Identity and ethnicity, how we come to use and need the different ways which we describe ourselves

You’re about to read about my ethnic or racial identity; it’s personal and I expect it to be treated with respect. If you cannot oblige, please try to stop reading now.

For too many any discussion of identity provokes an immediate authoritarian, polarised reaction and that reaction, that thoughtless, immediate, instinctive response is a part and parcel of the kernel of racism. So, please take this opportunity to watch your own reactions as though they were someone else’s and reflect on your own reactions too, allowing those with a sense of a minority identity a degree of flexibility and control.

For me my earliest ideas of identity formed very early in life and were exciting, something special and to be open about, I was aware by the age of three that I spoke and understood both Bengali – a language without gendered pronouns – and English, with its greater focus on gender. By the time I was four, I described myself as “Bengali”, though born in south west London to a professional, middle class family which lived in north and central London since the late 1920’s, however I am still asked where I am really from. I had at the time never been to Bangladesh or India, but I am a part of my global family and its global identity is Bengali or, in Bengali, Bangali. The language has a surprising amount in common with Russian, both grammar and vocabulary. Our family was from the parts of Bangladesh nearest India, and I was told that 400 years previously had relocated from Rajasthan. The family tree was in the Jagannath Mandir (temple) in Puri, and when I first went there, aged 11, my existence also was recorded. Hindus are prohibited, I was told, from marrying any blood relative who was directly related within seven generations on that tree.

After joining our local primary school at the age of 4, I returned home to announce that I had found someone else who was “Bengali” also. It turned out that Rebecca was Jewish, but in reception class I believed that anyone who had a different identity was Bengali, my world was polarised into the majority and the one minority, “Bengali”. The feeling that anyone from any minority group, no matter which, is one of us, has never left me.

When I was six, I witnessed playground racism for the first time and wondered why one person was ostracised, but not me and knew immediately, though no adult was aware, that the behaviour was wrong.

When I was ten, I travelled for the first time to India for a Christmas holiday with my extended family. I returned alone, seated next to a couple from Muswell Hill, one of whom reminded me of Martin Jarvis who read on Jackanory as though he was speaking with adults. They asked me was I British or Indian, again imposing a polarised view which I did not appreciate at the time and my response was, “I’m Marisha, one of a kind.” And now decades later, I describe myself both as “BaME” and as “, British Indian Bengali”, but if asked to describe the ethnicity of my family across the globe, I just say Bengali, and minority ethnic simply doesn’t make sense. We don’t describe ourselves globally by the identities that British nationals choose to confer on us.

For years I did not like the term “BaME” Black and Minority Ethnic, until I started seeing the need for what was to become the Alderdice Enquiry, which brought evidence together of the mistreatment and gaslighting of people from certain under represented groups and made recommendations for improvements. This phenomenon, which exists not only in political parties in general but also across the UK and far beyond in all sorts of organisations and locations, is a shared experience among most if not all whose appearance is in some way different from the majority. Those of us of minority ethnic appearance were diverse in every way, but the one thing we had in common was being survivors of those who mistreat us or who deny us a view, a say or simply feelings and emotions of our own as people; some survivors are so acclimatised that they accept it as their lot in life, some push back, others forget, and some keep a log, and still others feel a need for revenge. Each individual is different.

However we all recognise that we are being treated in an unusual way, because so many of us now interact with people across the globe who do not behave in these ways at all.

There is a need for a term like BaME, but we none of us grew up with a BaME identity, I grew up with Bengali language, Bengali food, nightly Bengali lullabies, Bengali art, beautiful Bengali summer dresses and most importantly of all Bengali books; only through discrimination, a shared experience did we become aware of a shared BaME identity. That discrimination continues, there is a continuing need for shared and different identities, those we hold locally to stand against discrimination and disrespect and those we hold globally.

Our individual identities are nuanced and are ours; please be careful to accord others the freedom to identify how they see fit for different purposes, in different ways and at different times or not do so at all if they each prefer, for now or ever.

