When I was about 10, I picked up a book that was lying on the table in my aunt’s house. The girl on the cover looked too much like me to resist. She had dark brown skin, black hair in pigtails, and exuded youth. The only difference was that I couldn’t see her face. The word emblazoned above her in striking red capitals read ‘SHAME’.
I became engrossed in this book. Shame by Jasvinder Sanghera told her story of running away from home, panic stricken, to escape a forced marriage, her subsequent rejection from her family, and her attempts to escape an abusive relationship. I never finished it, and there were parts I didn’t understand, but it is burned in to my mind because it was the first piece of media I had consumed which dissected and presented, in black and white, what I believed to be the pain of being a brown girl in Britain.
After that, everything else cascaded in to a blur. My family are nothing like hers, and my parents would never expect me to marry like her or her sisters had to. However, I have seen firsthand the devastation and rejection that a ‘shameful’ marriage or a divorce can bring about in the most seemingly loving families. Shame struck me, not because I identified with the specifics of her story, but because I seemed to see, over and over again, the image of a brown girl with ‘shame’ over her head narrating my life.
All the external information I was consuming about what it meant to be British-Asian was telling me that I had inherited a culture of misogynistic violence and backwards thinking. Forced marriage, gender roles, domestic abuse, honour killings, familial disowning, and the idea of ‘respectability’ dominated the narrative. I could see that there were women who had managed to rise above this, but I could also see that they were few and far between. Jasvinder Sanghera has done some amazing things with her life – campaigning for forced marriage to become specifically illegal in the UK, setting up Karma Nirvana to aid women going through the injuries of forced and abusive relationships, and winning a host of awards – but unfortunately her story played in to the narrative I was already experiencing. Every biopic, article, or conversation I consumed led me to one inescapable conclusion – my culture was pure poison.
Seeing stories of violence like Shame, both in novels, in the news, and first hand, seemed to me to justify the disgust I felt for my Indian heritage. They seemed to tell me that the white kids at school who thought our skin made us ugly and our language made us ridiculous were right. I never wanted to learn Punjabi, I vocally ridiculed India, I stayed silent when anyone took the piss. I never threw any of the other coloured people in my school under the bus to elevate and distance myself, but it would have been easy. To my credit I did occasionally argue and educate, but it was easier not to – I’m sure readers will recognise the feeling of fighting a battle alone.
I felt relief whenever I spent a day with my cousins eating home cooked food and watching movies, or when I was sitting with any of my peers of colour at school. These occasions seemed to straddle the gap, make me feel normal, and provide me with scenarios where being British-Asian might actually provide me with something joyful. However, as soon as I was alone, or with white British peers, this joy would quickly dissipate. What I really needed was a media campaign to fill my life with reasons why this joy should be explored, kept, and spread – that my Indian heritage didn’t just predispose me to experience rejection, abuse, and misogyny in my later life.
There is no inherent flaw in being a person of colour. It may disadvantage us, but that is not our fault or problem. It makes us who we are and it allows for a nuanced personal perspective of exploring and fighting for one’s identity, what systematic prejudice means in practice, and the joy that can be found in celebrating ancestry and family. We inherit deeply complex and beautiful heritages which may carry flaws but do not define it. It is helpful to recognise and actively combat these flaws, but we cannot let them encompass all the stories about the Asian diaspora. The image of the ‘sad coloured woman’ coming up against injustice is prevalent in almost everything I’ve consumed about the diaspora. She exists, but she is not universal. What we all need is more stories about the joy and beauty we inherit in order to fully appreciate who we are. We can recognise our failings while extolling the bravery in the face of this, and appreciate our sprawling but tight knit families, our food, or the simple happiness that dancing exudes. We are not made ugly or unwanted simply because there are changes in our culture that need to be made.
Since my teenage years, I’ve noticed more and more people try and strike this balance. I have seen it in excellent photographs of people rediscovering traditional clothes, in Asian and dark skin appreciation tags, and movements such as Black Pride. All these small parts are rewriting the image of the ‘sad coloured woman’, and instead presenting a patchwork of proud, wonderful, beautiful, fascinating individuals. This is exactly the image that 10 year old Jai needed to see to convince me that my heritage could be something to be appreciated.
Shame haunts us all. Society stalks us doggedly and tars us with it for being who we are, and leads us to want to hide ourselves. This is true for most people, as well as ethnic minorities. It’s been an uphill struggle to try and reconnect with my identity, be proud of it, and to show it rather than hide it. I’ve taken to retraining myself to see Indian dress as normal and not something to only wear around my family, I share my cooking with others, I talk freely of my life and family, I speak louder. It’s letting me breathe again, and every time a person of colour tells me that my pride is making them feel more comfortable and more appreciative in turn, I feel that ‘shame’ above my head being scratched out bit by bit.
Jai Deo (she/her) is a freelance author who specialises in exploring social and political affairs which affect queer people and people of colour, and the structures that affect how we move through the world. She is also an amateur poet, and performs semi-classical Indian dance and burlesque at a number of queer venues across London and the Midlands. Her writing can also be found in online magazines gal-dem and The Nopebook. You can follow her on Instagram @jai7deo and @jaiburlesque, and on Twitter @jai7de
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