One evening in the late 1950s, Joe Loss and His Orchestra were performing rich and powerful big band hits at the Hammersmith Palais. Somewhere in the crowd, my grandfather, an Indian-Caribbean man who had arrived from Trinidad as part of the Windrush generation, was meeting my grandmother, a recent refugee from the East German dictatorship. They may not have known it then, but neither would ever go “back to where they came from”. London had become their home.
They found plenty to love in the city. For my grandmother, it was the ballet at the Royal Opera House, the tea shops and then, later, the coffee shops that replaced them, as well as the inner-city schools where she taught. For my grandfather, it was the jazz clubs, the red-brick houses, the cricket, the libraries and the spectacular museums.
But their life in London also had a hostile, violent edge. My grandmother, who arrived in a country that just a decade before had been the enemy, anticipated that life might be difficult. But when my grandfather boarded a ship to Britain from one of its colonies, he really believed he would be welcomed home to the motherland. The reality was different. My mother remembers him coming home from riding his bike around the city with broken teeth and a mouth full of blood after being beaten up. When she cried angry tears, he told her: “We mustn’t judge them. They just don’t know any better.”
Racism helped crush his dreams. He worked for London Underground as a station manager but would have loved to have been an actor: not an easy ambition for anyone, but certainly not for a person of colour in mid-20th-century Britain. Relentlessly cheerful in his younger days, he had his personality, quite literally, beaten out of him. “Born laughing, died crying,” my mother says.
Asian Other [erased]
My grandfather’s story is typical of Windrush heartbreak, yet because he was Indian-Caribbean he is often excluded from that generation’s narrative. His identity isn’t represented in any of this country’s official statistics. Even today, there is no “Indian-Caribbean” box on ethnicity surveys.
If he were alive today, the only box available to my grandfather on a census would be “Asian other”. It’s an improvement on the categories that preceded it on various ethnicity surveys – “other ethnic group” in the 1990s, “coloured” in the 1970s and 1980s, or “Old Commonwealth” in the 1960s. Still, most Indian-Caribbean people don’t feel represented in the available categories.
That’s despite the fact that the Indian-Caribbean identity was created by Britain and its empire. Following the abolition of the slave trade in 1807 and the subsequent outlawing of slavery in 1834, British planters in the Caribbean desperately sought means to replace the resulting loss of labour. Their solution was a system of indenture. Workers were recruited from India and China, who signed a contract to work abroad for a period of three or five years. The deal was that they would receive wages and sometimes the promise of a return ticket at the end of their contract or a small amount of land instead.
By the time the indenture system was abolished in 1917, close to 18,000 Chinese and almost 450,000 Indians had been brought to the Caribbean. Most never went back. While a few did well out of the system, it was in general exploitative, with harsh conditions and low wages. My ancestors were part of this system.
Given this history, the Indian-Caribbean identity should rightfully be well known in our country. But, paradoxically, as historian Maria Kaladeen has convincingly argued, this past is likely one of the main reasons that the ethnicity has been forgotten. “The celebratory story of William Wilberforce [ending the slave trade] is one that Brits like to tell. They don’t like the idea that another oppressive system of labour took over,” she says.
Whatever the reason, the way the Indian-Caribbean ethnicity has been variously left out of surveys and statistics over the years seems to me to be emblematic of Britain’s treatment of that group. Although ethnicity surveys were first introduced with “a real drive to find out how race and ethnicity influenced opportunity,” says Lucinda Platt, Professor of Social Policy and Sociology at the London School of Economics, they later came to be about representation too. Indian-Caribbean people never attained this official recognition.
Arrivals in the 1950s, 60s and 70s grew accustomed to the uncomfortable burden of explaining who they were – that their history was the history of the British Empire – to the British. It is bitterly disappointing how little has changed. The Indian-Caribbean identity remains invisible; British amnesia about colonial history remains strong.
This ignorance is a loss, both to Indian-Caribbean people, who have contributed enormously to the country, as well as to Britain more broadly. Still few people know that Samuel Sevlon, author of The Lonely Londoners, the painfully beautiful novel that chronicles the Windrush experience, was Indian-Caribbean. Sevlon writes: “Nobody in London really does accept you. They tolerate you, yes, but you can’t go in their house and sit down and talk” – words that bring tears to my eyes each time I read them.
