the new codes of language, you learn those new songs. For me at the start it was like dipping my toe in at the shallow end, (jumping back out and running home for seasoning floating aids) and then my whole lower body AND THEN slowly wading in.

Did you ever feel you had to adapt?

So yeah and no. The way I see it, you always adapt whether or not you want to. Wherever you are in life you need to learn the rules to navigate the social system better to survive. It’s not often a conscious process but you learn when to use your ‘Cambridge voice’ when you need to. For me it did happen, the test was when you come back to ‘endz’ and you see people you haven’t seen in a while and you’re told you sound posh but you don’t realise it!? Like how does your voice change without you even knowing? It’s strange that adaptations can often be so subtle that we make them without thinking about it at the time but now on reflection it’s so obvious that some of the times I felt uncomfortable I was just coming to terms with the version of myself being challenged by a new situation.

Did you feel inferior or superior to people in Cambridge?

Bit of both. My cultural capital isn’t their cultural capital. What’s normal to me may not be normal to them and vice versa. The ‘them’ I speak of are the annual ski-trip and been on 54 holidays across the world and casual conversations about your parents are about how difficult it is to run a bank or fight a top court case… my dad drove a bus when I was growing up, that’s what I’ve got to offer. I believe it’s all about how comfortable you are within yourself as to whether it makes you feel inferior. I questioned it – of course it’s a human thing to think ‘where do I fit in here?’ but just because people have money doesn’t mean they’re any better than you are right? On the other hand I felt great, in fact way better! Sometimes you can be walking around and people believe you’re ‘cool’ just because you’re you and yes of course there’s some problematic reasons somewhere behind that but on a human egotistical level it does give you a boost whether or not you were looking for it. Bit of both. By money and material objects I was inferior. By popularity and cultural experience and sheer upbringing perhaps I was in a place of superiority. There’s a question I often ask the young people I work with: ‘Would you rather have faced difficult times growing up or have had an easy life’ and 98% of the time they choose the first option, I suppose it’s a lot of that that comes to play. Whilst people at Cambridge may not represent the vast majority of world’s demographic make-up, not to say that I do but I sure do tick a lot more boxes than them, it made me think, ‘Boy, when you lot get into real world you’re gonna be lost’ and that thought alone made me comfortable.

Who did you choose to identify with and who were your friends.

So many of the people I hang out with now I didn’t choose to, I was made to by random allocation. People next-door to me became close and you realise you need to be close anyway if you’re going to live with each other but we had such a great social vibe. It clicked. Then I had ‘my black friends’, it’s weird to say that that’s how life works in Cambridge. Your white and black friends. ACS vs College. I think you always feel more comfy with what you know. It’s the taste of home you look for it because it’s what you know. When I wanted someone need to come on the walk down to KFC with me or to go out to a Garage or Hip-Hop night what options do you have? That said, I had such a good mix of friends from so many different ‘circles’ and groups that I felt comfortable whoever and wherever I was – I understand though that so much of that comes from my upbringing though, who knows, maybe no everyone feels the same.

What can you say about the public and private school divide.

Well for a start it’s not like any Mean Girls thing… no one had a burn book and you sat with whoever you felt like. I suppose people just expect you to have come from a good school. Maybe it came up in the introductory conversations with people but I’m not gonna lie, I really wasn’t bothered and after that I never noticed a divide. In the way people spoke, some people had more of an inflection, perhaps there was noticeable differences in people’s pronunciation of things but you’re often there by merit so who’s really asking? Once you’re there the opportunities given out to everyone are the same as you’re all the same… in terms of your A Level results anyway. Yes, people may talk the talk and walk the walk more and join secret clubs and get by more, and yes there is the ‘Tokenism thing’, some are almost given a free ticket by nature of life experiences given to them in the past, they tick the right boxes and fit a certain role and can navigate multiple social systems very well but the community they’re in isn’t an obviously divided one.

If you could change anything about life what would you change?

Nothing. I just want what we all want. Happiness. If you gave me a magic wand now and asked me to change anything it would be my parent’s health, if I could give them full-health that would give us happiness.

Did you enjoy Cambridge overall?

