I was born in Cornwall. My mother was from London, although she was born in South Africa, and my father was from Cornwall. I define my ethnicity as mixed other (in short), or mixed white and coloured* South African (in detail).
I lived for the first part of my childhood in extremely rural areas – in a village in the extreme west of Cornwall until the age of 6, and from 6 to 8 in a rural village in the Republic of Ireland. In both cases myself, my younger brother and my mother were the only ‘non-white’ people in the area. Children were always very accepting, but I was aware of this, like the day I walked into school in Ireland and a boy standing by the school gates asked if I was a P**i. We had good friends though, and it was never much of an issue – there was never much open hostility in those days, or maybe I was well shielded from it.
There was a lot of tension in the house when I was growing up because my mother felt she had never been accepted by her parents-in-law because of her race, and my father hadn’t stood up for her enough. Unfortunately my grandparents on my father’s side died when I was very young, but my experience of them was always extremely loving. In later years when I learned more, I could never be sure whether my mother’s version of events was correct – with hindsight I can see there could have been other reasons for my grandparents to disapprove of the relationship. This tension, however, was a formative part of my upbringing.
At the age of 8 I moved to a slightly less rural part of Cornwall, where we were still very much in a minority, but not the only people of colour. There was still the odd comment – which felt more like it related to ignorance than hostility – but I felt that we were a part of the community, in a town where everyone knew everyone else, and I felt truly at home by the time I was ready to go to university.
Strangely, this was the experience that was to cause the most discomfort with my sense of identity. When people asked where I was from, the obvious answer was Cornwall. However, they would then proceed to ask, ‘No, where are you really from?’ I’ve never been to South Africa, so to try to form an identity that incorporated my race with my roots just didn’t seem possible. My answer became: ‘I’m from Cornwall, but my mum’s South African, but I’ve never actually been there’, and since then I’ve felt like a fraud for having a Cornish identity. Up until that point, this identity was very strong, as it is in most people from Cornwall.
In terms of experiencing overt racism, this was mostly being called the racial slur for Pakistani, which seemed to be the blanket term for anyone who was non-white in the ’80s and early ’90s. When it comes to more subtle racism, I’ve always felt uncomfortable with hearing things like, ‘Oh, but you’ve got such a lovely tan’, from people (who know me and what my race is) who want to mention my colour but don’t know how to express it. It was also strange being confused with someone else just because they were also non-white, despite not having much else in common.
Because of these experiences, I still struggle with my Cornish identity. I’ve always felt it hard to feel a sense of belonging with any particular group, but I don’t know whether that relates to feeling an outsider when I was younger or something else – I certainly don’t remember feeling that I was an outsider at a young age. I also feel very conscious of my colour in predominantly white areas and countries, such as Scandinavia and parts of Eastern Europe, even though I have never experienced any particularly negative behaviour there. I wonder how much of my mum’s feelings about not being accepted have transferred to me.
There was definitely a sense of being something of a novelty in a rural location, and I would think that the sense of community in a close-knit rural location would make it difficult not to integrate – however it can be quite isolating. In an urban location, such as where I spent my tween/teenage years, it’s easier to be anonymous if you so desire.
*The term ‘coloured’ is considered offensive in the UK, however it’s what I’ve always been told is my heritage