The fact that few in Britain today know about people who share my grandfather’s identity is sad. Not least because – always ahead of his time – there’s a lot about the way we live now that he would have liked. He always cycled to work – in the sunshine and in the rain, in the morning and, when he had a night shift, in the evening too. Long before these pandemic years, when so many of us have done yoga at home, he and my six-year-old mum twisted and turned, bent and stretched, and focused on their breath in their living room. He worked to live, rather than living to work; he loved cooking and self-help philosophy; he enjoyed a wide circle of friends, growing to accept their racist “jokes”, just as he had the violence.
My grandfather’s love for Britain and London was unrequited, but it never died.
Mixed Other [marginalised]
My mother was born in west London just before the city swung into the 1960s, to a British Indian-Caribbean father and an East German mother.
Navigating her own identity was a challenge. Even her name symbolised conflict. My grandfather gave her the first name Kim, after the actress Kim Novak (he admired US popular culture). My grandma, on the other hand, having been exposed to considerable USSR influence, gave her the middle name Nastasha. Born amid rising Cold War tensions, my mother’s name encompassed both warring sides.
As my grandfather talked endlessly about the beautiful Caribbean islands, my grandma was determined her daughter would have a traditional German upbringing. When my mother, with her brown skin and mixed heritage, headed off to her first day at school, she went dressed in a dirndl and her hair braided like Heidi.
She would tell anyone who asked, “I’m Engl-Germ-Dad”; an identity of three fragments. As she grew older, she realised she could just be – wholly – herself, forced to come to an understanding that others take far longer to arrive at, if they ever do: that uniqueness is no bad thing.
Yet, to others, her identity remained up for debate. With a clear-cut southern English accent and ambiguous colour, she was a puzzle that people felt compelled to solve. On the streets of London in the 1970s, a young white man demanded an answer to the question: “Oi! Are you coloured?”. “Stop pretending to be so English,” a white English woman told her; “Act more Indian,” a British Indian said. After 9/11 and the War on Terror, she was asked by a woman in a sympathetic tone how it felt to be “terrorist brown” – her unplaceable skin tone swept up, somehow, into a target for anti-Arab racism.
This pathologisation of mixed people is not unique to Britain, but it does have deep roots here. During the age of empire and its decline, there was a moral panic about the subversion of social boundaries and racial hierarchies through the relationships of white British subjects. Mixed people were seen as a threat to both themselves and society.
It wasn’t until the 1990s that the perspectives of mixed people themselves were heard. Conversations began to stress that mixed identities don’t actually lead to an unstable sense of self. Then, in 2001, the category “mixed” was added to the census, with 1.3 per cent officially identifying as such. In 2011 the figure was 2.3 per cent. When the results from the 2021 census are reported the number will be much higher. In fact, “mixed” is now the UK’s fastest-growing ethnic group.
Yet mixed people in Britain still find themselves on the periphery of legitimacy. Their stories and statistics remain outdated and obtuse, created and perpetuated by a monoethnic majority. Where the negative narrative has been replaced, it has often been with creepy fetishisation. And even celebratory stories about the growing numbers of mixed people heralding a new, integrated Britain overlook persistent inequalities, argues Platt, the LSE professor.
Mixedness is often wrongly conceptualised as a duality – the combination of two identities – rather than the multi-ethnic reality of a kaleidoscope of endless varieties. Anyone who doesn’t want to tick a binary “white/Asian” or “white/Black” box on an ethnicity form has only the option of “mixed/other,” a vague and unhelpful category.
It’s time Britain took seriously the idea that being mixed-race can be a standalone identity. Dr Remi Adekoya, a British author with mixed Polish and Nigerian heritage, points to two factors that unify the mixed-race experience. One is being crowbarred into other people’s own monoethnic conceptions; the other is the richness that comes from absorbing many cultures. “Mixed people see the world from multiple perspectives,” he says.