Yeah (smiling, one dimple shining in the Shoreditch lights…) you look with a smile and nostalgically, like that Will Smith tune Summertime is the same way I now look back at Cambridge. It makes me happy just to think about the memories there. It becomes your life man! In the first year I’d never have thought a few years later I’d look back and recommend people to go. Whilst it may not be everyone’s cup of Earl Grey and scones I’d 100% say it was a thing I’m glad featured in my life. If there’s anything you get from this it’s to see the challenges of top Universities like Cambridge as opportunities, it’s not for everyone but the academic benefits for me were priceless.

‘Lightskin Guys Be Like…’

“Lightskin boys be so moist”

“Those guys are bare in their feelings”

“Drake behaviour”

I was standing in this Jamaican takeaway place the other day in Willesden (Curry Goat, Rice & Peas and one niiiice dumpling if you were wondering, and let’s be real, you’re now salivating) when the woman who was serving me, I say serving but she had gone off into the kitchen, quite casually turned to her co-worker and said ‘The Lightskin bwoy did order di dumpling deh, pass him it nuh’.(If you’re slightly lost with the translation, then phone a friend.) ‘Lightskin Boy.’ I thought to myself. As I stood there looking at the back of my own beige hands having a moment that I can only liken to that bit in Lion King where Simba stares into the pond in the jungle with Rafiki telling him to ‘Look deeper’ the woman was back, shoving my food into my hand and so I walked off. Wandering along the street, now even more hungry because the food was within a minute away from being eaten (why does that always happen!?) I found myself quite lost thinking about the many times in the last 23 and whatnot years I’ve been referred to by my complexion, and it got me thinking, why? Why is it that I’m called a Lightskin Boy? What is even tied up in the meaning of this delineation, and indeed – what does society in Britain today think about males of a lighter complexion?

Often I hear it or, rather, see it thrown around on the TimeLine in memes, ‘banter’ etc. that Black or Mixed-Race men of a lighter complexion are in some way ‘less masculine’ than those society has termed ‘darkskinned’ – indeed something which begs me to ask what being ‘masculine’ even means today! So it got me thinking, what do other people think about this? I mean surely there’s a point where things stop being banter and start having real-world effects, so I thought I’d ask a few people what they thought, and it’s their words that shape this next bit of writing and hopefully, our understanding moving forwards…

“Before I talk about my personal experiences, I’ll say that I do believe some of the stereotypes surrounding “lightskin” are weakness, femininity, vulnerability and narcissism, in which lighter skinned women are viewed as the more “feminine” and “prettier” variant of the black peoples and lighter skinned men are deemed inferior and “soft’“

 

“Lightskin guys are effeminate” – obviously there is misogyny and homophobia in this absolutely ludicrous statement. But it makes you think about how the notion of black hyper-masculinity is centred around darkskin men. See the marketing of hip-hop for a largely white audience – I don’t know much about hip-hop but there seems to be few lightskin male artists. Drake seems to be characterised as “emotional”.

Right, so supposedly I’m ‘soft’, ‘emotional’ or ‘inferior’ because of my complexion and therefore one can only assume that the opposite is true of ‘darker’ males. Indeed the pigeonholing and fetishizing of black masculinity turns a new leaf when we think about how this plays out when complexion is lighter and ideas of being ‘prettier’ or ‘narcissistic’ are ones that can again, be damaging within the community.  I find it difficult to make sense of such a binary dichotomy where the shade of a person’s skin can reflect upon their masculinity…

“I personally wouldn’t even call myself “lightskin”, however, it has been a label assigned to me from school and is kinda a British thing amongst European black folk (in my experience – living in Belgium and Holland”

 

“I find that being called anything but black is more or less an insult, like Carlton in that one Fresh Prince episode where he’s called “not black” because of the way he acts. It’s degrading and worse when it comes from other black people. Then there are those who glorify the negative aspects of this situation. Its nonsensical.”

 

I found a similar thing when I asked the question of what people think of the word ‘lighty’ when attributed to females, that the words are often perpetuated by black communities themselves in a way that can be damaging to ones own perceptions of their identity by alienating people of a light complexion in a way that can separate them from the ‘Black British community’. Whilst there are those who embrace the terms and choose to take on such labels and self-attribute, there are those for whom experience of these labels mean something much more divisive.

