I first moved to the UK aged 16 in 2008, and when I went to A-level this was the sentence I heard the most.
“What are you yeah, what are you?”
Human was not an appropriate answer; I kept silent.
“Oh I’m Gujy yeah… I’m Punjabi innit…. Tamil, fam, I’m tamil.”
This sentence was used to divide and conquer, and I didn’t understand the importance of it. Growing up in the Caribbean, my identity was less about where my parents were from or what cards my ancestry had dealt, but where I had spent most of my life. I was as Caribbean as Mr Raj; Mr Raj as Caribbean as I. But here suddenly I wasn’t so simple. I was a strange half-beast, an amalgamation of Caribbean and African owing to my mother’s heritage – Mr Raj, were he here, would be Gujarati or something. My identity, the one I had formed, suddenly didn’t matter.
It’s weird when someone corrects you on how you see yourself. I wasn’t British (even though my passport says so) because I grew up around coconut trees and the beach. I wasn’t wholly St Lucian because my mother was born and raised in a country which imprisoned a rather nice man for 27 years for his beliefs that people were equal regardless of skin colour. Nor was I African, the lilt in my tone and the over-enunciation of certain letters giving a decidedly unAfrican twang to my sentences. So. Yeah. What are you yeah?
I had long arguments about this. Half-St Lucian, half South African my (rather unBritishly large) ass. Did I look like the villain Two-Face from Batman? Did one half of me want to cook up a braai and the other half of me want to jook gyal jook gyal jook gyal jook gyal? Was I split down the middle, between my short-sighted eyes, down my cleavage, one leg in each culture? Was it actually through my bellybutton? Is that why my butt was so big (“like all South African women” I’ve been told. The cheek), but my hair was so soft (“All Caribbean people have good hair” a Nigerian hairdresser knowingly said as she proceeded to try to rip out my edges). I ticked the Black-British-Caribbean box because it was neither specific enough (I wanted to be St Lucian on paper at least) nor general enough (can’t I just be black?) for my liking.
I also somehow wasn’t living up to the expectation of an “Island girl” when I got here. I didn’t say bacon like beercan, or greeted people with WhaGwan and praised Haile Selassie. I listened to people other than Sean Paul and Bob Marley. I wasn’t a rasta or had locks. I ate more than just bananas.
So what are you, yeah? Human. Female. Black. British. St Lucian. Me. It’s been 8 years and that question still confuses me. Why does it exist?
I did spend a few months saying I was Sri Lankan though. Just for shits and giggles.