My mother enjoyed having three rich cultures to draw on. They fed her intellect, imagination – and appetite. She loved the coconut-infused curries her father made from scratch; the German potato salad and coffee and cake that her mother served; as well as the weekly Sunday roast that they shared as a family, too.
She never believed that her mixed background negated her Britishness. Neither did I. We both love English literature and have taken trips together with my dad, to visit Jane Austen’s house in Hampshire with the little walnut table where she wrote her books, to see the charming thatched cottage of Thomas Hardy’s early years, and to have our dark hair blown in the wild landscapes of Brontë country. At the brutalist South Bank centre a few years ago, she was moved listening to the British Indian-Caribbean writer V.S. Naipaul. She likes to peer through binoculars and identify the creatures in her big book of British and Irish butterflies.
Yet my mother’s battle for acceptance in Britain has never been won. One evening this summer, as torrential rain beat down on the windows, I asked her whether she believed a mixed-British identity was becoming more accepted here. She shook her head. “I’ve been insisting I belong here for 60 years. But lately I’ve been thinking maybe all the people who have always told me I don’t were right all along.”
It has never been easy for a group that is by definition diverse to find a unifying voice. But Adekoya believes there are glimmers of hope. “People are starting to understand that it is time monoracial society started to adapt to us as well, not just the other way around,” he says.
White British [quarters don’t count]
One day, when I was ten years old, my mother was walking me, my younger brothers, our two friends, and my dalmatian to the local park. We ran ahead and then hid from her. We thought we were funny; she panicked and called the police. When the police asked for a description she said two of the children (our friends) were white. “The others are…” she paused, “… sort of beige.”
It was one of the least poetic ways she described us. We were also “the colour of wet sand on a cloudy day,” one of many shades on a Dulux paint chart, or simply “mixed heritage”. I love that term, because it evokes the feeling that I have inherited the strength of my ancestors and elements of their culture, without denying my inherent Britishness, or relying on skin colour.
Because the truth is, my two younger brothers and I all look quite different. On the census, I mostly tick “White British”. I’ve always felt choosing “mixed” would be disingenuous; I have the privilege of whiteness and I don’t want to unfairly appropriate a sense of injustice.
Others have also told me, on many occasions, that my “quarters don’t count” and laughed at my brother when he speaks about his own quarters. “Liking curry does not make you mixed,” one said.
Our youngest brother has darker skin, and his experience is very different. “I don’t think of myself as white,” he says. “I’ve had too much racist abuse to call myself white.”
Identity is always, to an extent, relational. But people with mixed heritage cannot be defined solely by others’ expectations and limited understanding. It is wrong that strangers have tried to define who my brothers and I are based only on the colour of our skin. Acknowledging my own privilege shouldn’t mean I have to erase my heritage, and the history that shaped the person I have become.
Extras no more
It can be painful or, in my own case, simply discomforting when other people tell you who you are and whether your story and identity count.
The violent racism and injustices that my grandfather and many of the Windrush-era arrivals experienced are now, thankfully, being acknowledged. Terms like “people of colour” now allow disparate groups, including Indian-Caribbean people, to unite in the fight against pernicious, structural racism that they face here and elsewhere.
But alongside this fight, we must also celebrate the culture and heritage that bring so much richness. Mixed and creolised culture is part of the very fabric of this country.
It’s time to listen to the voices of people with mixed heritage in Britain. Not just because of their growing numbers, but also because, at a time of rising nationalism, their perspectives – arguably their existence – challenge the narrative that there is an “us” versus a “them”. Brits who have negotiated multiple backgrounds to find their own identity know the truth: identity is contextual and fluid.
As for my Indian-Caribbean grandfather who aspired to become an actor: if you watch the film Bhowani Junction very carefully, you might just catch a glimpse of a man of colour flitting across the screen in the background. The time has come for him to no longer be an extra in the story of this country – my country, his country, our country.
Charlotte Bailey is a writer and journalist who has reported from the Middle East, North Africa and Europe. In 2019, Charlotte was a recipient of a reporting grant from the Fuller Project for International Reporting.
Photographs provided by the author.