“I attended a pan-African event here in London with my cousin in 2013 (it was my very first one) and I noticed that we stood out, well, they made it very clear that we stood out – I could feel nothing but daggers and evils. Shortly after the event finished and everyone was socialising —- but ignoring our presence, we approached this black American woman just for chit chat & she started telling me I should focus on mulatto issues because she doesn’t think I’m “black-black” and basically said her fight isn’t my fight, my cousin was denied an Afro-hair goodie bag because she wasn’t “black enough”

 

“…the idea of light skin privilege/colourism that people sometime perceive us to have Light-skin may be a “privilege”, but getting to grips with your identity as a mixed-race man is incredibly complicated in many cases our black community doesn’t have the language to welcome mixed-race people yet…”

“I think a lot of people also assume that if you’re light skinned and “black” you must therefore be mixed race with one half most likely white British. I do think in my experience people sometimes view you differently because of that, for better or worse. I’ve literally had people at secondary school tell me I’m not properly “black” because I don’t fit their narrow stereotype of what “black” is…”

The idea that there is a proto-typical ‘blackness’ that having lighter, or mixed complexion skin does not fit into appears not to be one too alien to black people within our community, indeed if there’s anything I learnt from my Jamaican takeaway experience (still hungry?) it’s that skin tone can be used as a label for ones identity.

In all, (already? More of a conversation starter I know…) I’d like to leave you with more questions than answers (only child problems). So here’s a couple: What can we learn from some of the experiences written above? Where do we go in terms of our understanding of black-masculinity from here? I’d like to think that at the very least there’s those couple cogs turning in the back of your mind; that you too can be staring into that pond just like Simba… But if not, actually, even if there are – I’ll leave you with the reflections of the people I heard from:

 

“Lightskin guys are not really black” – I grew up in a close extended family with lots of cousins where the only white person was my dad (he’s an only child). Yet when I tell people I identify as a “black, mixed race” person the “black” identity has been questioned. A few shades darker and I doubt it would.”

“I do think that light-skinned black men are seen as less of a “threat” to Eurocentric cultures/institutions and that they benefit from this (although this evidently is a result of racism). Looking at figures like Obama, Lewis Hamilton, Drake, Chukka Umunna etc it seems that society embraces light skinned black men much faster than their darker brothers due to the idea that they are less “other” and because their existence promotes the popular idea that we are now in a post-racial society and that in the end all our children will be “mixed” like them”

“I’ll end with this: problematic stereotypes of lighter skinned people or black folk with (perceived) “non-black” features only causes nothing but confusion, it’s very damaging”

Now go grab your Jamaican takeaway in peace *sips tea*

@TweetsbyBilal

Is the word “Lighty” Problematic?

“Who’s that lighty?”

“You’re such a bait lighty”

“She’s one of those lighties

Lighty. The girl Grime artists had you believing you needed. The girl the UK urban scene both idolises and has its reservations about. Lighty. The girl who’s shade of skin MUST mean there are certain characteristics about her that separate her from all others. But what does this word mean in the UK? Why do some people think this word is a compliment? What is this “Lightskinned behaviour” Twitstagram will have you believing exists? Does it? (Bare questions)

Growing up the word lighty was, and at times still is a word I find myself casually using – a word often thrown out there by guys in desperate (We’ve all seen Kidulthood/ seen teenage and sadly sometimes my aged men) attempt to draw girls. That there are stereotypical things that lighties do. That I’m supposed to never get replies. That they’re somewhat better. That they don’t know how to cook?! All of which, like any stereotype, are simply just not true in all cases. But recently I’ve found myself questioning my own use of the word. That perhaps this word is not as complimentary as people think. I’ve found myself questioning so much so that I thought I’d get the opinion from a few girls who’ve grown up with the word attributed to them on what it even means and it’s their thoughts that I hope will guide our own understanding. Here’s what I heard:

“I’ve never ever referred to myself as a lighty. I find it really cringe to be honest and whenever I’ve been called a lighty it’s just made me squirm a little bit”

