Lopsided Afro

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Self Determination.

I never realised how practical those words would become for my life until I started to explore the world beyond the safety of my University. Work spaces where the politics of what is considered respectable are carried out with almost total compliance without anyone mentioning a word, without anyone signing a single suggestion to law.

It was and is suffocating.

I must admit though, this moment revived memories of my childhood.
Being a child of the “colonies” our British style schools and accompanying rules really struggled to accommodate students who just didn’t quite fit the profile.

My hair was just a disaster unless kept short.
In fact, my Dad’s distate for men with anything like long hair rang in stark synchornisation with a reality and imagination that reinforced in my mind that the very hair that came out of my head was essentially..

Untidy. Scruffy.
To be managed.

In amidst this new pressure, I sat. Day after day.
In an otherwise tense social space.

The tensions around diverse workspaces in South Africa, I’m sure varied from place to place.
Ours was a space where one would rather die before addressing anything directly..
For fear of being labelled a “racist”
Or something similarly sinister.

While I noticed very clearly that the unwillingness to actually “say” anything disappeared.. people really found other more subtle ways of expressing their disapproval.

It was these very tensions among many, many other acts of aggression in and out of the city, that led me down a path to figure out this thing..

Self Determination.

I began to feel caged, like I was no longer in control of anything.
What I could say.
What I looked like.
Where I could go.

So one day I simply said no!
Walked over to my favourite barber and crafted the Lopsided Afro.

It became very clear to me in many ways that the spaces I occupied on a daily basis were rejecting me. Attempting to either spit me out or silence me altogether to the point where I take up as little space as possible.

What I learned with my Lopsided Afro,
Was that it was possible for me to take control of my life. To decided how I look and take back the power I had rescinded to nameless faces and voices that cared nothing for me to begin with.

I began to learn to laugh at myself.
At others.
Watching their eyes skip over the asymmetry of the puff of curls on my head.
It became a way to have a conversation, a way to protest against a fear I had internally of being erased.

Slowly but surely I am beginning to appreciate the revolutionary meaning behind self love.
There is power in understanding that in order to achieve self determination, one must seize freedom.

My Lopsided Afro serves, for me, as a reminder of this message..
No one can make you comfortable in your body, you must take up ownership of your space.

I have come to understand that in some ways to pursue freedom is to persistently in protest. There will always be a fight that needs to be waged, but the dialogues that resolve those fights need not happen only through words.

The body, in so far as it is politicised, can itself carry with it a message of affirmation – of Self Determination.
Whether it’s with tatoos, Afros or textiles.
However one might choose.. really the choice is up to you.
Who knows what awaits us tomorrow.
Take a risk,
Give it a go
The Lobsided Afro.

 

2015-05-04 13.55.10

Beautiful Aliens.

“What beautiful daughters you have!”

It happens a lot. It is a compliment, of course it is. I have green eyes, that are pretty big, and light brown skin. My sister, has the richest auburn hair, which in the light gleamed like fire. She has white skin, with pink rosy cheeks. Mum was very dark, before Vitiligo, with jet black indian hair. I remember looking at her skin against my sisters chubby white rosy flesh…she could have been adopted. I remember climbing on my Dads lap and seeing my arms with his. Well I knew he was my Dad for certain, but having my arm next to his and see the contrast of its colour, used to make me wonder, how we could be so close butt never know what it feels like to look like the other. We had different sets of skins.

I am light- which contrary to what some awful skin products tell you- is not necessarily beautiful. Society seems to associate one with the other, not me. I was always envious of the Nigerian girl in my class with braids. To me, she was beautiful. She was bright, funny, could dance, sing and shook her beads at the end of her hair that made a wonderful noise and made her so much prettier. Her laugh was infectious too. I used to dream of being black like her. Femininity, seems to ooze from natural afro-carribbean girls.

My Dad, raised me on jazz. We had pictures of black people all over the house as icons. All I really thought at that age is that black people were the most creative beings of the earth. I am still not convinced that is a wrong perception. Dad would say things like “can you imagine, going through all this pain and suffering by society- just for the colour of your skin?”. Stevie Wonder helped him to illustrate to me this point, through lots and lots of music.

