Why My Ethnicity Feels Like My Wardrobe

As an ethnic millennial woman today; the oldest of us turning 40, I am privileged to be at the head of a generation that picked up the torch and ignited a new wave of social and economic change. We embraced the rise of social media and conversations became movements. With an oppressive backdrop of recession, global warming and a pandemic, its actually never been a better time to embrace diversity. Empowered by those voices, my ethnicity is not my prom dress, its my favourite pair of skinny jeans.

Growing up in a small rural market town, there was never a time that any member of my family felt that they comfortably "fit" in. Since I am using clothes as an analogy in this blog, the best way to describe our place in the community, was like trying to put on an old pair of jeans you've air dried. Those fibers have shrunk and you know you've got to get your bum in them. You pull them on anyway, but you only get it up to your thighs and then the trouble starts. It's too tight, you're struggling. So you pull and squeeze and finally you manage to get those jeans up, phew, then finally that button needs to fasten. You want to do up that button, but those jeans are just too tight. You spend a long time fighting with that button, will it ever fasten? Feeling a little sore from the chaffing, insecure from the gut spilling over the top, you ask yourself, why don't I fit into these jeans?

The "Out of Towners"

Looking back, my parents were not exposed to racism until they moved South. They both grew up in North London, a multi-cultural hub made up of many small, overlapping ethnic minority communities. My parents are British Cypriots and had never felt different. Marriage and children sparked their desire to leave the city and raise a family in the countryside. But little did they know of the challenges they would face within their new local community, an ignorance surrounding what was perceived as different and so branded "out of towners".

I remember my earliest experience of racism in the playground. A boy kicked a ball and as it landed nearby, I tried to kick it back, but it went a different direction. The response from the boy was "Paki". I knew this was a bad word, because of the way the boy said it, like a bad taste he spat it out, but I didn't know what it meant. I felt like I had just been told off and like children do, I went and told the lunch-time assistant, we called them "dinner ladies" back then. After school my mum had a friend over, she was quite surprised to have learned what happened that day. I still remember my mum's shocked expression and then turning to me she asked: "What did that boy call you?" Fortunately the school had already reprimanded the boy. If only it had stopped there, but children naturally learn from their parents and each other.

Calling Out Racism

My sister's and I have often spoken about the past and recall old memories of other playground incidents. The school was supportive, but my mum still needed to be heard. With .com in it's infancy, emails didn't exist and landlines never guaranteed they would be answered. So my mum did the best that she could at that time, and went on a campaign to find out where those children lived and confront the parents. Whilst not a pleasant memory, it's one of my most cherished. With all the amazing achievements my mum has made over the years, calling out racism directly with it's source is not only fearless it illustrated our mothers love, and what she would do to protect her children.

Unfortunately a single voice couldn't always protect us. I would like to say that it stopped at the end of school, but as an adult I was constantly being reminded that I was different. I was most commonly asked: "Where are you from?" Honestly if I ever hear that again! My mum got so sick of being asked that question she would reply: "Off the back of a boat". We looked "foreign" therefore we weren't from England, we must be refugees or immigrants. Never mind we were all actually born in England.

To Be Part of the Crowd

Holidays to Cyprus helped, I felt part of the crowd, right up until we spoke and the locals knew we were British Cypriots. There was a name for us there as well, it was "Charlie". A derogatory word aimed specifically at British Cypriots meant to outcast us. On top of that it didn't help that those terrible tick boxes on application forms were so marginalised. I just ticked "White" as that was the easiest box to tick. But I am not White, or am I? Confused, I left ethnicity at the back of the wardrobe, just like my prom dress. You feel great in it for one night, but you can't wear it everyday, people would think I'm strange. I summised that if I wanted to feel inclusive, I would need to live in London. 

As I got older, particularly throughout my career, being different made me feel like a fashion accessory at the office. My employers loved having a "foreigner" working for them as they could justify their diverse work force. But lets get some facts straight. Cyprus is it's own country, it is not one of the Greek islands. It's in the far eastern corner of the Mediterranean, a complex diverse land steeped in centuries of occupation and cultural exchange. The majority of Cypriots have Greek Orthodox ancestry, followed by Turkish Muslim and Anglo Christian. I've never been to Greece, never seen the Parthenon, so why do I evoke memories of holidays to Greece when I meet new people. If you are going to treat me like a foreigner, ask me first if I've ever been to Greece, before assuming I am directly connected to it.

Joining the Conversation

Thank goodness for films like "My Big Fat Greek Wedding" in 2002, which made us all laugh at our cultural differences. It felt good to see racial ignorance portrayed comically. It took it's serious side away. But it wasn't until the mid-noughties when LinkedIn, Facebook and Twitter really took off and millennial's rapidly gobbled up the concept of social media. Suddenly one voice became ten and then hundreds and thousands. 

I am very proud to be living at a time where I can see our next generation joining the conversations surrounding diversity, gender identity and sexual misconduct. Schools fly world flags and ignorance is slowly fading. Now, I no longer feel different in a bad way, I don't feel my cultural identity is being brought into question. This once small market town is learning and growing. I am proud to be British and that means embracing all that contributes to making Britain a better place to live. I am British of Cypriot heritage and I wear my identity like my favourite pair of skinny jeans. 


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