“It has always irritated me, but I have always wanted to be darker skinned so I have just never seen it is a compliment. It was only when I started speaking to my grandma about it I realized how weird it was, to just shout ‘oi lighty’ at someone on the road, because you would NEVER say to a darker skinned girl ‘hey darky’”

 

Interesting. So being a Lighty is seen as this compliment – to refer to someone’s shade of skin as lighter is seen as complementary so the inverse must also be true? That to be dark is a negative. Yet however, I am struck by the fact that perhaps this word, is in no way complimentary at all. That to be a lighty, is by definition, a word that comes with all sorts of negative connotations:

“It’s not offensive to me but I don’t like the ‘type of girl’ it suggests. I don’t refer to myself as a lighty… an egotistic, self centered, ostentatious stereotype I think that type of woman definitely exists, but to refer to that type of person by a complexion is unfair. We don’t choose our shade.”

 

“Its paired with colonized ideas of race and I think most people use it as a means of Claiming or giving superiority to lighter skinned “black” people. I just think it should be rid of entirely”

On the one hand we have the idea that to be a lighty is to be full of oneself and perhaps in the UK we have appropriated much of this from colonial ideas of race and the lighter complexions as being ‘better’. (Nonsense by the way, if for some uneducated reason you really do believe that). Yet we throw this word around, we continue to allow stereotypical notions of shadeism to cloud our judgement and therefore we assume that because of a girl’s complexion, she must act a certain way. Now I don’t claim any moral high ground here, I’m just making a statement. I’ll be the first person to put my hand-up and admit to using the word and I’m sure you might be sitting there thinking about the times you’ve heard it out of your own mouth or those around you and maybe, just maybe you’re questioning it that little bit more. (If you weren’t you should be now.)

Yet on the flip-side, we have these ideas of lighter skinned girls exhibiting certain negative behavioural characteristics but still in Britain will persist with the idea that these same lighties are also somewhat more favourable:

“In regards to me not reacting how people want me to (not finding someone funny or attractive when they’re trying to flirt etc.) or in a really reductionist way ” yeah well you’re a lighty you don’t have to worry/ she’s a lighty so all the boys will want her”. 

“He’s only drawing you because you’re mixed race”

 

That having this complexion means you are more favourable to a certain type of man and that in a way it means one doesn’t have to worry. Now arguably these are questions the communities we find ourselves in need to address, arguably it could take years to re-address the imbalance in our understandings of race given how deeply embedded in society these shadiest ideals are since the Transatlantic Slave Trade. But I argue – why? Why must it take that long to simply question what we mean when we use this word?

The idea that a girl acts a certain way as a result of her complexion is to me, simply a bit of a stretch of the imagination. Maybe there’s more of a symbiotic relationship you may argue? Well then, if this is the case in the smallest of circumstances, who is the onus on to change that? The person who perpetuates a label or the one who begins to embody that as a self-fulfilling prophecy? (A Level Sociology deh) To label someone’s behaviour because of their shade, or whatever else is simply to ignore that apart from their skin tone they have a personality, they have feelings, they have thoughts and they too, like you, may have other reasons for their behaviour:

“I’m aware this sounds like I’m being touchy or petty but it’s like, no. don’t just assume things about my character or my experience because of what, the shade of my skin? Come on man!”

 

“I’ve often been told I think I’m too nice because I’m a ‘lighty’ because I’m an introvert, and people misconstrue this aspect of my personality as regarding myself way too highly.”

 

That perhaps there are other reasons for a girl’s behaviour other than her skin complexion doesn’t seem like much of a huge claim from where I’m sitting. Which right now is in a pub drinking Rum and Coke *insert your jealousy here*. Wait I should have said sitting at the time of writing, although there’s probably still a good chance that whenever you are reading this that I’m still somewhere drinking Rum and Coke…(#LifeGoals). Yet, I think that much of the use of this word centres around drawing a connotation between a physical characteristic and a behavioural pattern (as do most stereotypes). But here, perhaps the difference is that we often think of a ‘lighty’ as an acceptable word, as one that is a compliment (at least from those who perpetuate it) and haven’t often enough paused to evaluate what can be meant by its continued usage in urban society. That perhaps our ‘compliments’ are more problematic than we stop to think.