I remember Mandela’s release. My parents were so happy. Not really understanding who he was apart from he was good, and lived in Africa. Dad said “if me and your mother lived in South Africa, it would be illegal for us to be together. Can you imagine that?”

There. There it was. It started. My germinating consciousness was rumbling, developing, and ever so slowly…growing. With me.

Slam. A loud cursing in Gujurati, short, sharp and heated. Phone down and my mother turned. She screamed “Come on!!”. Tears were coming down her face and she was scowling, angry and hurt. I got frightened when she cried, I didn’t understand what it meant. I rushed, confused, not knowing what I had done. The phone rang again. “DONT ANSWER IT!! Come on its time to go, let it ring, we aren’t answering it.” I knew it was my Uncle, her brother. I don’t know what he wanted. I knew it wasn’t good. I knew then- that whatever his problem was with Dad, the feeling was entirely mutual. We used to walk down the shops in Thornton Heath, where Mum would get large bags of rice for cheap from the Indian shops. I really couldn’t see anyone that wasn’t indian there.

Alien. Everyone stares. I looked out the window at the cars driving past, on the road. They spoke English out there, like me.

As we worked our way around, Mum got the various ingredients she needed, whilst everyone around us just- stared. At me, then at Mum, then at me, then at my sister, then at my mum once more. Then outside at the road. Slowing down picking up their okras, peering over glasses… throwing some sari material over a shoulder so they could turn their head fully to have a look. Of course they were whispering and talking about us.

I couldn’t understand the language. It made me feel even more humiliated that I couldn’t. “Just ignore them, don’t look back, keep moving.” But they kept looking.

It wasn’t because we were “beautiful”. It is because we looked different. It is because we were clearly, mixed race. Half-caste. Whatever anyone wants to call it. The label is up for grabs.

That isn’t Gujarati, that isn’t even Indian. We were not part of the community, we were outcasts. Even in Swaminarayan religion, it says that this mixing, is…not supposed to happen. A trespass into English society that Indian families were not there to do. Set up shops and business and get educated, yes. Marry them? Breed with them? Absolutely not. No true Indian woman would ever do that. No Indian woman would shame and dishonour her family like that.

I won’t ever forget the looks my Mum got from people. I saw the disapproval in their eyes. I felt responsible for the looks we all got.

“When people ask you where you are from, just say Orpington. It’s rude that they ask because it doesn’t matter and it shouldn’t make a difference.” Of course, that didn’t work. No one is satisfied with that. And it really is useless letting them guess greek, italian, turkish, arabic, spanish, and so on until I really get fed up and just answer “half english half indian”. It is the only definition they will understand.

“Ohhhhhhhh!” Suddenly it all makes sense. There you go. The nodding, evaluating, the smiling saying ‘cool!’ whilst they locate the appropriate stereotypes of race in their brain. They stop to contemplate it for a moment, then the curiosity intrigues them even more. “How did your parents meet?”

That is really the racial divide in the context of the UK. We all coexist together avoiding relationships across lines though still deeply fascinated with how the others live. Or where we all actually come from. I’m the same age, even older than my cousins, yet I am regarded as ‘modern’ because I am mixed. We all get racism, we all experience it, we are all utterly messed up with perception in the homeland of colonialism that systematically destroyed all of our home countries throughout the world- now trying to celebrate we are ‘different’. “Multi-culturalism” they call it. I don’t buy it, personally.

I don’t believe that the UK is melting pot. Its a distillery. Only the most refined, those that have been purified over and over with a meritocracy and elitism end up the cream at the top.

What is it like being half white in an Indian community in England? They assume that your Mother has no culture. Never that your Dad has more than most.

 

 

Curly Hair

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Curly Hair.

My Curly hair.
This hair I have on my head has always been something I’ve had to be conscious about.
Growing up my soft curls where a marker of my “difference”.
Mum had poker straight black hair. That turned the colours of salt and pepper. As we both grow older.
Dad had his hair very short. His was very curly, but it wasn’t like mine.
My curls. When I dared to let them show. Reminded me of the beautiful blend of my parents union.