* Marisha Ray is a Liberal Democrat London Assembly Candidate for the Barnet and Camden constituency; she was a London Assembly London wide list candidate in 2012 and 2016, a parliamentary candidate in a 2012 by-election, and the 2015 and 2017 General Elections.

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10 Comments

  • I enjoyed reading this.

    I was born in Pakistan and moved to the UK with my mother at the age of 2; my father was already here. I have never set foot in Pakistan since.

    I describe myself as a Briton whose ethnicity is Punjabi and whose religion is Muslim.

    I am philosophical about being asked “Where are you from?” / “Manchester” / “Where are you really from?” / “I was born in Pakistan.”

  • Thank you Marisha for this article. It has sparked a train of thought which we all should visit from time to time. We need to remind ourselves that we are all born equal, but life doesn’t allow us to remain equal for long unless we all act to make it so.

  • Christopher Woolmer 28th Nov '20 - 10:58am

    Thank you for sharing these very personal experiences which are helpful in understanding the situation for us all.

  • Interesting article. Thanks.

  • Tony Greaves 28th Nov '20 - 7:42pm

    “Our individual identities are nuanced and are ours; please be careful to accord others the freedom to identify how they see fit for different purposes, in different ways and at different times or not do so at all if they each prefer, for now or ever.”

    This is one of the most Liberal sentences I have read in this whole context.

  • Nonconformistradical 28th Nov '20 - 9:09pm

    @Tony Greaves 28th Nov ’20 – 7:42pm

    Seconded

  • I am reminded of a young lady I knew from Leicester who was of Asian descent some years ago. She regarded me as typically British but in many ways so was she.

  • @Marisha:
    “For years I did not like the term “BaME” Black and Minority Ethnic, ….”
    “…There is a need for a term like BaME, but we none of us grew up with a BaME identity, I grew up with Bengali language, Bengali food, nightly Bengali lullabies, Bengali art, beautiful Bengali summer dresses and most importantly of all Bengali books; only through discrimination, a shared experience did we become aware of a shared BaME identity. That discrimination continues, there is a continuing need for shared and different identities, those we hold locally to stand against discrimination and disrespect and those we hold globally.”

    I share Marisha’s lack of enthusiasm for the term “BaME” (Black and Minority Ethnic), or indeed BAME (Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic), firstly because they’re acronyms – which is never a good start, especially when the same letters can stand for two different things – and secondly because I can see no good reason why it singles out one or two specific groups (which are themselves hugely ethnically diverse) and lumps all the rest together as if all non-black, non-Asian people had one identity and experience.

    Of course, unlike Marisha, this is never going to be a matter if self-identification for me as long as I remain in a majority-white country.

    However, I’m interested to see this month’s survey by Sporting Equals, which suggests that BAME is also not a very popular term with those it describes: https://www.theguardian.com/sport/2020/nov/12/bame-term-offends-those-it-attempts-to-describe-sporting-survey-finds-sporting-equals.

    Sporting Equals concludes that BAME “places recognition on some communities whilst ignoring others entirely” and does not allow for “ethnic and cultural complexities”; it suggests that BAME be abandoned in favour of “ethnically diverse communities” and “diverse ethnic communities”.

    I suspect that adopting two variants with a difference of meaning that is too subtle to be easily understood would not be very helpful.

    However, apart from that this does seem like a far more useful and respectful approach than BAME.

    I’ll be interested to hear what Marisha and others feel about it; and to see whether it will be taken up more widely.

  • At present I feel that I would like to retain the term BaME, in part because it uses the word Black. There is much Anti Black discrimination in the UK and a significant part of it is people denying its existence and thus gaslighting the victims, and tbus I like the use of the term Black up front. I believe that getting rid of BaME and BAME might be a manifestation of anti Black discrimination, and I have heard absolutely none of my colleagues who identify as being Black saying that they want to drop the term. Until I hear Black people say that they want BaME and BAME to go, I am for retaining it. When I hear a substantial number of liberal Black members of our communities for its removal, then my view will be different. It is important that we who are not Black are able to be led by people who are, this is simply a baby step in that direction.

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