So, I’m supposed to take you on some journey right? That’s how good writing works, that I start with a beginning, have some vague middle and I offer you suggestions as to where we go from here? OK. Well sorry to disappoint you. Plot-twist. I’m not going to do that. I’m going to allow you to come to your own conclusions, or, at the bare minimum encourage you to have a conversation with someone about this. But what I will be nice enough to leave you with are some reflections. Here’s what some of the people I’ve spoken to have said:

“I think it’s one of those phrases that in a few generations time, it will be crazy to think people used to say that to each other – like how colored or something is now. I suppose it’s because generally, in black cultures we’re supposed to aspire to having the lightest possible skin and that’s what makes you attractive. So it’s offensive to me to be called that… Basically, we should have evolved past this by now!”

“Due to my experience, being a ‘lighty’ is a derogatory term, and I do not understand anyone who refers to themselves as one. As I’ve often said in reply to this term, I am not a lightbulb.”

 

“I dislike the word Strongly now, but this only came since I started university and tried hard to change these thinking habits And I think to put it bluntly lightie just means “I’m not the same black as you” which in itself isn’t totally bad”@TweetsbyBilal

Congratulations! YOU have been “randomly selected” for a security search – the modern brown paper bag test h

#PredestinedForRandomSelection

I was 8 years old, pretty happy kid back then, quite unaware of what was going on around me. To be honest if it wasn’t how you fill the Pokedex I wasn’t particularly bothered. But I remember this day, all tanned and filled with post-holiday depression on my way back to London from time spent in Jamaica where I was Miss Anna’s ‘lightskin’ grandson. Proudly wearing my “A Bugs Life” rucksack (shout out Flick for teaching me them Marxist theories) and in it, chilling amongst the plethora of Game Boy Colour games, was none other than a mango. Now may be a good time to divert. I’m a big fan of mangos, pineapples not so much, a bit too “Taste sticks to the sides of your mouth” for my liking. But mangos? Bring it. And this mango was one hand given to me by Miss Anna herself. Proud. So, back to the point. On my way through security at New Yorks JFK airport, A man of colour holds his hand up in front of me , because apparently that’s how Americans do manners, and says “excuse me Sir I’m going to have to ask you to stop”. Sir? I swear that’s my dad’s name! So 8 year old me stops, beyond confuse, and near terrified begin to follow the procedures that would become standard for all future visits to America. I do as I’m told and hand over my bag (voluntarily and momentarily robbed) and watch humiliated as this man siphons past Pokemon red, blue AND yellow (I was a boss back then, definitely caught them all) and then, THEN this man has the cheek and he removes my mango! Whilst simultaneously asking me to remove my shoes I might add! Looking around for parental support, I notice the gaze of the 99.9% white people who are strolling through security the same way I would stroll through the playground in the park near my house, smiles on their faces, problems? None. No smiles here though, tears begin to form as I hand him my shoes, wondering why Miss Anna’s mango got taken away.

That was the first random selection. Conveniently I’ve been searched every time I’ve tried to enter or exit America since. Entry and exit (What are the odds?!…) . Now I’m all up for keeping us safe , sure, I plan to survive this (writing on route) and all current flights I take . But, maybe, just maybe there’s something slightly wrong in telling me this search is entirely at random? Nowadays I come prepared, nothing in my pockets save my iPhone and my headphones, nothing in my hand luggage except a spare shirt (to this day I have never needed a spare shirt , but who knows one day I might spill some rum down this one) and shoes that I can take off without even bending down – skills. However, I shouldn’t have to. I shouldn’t have to walk through anywhere being prepared to have myself searched on the basis of what? A name? Sorry lets go back to 13.10.91 , the day I was predestined for this, and rename me Jack Jones. A complexion? Sorry lets pretend the universe (or high school romance…) didn’t bring Mr. and Mrs. Khan together. Or a random process by which I just happen to find the hot seat on all these planes by which I am selected. If only the lottery worked like this.