But,

It would be a lie to say that this difference. Didn’t cause me much discord.
My experience with my hair, wasn’t like the struggles I saw on TV. From people like me.
I didn’t grow up in an environment with more than a handful of White folks.
I definitely won’t deny that “White approximation beauty standards” were present.
However I remember my struggles with the knots in & on my head relating to wanting to hide my “difference”.
My shade of brown. Allowed me to move between identities in and around town.
With my hair cut short.
I could mask a part of me that gave away my secret.
It raised questions. Many students at the school would touch and play with my hair and ask me questions about it.
I would stare at the mirror in the mornings and comb my hair obsessively.
Trying to tame my mane into some sort of shape that wasn’t too “disruptive”.

I just didn’t want to bring attention to it, you know?

I remember going to the barber shop.
My Dad would drop me off  just opposite my school early on a Saturday morning.
The store there had hair dressers from West Africa and the walls where covered in pictures and hair extensions…
“Dark and Lovely”
Long lengths of synthetic hair. Some of it looked like real hair.. But I wasn’t sure.
I remember thinking that it was odd. But I was terrified to ask a question.
It seemed like something so obvious and normal that I should know. And should understand.
But I didn’t.
I would always sit quietly.
Even when I was on the seat with the barber waving a buzzer menacingly above my head.
I hated cutting my hair!
No matter how we cut it. It never turned out how I wanted it to.

I remember when I first heard about the relaxer.
There was a older lady with her head leaning back into the sink.
They where massaging her hair with something like shampoo. And when they finished they would say..
“Call me when it burns”
I remember peeking over the stack of Cosmopolitan magazines I was pretending to read.
Trying to get information about what on Earth they meant.
Imagining what my hair would look like if I did it.

“Mum wouldn’t like that” I thought to myself.

..

When I would arrive home after my haircut. Feeling self conscious and like I’d lost about half a kilogram of weight off my head. My mother would invariably look at me up and down. Ask me to turn all the way around.
And laugh.
“You look like a sheep that’s been sheared with a good pair of clippers” she giggled.
I would sulk off somewhere after a half hearted protest.
To be honest. They made me feel better. I don’t know why.. But they did.

..

My sister’s hair.
Was so beautiful. Is so beautiful.
Her curls. Where always softer and larger than mine.
Hers formed like a mane over her head. And I remember feeling a little jealous.
But I also knew that she felt pressure. I can’t think of anyone around us who had hair like hers.
She always wanted to straighten her hair.
She would beg my mother for hair irons. And would try to negotiate on Salon trips to get it straightened.
I found this odd.
Everyone loved her hair.
My mother would often refuse. I remember her saying
“Why do you want to look like someone else?”
I kind of understood why she felt this way. But I never told her that.
Instead I would scold her. Shout at her. And almost command her.
To keep it curly.
I really regret that. I think that with my difficulties with my hair and how it connected with identity I would take out my frustrations on her. I felt I was entitled to.
If I admonished her decision to straighten her hair.
I’d make it simpler for myself to hide. The feelings I had about my own hair. Locked inside.

I did great damage there. There’s no doubt I’m guilty.

..

Good Hair

This was a conversation that happened all the time at school. I had Good hair. The way it looked was preferred to many of my black peers. I knew this. And I felt uncomfortable about it. Teachers, family and peers would fawn over my curls when I would let it grow for a bit. I never understood why. Whenever I’d look in the mirror all I would see was something disorganized. Wild and untidy.

It took a long time for me to start appreciating it. I once dated a young woman who loved my hair when I allowed it to curl. She would play with it and often joke..
“If you cut it I will leave you” while she laughed.
That experience really helped me start to look at myself in a more healthy way.
I didn’t feel like hiding away what made me different. I started to understand that my difference made me beautiful..

But,
I knew that what was beautiful was always political. I began to find new words to understand feelings I had for as long as I can remember.
I felt uncomfortable because many had pointed out that my hair was beautiful because it wasn’t like black hair. Nappy. Or whatever awful word they use.
I knew that I didn’t feel beautiful. Or handsome. Because the Indian men who I admired and aspired to be.
Had straight “enough” hair. And in a community who’s entry was so safe guarded and protected.
An Afro. Like mine. Wouldn’t go undetected.

Now,

I try.. I try to fight back against the nagging feeling in my head when I comb my hair in the morning.

I shut up when my sister wants to change her hair.

I try my best to grow and to love my very own..

