“Without our roots we are nothing.”
“Birds of a feather flock together.”
“Your history, upbringing and community will shape who you are.”
We have all heard these quotes before, but what if your roots haven’t impacted you the same way it impacts others? What if you have a very fluid relationship with your “community?” How does that affect your identity? How can it impact your life?
I often wonder about this because, truth be told, I am someone who, cannot give you a short answer about my roots or my community. I may not completely identify with my roots. Sometimes I tire of trying to give people the answer they are looking for, while other times I have interesting discussions.
I was born and raised in the UK but my parents are from East Africa and North Africa respectively. My mother is also two-thirds East African by blood but was raised in North Africa with an Arabic tongue, features, body type, and skin tone. My father is East African but moved to England for work in the medical field. He met my mother on a trip to North Africa and they married a few years later.
My brothers and I were born and raised in the UK speaking English as a first language and then Arabic as a second language. My father began working at a hospital in the Arabian Gulf, so we only got to see him a few times a year as young children. He only spoke to us in English. I find this interesting, considering he was so proud of his culture. Maybe he worried that a third language would affect our English, but I do think it would have been great to learn a third language.
As I got older and was more interested in my identity, I also realised how much language formed an important part of my identity. That tool enables us to swim through, negotiate, express and defend ourselves as we navigate our way through this earth.
I am sure I am not the only one who has had the following exchange:
Person: “Where are you from?”
Person (with either a smile or an annoyed you know what I’m getting at expression): “No. I mean where are you REALLY from?”
Me: “Well, I was born in Birmingham.”
Person (usually irritated by now): “Okay, you’re born here but what’s your origin? Where are your parents from?”
Me: ”Ahh you mean my parents… okay. Well…”
Sometimes I am more forthcoming, but I become irritated when people assume you are not from your birth country because of the colour of your skin. The different reactions to my answer can be irritating. If I mention my parents come from two different countries, the Black African country receives a less positive reaction than the North African Arab country. The older I get, the less tolerance I have for it. The reaction to my North African heritage often includes words like “exotic” or “interesting.” When I mention my distaste for this on social media, some say that “exotic” only implies something different and interesting.
My parents divorced when I was seven years old, which meant we had to move from a three floor house in a middle class neighbourhood in the midlands to a tiny flat we shared with my grandparents in London and then into our own flat. While living with my grandparents, I remember the house being filled with guests from the local East African community. My grandmother was a proud member and very well known.
During this period, my father remained in the Gulf so I only saw him only occasionally. My parents’ divorce was not amicable and seemed to spill into a resentment of each other’s’ cultures at times.
The area we moved to in London was very diverse, with large Asian and East African communities. The presence of these communities impacted me as I inherited my father’s East African looks and nothing from my mother’s side. Members of the local East African community regularly approached me to chat or to ask questions.
Once they realised that I couldn’t speak their language, people usually responded negatively saying, “You should be ashamed of yourself. Don’t you care about your culture?” and “Didn’t your parents teach you your own language?”
Some would just turn away in thinly veiled annoyance. Eventually, when I saw any of the community in the street, I became tense knowing that they would call out to me and I wouldn’t be able to respond. These awkward interactions further distanced me from my father’s side of my heritage. I looked completely East African and was expected to know everything about the culture but really didn’t know much at all. Over time, the encounters became less frequent and I learned to better deal with them.
My mother identified more with her Arab heritage. I often tell her that her experience growing up would have been very different had she looked darker or more black African. When financially possible, she took us to her country of birth for summer breaks and we observed many wonderful things.
It was nice to see her reminisce at all the places that made her happy, and see her be among “her people.” However, I never felt at home there. All the people and places she talked about were nice enough but no one seemed to see me or my brothers as one of them. My tongue didn’t speak in the elastic-like Arabic accent of that place and my darker complexion had them constantly asking me if I was from Sudan or Somalia. Even though there were many dark-skinned people living there, I neither sounded nor looked right.
My appearance wasn’t the only issue. As I visited as a teen and an adult, I began to notice cultural differences. I am a Muslim. I live in the West, but was brought up with elements of Eastern culture. People asked “Do you pray? Do you wear mini-skirts? How do you know about Arabic music and politics?” The more they made me feel like an outsider, the more I took on that role and started noticing all the differences between us. I remember me and my brothers sitting with friends watching a comedy over there, and watching our friends laugh their heads off while we struggled to force a fake smile. We didn’t even laugh at the same things.
As I got older, I noticed the more serious issues of racism and colorism that are often not talked about in the Arab world.
Whether or not you share the same religion, sadly I, and most black or dark brown skinned people visiting or living in the Arab world, have experienced either subtle or explicit racism or a combination of both. People would say “Get off of the balcony. You don’t need any more sun… you’re dark enough.” When I would visit in winter, I heard, “Which lightening cream did you use? You look so much better.” I realise that this mentality is not exclusive to the Arab world but I cannot identify with it as I was not brought up there.
My mother, as a more Arab-looking woman, hasn’t had the same experience I have. As a result, she doesn’t notice these differences as much as I do. She disagrees with these ways of thinking, of course, and will call it out too, but just doesn’t notice it as much as I do.
Living in London is interesting as it is probably the most diverse place in the UK. You can find people of all backgrounds here: immigrants who’ve been here for decades, their offspring who were born here, those whose parents were born here, or people who are just here to study or work. You can literally see people from every part of the globe in this city, so much so that many of my students often comment that they don’t get to see “real British people”(which I take to mean white British people).
Most Brits generally pride themselves on this multicultural city (at least the Brits I have talked to) but if you dig a little deeper, you will notice that there are many places where people tend to mix primarily with those from their own communities. I am not criticising this because this can happen for a number of reasons. However, growing up in London, I have found that if you are not of one clear ethnicity, it can sometimes be hard to find a real community to which you feel you belong. I know people of all backgrounds and I generally get on with them. It can still be hard for people to place me sometimes and hard for me to place myself.
I recall walking into mosques when I was learning Quranic Arabic and greeted people I came across with a “salaam aleykum” (a Muslim greeting), which on many occasions, was not returned. Sometimes I find that these reactions can run along ethnic lines and I don’t quite fit a particular one especially well.
These factors have led me to believe that colour and ethnicity can often trump your country of birth, religion, and other factors. In my case my ethnicity isn’t a unified one. This adds another layer for me personally, but it is not something that weighs on my shoulders or seriously sets me back. I have found that I have many international friends, which is how I like it.
The older I get, there are times when I grow jealous of those with clear identity, especially when I need support, want to celebrate something cultural, or just want to feel connected.
However, my multi-layered identity connects me with people who are in a similar situation. If I was to describe myself, I would say that I am an African woman. I was brought up in the UK and have many British qualities. I have travelled extensively. I am a Muslim woman who respects her religion and is proud of it, understanding that we are an international people – 1.5 billion of us around the world – and we are taught to “meet and get to know people of other nations/tribes” (49:13).
I’m not sure how my identity will play a part in my future. I would be fascinated to know how others identify, if they feel they have multiple identities, and where they feel they belong.
The original version of this article appeared here on February 6, 2017.