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.
* 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.