Curly hair.

Confusion.

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Authenticity. Authentic. What is that? I always wondered, what it meant when people referred to the lentils mum made us as “really authentic, not like that stuff you get in the curry houses thats not real, its not actually indian compared to this”. I assume it was because she was the only indian person that they actually knew, the first time that they actually saw lentils being made in this way.

Authenticity. The first thing that comes to mind was a house, a large old manor that was converted into a place called “Trading Boundaries” and there were two large model elephants outside. We used to go there to look at the furniture that had been imported from Bali on the way back from school. It was lavish.

Trading Boundaries, East Sussex, UK

The objects and ornaments in there mixed with the smell of incense felt like something, out of a book I read called A Little Princess. A story, of little rich girl that feels lost and abandoned in London, after being sent to boarding school from India where her father is a Captain. Upon her father’s death in war, and a confusion about financial ownership she is rendered worthless by the English headmistress and made to be a servant at the school, where previously she was a princess. Anyway, the part that I remember is that she becomes friends with a black girl called Becky, who is also a servant though treated a lot worse than the princess, but they bond over their misery and become friends and the princess entertains her with magical stories of Gods in India. There is also a pet monkey involved somewhere that they play with and love as much as they do each other.

What a story to read as a little girl. Being half indian, half english, the princess of my fathers eye, blissfully unaware of what colonialism actually was. Confusion, is a word that doesn’t quite cover it. Authentic?

My mother is Indian and was born in Tanzania. She came over to Britain with the great wave of Indians that did from East Africa amongst political unrest where they were forced to choose between an African or a British passport. They chose British as did many, for the obvious economic and state security benefits. As immigrants coming in however; they were assigned to a council house by the government. It was small, poor, closed in and stacked on top of other places that were occupied by immigrants from all over the world. Neighbours were from Africa, Jamaica, India, Pakistan and more. Of course there are the poorest english people living there too, who didn’t take very kindly to all the foreigners coming in. Black, brown, Arab looking people flooded London. Gang culture and violence in this particular area was rife. It is very symbolic of the ‘multi-cultural’ society we are told that Britain is. The council estate area that my mother is from, also has the highest percentage of the British National Party supporters in all of the UK. This party, only regards White British people as British; all others are aliens in a country that doesn’t belong to them. Their ideology exists and lives in British society.

I remember that as my family were sitting around the living room, a brick came through my late grandmothers window and smashed into it, whilst my cousin was still a new born in her arms.

Safety in numbers has always meant further exclusion to me. Sometimes, you identify as part one of a group, under oppression from another. What happens when you fit into both? By the BNP we are regarded as “unnatural”. The sordid crossing of a boundary that was never supposed to be crossed. And it isn’t just the BNP that say that.

What I do know, is it isn’t my war. It has taken the best part of my life to realise, and understand that this conflict isn’t actually me. This feeling, of confusion and identity misplacement, is an experience that belongs to many.

There is this radical notion that people fall in love. Even now, its highly debatable. The stars shining, fireworks blasting, the high and giddy feeling when it happens…well…it happens. Two humans get married and make children. Drastically different humans, from different corners of the earth with different cultures, languages, skin colour, perceptions from society, and all sorts, come together fall in love and want to start a family. I am a direct product of that. I am no different, to any other child in that respect.

My father, is the son of a wildly free-spirited woman. She’s a northern lady, that moved to London with her husband not long after the war. From northern roots, she identified less with the conservative rich of the South. She had radical ideas of communism. She showed us films of Ginger Rogers, Judy Garland, Audrey Hepburn gave us books that she had read and made me read ‘Emma’. In love with her children and life to some extent, she reminded us all that it was present, happening and to embrace it.

My father, educated through her, finally brought my mother home. I am told, and can quite clearly see to this day, the two women formed an unshakable bond. A white middle class woman that gained an Indian working class daughter-in-law, treated her better than she ever could have dreamt, should she have married someone from her own community. My grandmother campaigned, for her daughter in-laws right to choose who she married regardless of culture. This is where, I do identify as a woman. Patriarchy governs all colours.

If someone was to ask where my deepest fundamental beliefs are; I am neither brown nor white. Politically, I am closest to being black. White imperialism, in its essence, I hold responsible for this myriad of insecurity and confusion amongst us all. That being said, I see no justice nor punishment happen to anyone for it either.