Way back when, when racism was an integral part of society (so yesterday? .) Such an intra-discriminatory practice existed as the brown paper bag test. The one where if your skin wasn’t light enough you were immediately denied entry or access to certain privileges offered to those of lighter complexions and whiter skin. Now there’s something about just looking around at the people being searched and those doing the searching that makes you wonder if this test ever stopped existing or if it just got incorporated into society’s rhetoric and re-branded “passport control” “security checks” etc., take your pick.

Now is it nameism? Is it colourism ? Racism ? Well as of yet I have no facts but I have stories. All I’m saying is, give me back my mango. My tears. My dignity. The right to fly like everyone else. In any case, I’ve randomly selected you to share this post and get some open discussion about race in 2015.

@Tweetsbybilal

“Where are you REALLY from?”

#ImREALLYfromLondon

“Where are you from?”

“Neasden, it’s like North West London – near Wembley?”

“No, where are you REALLY from?”

Annoyance ? Anger? Frustration? Pride? In this split second that I am asked this question for the millionth time since I was first born without white skin, I really don’t know which one of these words best describes how I feel. Was my top class geographical referencing and casual name dropping of a place no-one other than avid football fans really care about not good enough as an answer? Can I not be REALLY from London given that it’s the only place I’ve ever truly known and called home? Does it mean that every time I’ve been asked this question that I’ve had to give thought to my heritage, to the cultures outside of London, those far away from home that supposedly define where I’m quintessentially from? Yes. It does. And I settle on the last of the four feelings, I am proud.

“Oh well my parents are from a lot of places, my mums Jamaican but she’s mixed Oriental and Black and my Dad’s from Kenya but his family originally came from Kashmir, now in Pakistan – you?” (Try writing that on a form instead of London).

This is the answer I’ve come to perfect over the years, from being a kid in primary school where almost everyone claimed to have multiple origins, it became a necessary answer to memorise. And learning fractions definitely helped too, you know, them ones where you’re describing yourself in 8ths, 16ths and will even stretch it to 32ths so you can win the “who’s more mixed than who” competition. There was always the Nigerian kid who would try and convince you that being half Yoruba and half Igbo made them also racially mixed – interesting idea when you think about 15 years later, I mean, what even is at the essence of that big social-construct we call RACE? At the time though, just a great way for fractions to mean anything in the real world, and trust me, I got good at that quick-fire mathematics.

But genuinely, what do people mean when they ask the question? If it’s not the geographical location (I’m convinced it’s so they can stalk your house on Google Earth) people are after, then how can we rephrase to get to the core of what it is we want to know? I’m quite happy to call myself a Londoner, but that’s not quite interesting or adequate enough as an answer. When I am cornered by the follow up question of where I’m really from and I decide to either give my well-rehearsed answer or be a bitch and make them guess (c’mon we’ve all tried it, the game can go on for ages), I’m more often than not greeted with a “WOW that’s so cool”. Cool isit? So now being mixed is cool? Make of that what you will. There are some of you, I hope, getting angry that mixed-raceness is somewhat fetishised. That currently we are ‘trending’, we only have to take a couple of uneducated turns on a wander through social media to see how many misguided young people want cool designer mixed-race babies. There are others of you, I also hope, who share in my pride that yes, IT IS cool. That retaliating with a barrage of ethnicities that make up your heritage is definitely a thing to be proud of and also a great way to introduce yourself, the conversation starter, “meet Bilal, he’s from basically everywhere” (most definitely NOT what I said, but anyway “Hi”).

So clearly it isn’t a question of where I geographically call home, or where I’m ‘actually’ from. Rather it’s something much deeper, more a question about my heritage, of the cultures that make me, well, ‘me’. Then why do we all via some default setting phrase the question as such? Why do we unintentionally alienate people almost right away from their own feeling of being a, or even of being British? I’ll let you figure out your own answer to that one, but perhaps it’s time we think about the intentions behind our questions, about the language we use when framing such questions and the effect that our language can have on individuals own perceptions of their identity. Maybe it’s time to find a new way to phrase the question, because where am I really from? Well, I’m from London mate.

#ImREALLYfromLondon

@TweetsbyBilal