Michaela Tranfield is a final year English undergraduate at King’s. She discusses how a normalised culture of racism in UK secondary schools made her disconnect from her cultural identity. Michaela also has her own blog where you can find some of her other writing: https://michaxlawrites.wordpress.com/
The culture of racism in UK schools has undoubtedly been normalised. Racial abuse and throwaway comments have been condoned by British society and either ignored by teachers or worse still, orchestrated by them. It breeds a culture of racist attitudes and biases weaponised against young Black, Asian and Latinx people for the comedic satisfaction of others, making them question themselves and feel ashamed of their identity.
Despite growing up in London, I went to a white majority school where any form of racial difference was consistently mocked. Secondary school ‘banter’ is something that is part and parcel of your teenage years, but there is a very fine line between friendly teasing and clear racist insults that use a veil of humour to deflect from intentional prejudice.
In the past few days I’ve been talking to some of my friends about racism in our high school. A common factor in our experiences was that any kind of difference was always made to seem weird or unnormal. If your skin, hair and culture strayed away from the status quo, it was pointed out in the most negative way possible. My friends had their traditional sarees and lehengas laughed at, with someone even asking them why ‘their people’ wear bedsheets for clothes. When one of my friends went to music classes near our school in traditional Asian clothing and maliha flower (jasmine strands) in her hair, she always feared she would be spotted by kids from school and become the target of their jokes for the next few weeks. I was told that I didn’t smell like an Indian or wasn’t like other Indians, as if it is something I should be thankful for. Our body hair was laughed at as people pointed out our upper lip hair and some found it incomprehensible that we could grow hair on our hands and arms, one even calling me a monkey because of how hairy they thought I was.
We also found that people showed a real disregard for our individual experiences and ethnic backgrounds. People were intentionally ignorant. It didn’t matter where you were from in South Asia to them, whether it was Sri Lanka, Nepal or Bangladesh, because to them if you had brown skin you must automatically be Indian. If you tried to correct people for mistaking your identity, they arrogantly remarked that all brown people were the same so what did it matter, even though our histories and experiences were vastly different. These occurrences and many more are specific to the British Asian experience, but for most ethnic minority students who attended UK secondary schools our difference was always seen to be humorous. Our culture was seen as a joke, something obnoxious people could pick up, use against us and then dispose of at their whim.
My friends and I could all relate to being conditioned into thinking that we were overly sensitive if we spoke up about how the racist comments and actions made us feel. Somehow even though we were being mocked or insulted we were the bad ones for ‘taking it to heart’ or ‘not understanding a joke’. This is exactly how a cycle of prejudice continues – racialised people are made feel as though they are the issue. Our feelings were never validated. Truthfully, they were never considered in the first place.
During adolescence so much of your life is spent at school, so when your peers use your culture as a tool to create humour, you also fail to see anything positive in your culture. As the ridicule of our culture, negative stereotypes and unwarranted ignorant comments continued, I became more and more disengaged with my South Asian culture. Although many of the people who mocked racial difference will fall back on the excuse that it was not their intention, it seems to me that this deflection is used to protect themselves from criticism. People always talk about intentions, but they forget to consider impact. Whilst they could take pride in their culture and wave their flags high without having to consider the consequences, my friends and I were made to feel ashamed of ours. We had to question if we were mentally prepared to take on the mockery, judgement and insults that came from taking pride in our cultural differences. We were made to feel insecure about our ethnicity and our heritage, having to try to forget our culture and do the most to fit in.
As new generations of young people grow up and move through the secondary school system, I really want consideration and accommodation to be the new norm. For people to learn about other cultures before mocking them. To see who Black, Asian and Latinx students are before marking them with racial stereotypes. Rather than difference being thought of as intrinsically bad, more people could take the time to learn about other cultures or at least show interest rather than ignorance.
Thankfully, things are vastly different for myself and my friends now. As I rapidly approach my 21st birthday, I can honestly say I’m incredibly proud of my cultural heritage. It’s taken a few years to be unapologetically myself but we’re here now. Instead of having my culture shrouded in negativity, I found much more positivity through more British-Asian female representation on social media, through safe spaces and my circle of friends. Rather than trying not to express my culture, I love reading about South Asian history, going to cultural events and listening to all kinds of South Asian music. Where I would try to hide my cultural identity before, you can catch me belting out Bollywood bangers at any occasion I can find.
South Asian Heritage Month is an event that I am so thankful young South Asians have a chance to experience. In a society where our history and heritage are downplayed through anti-immigrant policy and sentiment, a month dedicated to exploring our culture and dismantling hegemonic ideas of Asian identity is so special. I hope that it will also help others who are not familiar with our culture learn some more and avoid passing ignorant attitudes and beliefs onto future generations. To any young British Asians who are going through identity struggles and have been made to feel as though their ethnicity is a problem, I hope that this month can help you realise how important your being, your culture and your history is to the country we live in today.