I once began to work for my Dad in London on weekends for extra cash and he had an Indian staff member. I was left alone with him for a while, where he asked a lot about my mum. He said- “so hold on, have they taught you Gujarati? You can speak it right?” No, I replied. “See this is my biggest problem with this mixing. Its the children that suffer and get confused when they lose all connection to their true heritage and tradition.”

I suppose I should be offended.

Commodification. When you are white enough for people to relate to, but have what people politely call an “exotic look” you get photographed next to all kinds of things. It was a fascination. It wasn’t malicious.

Until of course, a boy at school tells you that he “likes a dirty Paki” then tells you to “fuck off back to the corner shop” when you are too “frigid” to let him shove his hand down your top. Well I didn’t know what a “Paki” was? Pakistan is a country that has nothing to do with me. I was confused. Though I didn’t know why he was trying to shove his hand down my top either at that age.

I did know, that there were more boys like him around than there were girls like me. For a long while, my mum was the only non-white parent to come and pick me up from school. Something was developing in my consciousness. Everybody acted like there wasn’t a blindly obvious situation here- though I didn’t understand what it was. We are different, that’s all I knew. But that wasn’t quite what it was either. Why was I always always always made to be Scary Spice when I didn’t like her, I wanted to be Posh Spice, eventually Victoria Beckham.

Caught In-between

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Caught In-between.

So for the longest time. I had grown up thinking of myself as an “almost” Indian. A half-Indian. Half caste. Whatever the hell sort of awful approximation of an authentic identity I desired. Loathed. Loved. And pursued.

I had dealt with a lot of people who felt at complete ease telling me what it “is” that I am.

My Dad is black you see. And many attempts I’ve made to connect with my mother’s heritage sending me packing. As if somehow invoking the dominance of the influence of “the father” is going to resolve the annoyance of having to decide which “box” I’m allowed to be in. It was always a tricky thing to even communicate to my own mother, who was not a cultural woman herself and could not understand what I was looking for. She could not understand why their rejection of me mattered to me – and I couldn’t understand why it was I was being denied my authenticity.

In classrooms from Juniors and Seniors alike. I was poked and prodded, initially treated with curiosity but falling into dismissive indifference at my advances to gain acceptance. To be honest, I also have always felt that this pursuit was partly out of the lottery of my genetics. If I didn’t look so much like a scrawny Indian chap I’d probably have been doing this tired old tap dance for affirmation was other cultural groups around my community.

Yeah, authenticity is a funny thing. A painful thing.

I felt apologetic for my Mixedness. And I know too well how much resentment that has built within me, I feel frustrated and sensitive to the touch.

My jaws clench and my heart tense when some ask about my background. Some will engage with interest and enthusiasm. We’d engage in spirit conversations as I unpack everything I know about my family tree in record time.

Others will ignore it. And it will not come up unless I bring it forward.

And there are some. Not a few by any stretch.

Who will make efforts to assure me “it’s nothing special”, or respond to my explanation with a sneer.  I am told I’m not mixed “enough” to have the identity crisis I identify with.

Can you imagine?

I guess I’d be allowed to have more loud.. And palatable conflicts.. if I had been mixed with Whiteness.

No one likes being painted with a single brush. It silences something so delicate. We all hold multiple identities, and have unique relationships with what those mean to us. But to be cast in the light of restrictive boundaries with such consistent indifference takes its toll after time.

For so many reasons. I now identify myself as politically black.

But within that construction. There is so much contested ground. So much I need to understand about how I am to express and reconcile my Indian identity. It has been all too easy to let it fall by the wayside but all too often I am reminded that simply ignoring it is no freedom. I have come to bear resentment for what Indianness has represented in my life. I can barely mask a scowl when I’m having curry in a crowded Indian restaurant. I feel under threat. Angry that I don’t understand all the names and variations on the menu. Scared to ask what anything means. Anxious at being discovered. Feeling deeply inauthentic.

I have thought that perhaps I need some kind of journey to India. Perhaps with my mother. To go and to confront a heritage that I am in danger of blocking out altogether.

Perhaps then, I will find a way to reconcile feeling caught in-between.