The politics of hyphenated identities. Snéha Khilay

I have been given two hyphenated identities. The first one was given over 40 years ago when my family and I left Uganda and came to UK. We were referred to as ‘Ugandan Asians’.  This was to differentiate us from those of African ethnicity. More recently, the media, government policies and the census has put me into the category of ‘British Asian’*.

There has been an ongoing controversy whether hyphenated identities are considered woefully inadequate to truly encapsulate a multicultural UK, where different cultures do live and work together in some form of harmony, with about 400 languages spoken in London. There is also an expectation for the diaspora communities living in UK to absorb and merge into the British culture.

I was listening to a radio show last week where the presenter mentioned an ‘Indian’ caller who had raised concerns about a particular British political party and its racist undertones. My immediate and biased reaction was to wonder whether the caller, given that he was from India, had sufficient knowledge about British politics. The radio presenter corrected himself and said the ‘Indian’ caller was ‘British Asian’ at which point I accepted (assumed) that he would know about British politics.

The hyphenated identity is a term that implies a dual identity. It evokes questions regarding which side of the hyphen the person belongs to, giving the impression that the person is oscillating between two cultures. I certainly have been asked “So what are you, British or Asian?” I am aware that when I am in UK, I am considered Asian but when in India, I am referred to as British and even Non-Resident Indian (NRI). Thus, are these hyphenated identities based on culture, nationality, religion, country of origin or simply refer to skin colour?

In the UK, we openly use terms such as Black British, British Asian and even Black and Minority Ethnic, often known in its acronym form of BME. At a recent conference, I overheard a participant complain about a person jumping the queue at the train station and she went on to say “…that is the type of behaviour I would expect from a BME.” Through this one statement, the participant had totally negated the fact that Black and Minority Ethnic communities encompass a multitude of cultures, behaviours, rituals, language patterns and attitudes. She had tarnished everyone who is not white with the same negative brush stroke, all because someone had jumped a queue.

It is worth considering that the hyphenated labelling somehow does not seem to apply to other large migrant populations living in UK, we do not hear of ‘British Romanians’, ‘British Irish’, ‘British Portuguese’, ‘British Australians’ etc. Does this mean that dual identities are only applied to people who are not white?

There is another interesting concept for consideration. The Muslim community living in UK have been given the hyphenated identity of ‘British Muslim’, yet hyphenated identities have not been given to other religious groups living in UK. For instance, there are no references to  ‘British Jews’,  ‘British Hindus’, ‘British Sikhs etc.  It is hard to understand why the media has made a distinct reference specifically to British Muslims, identified only by religion and not by ethnicity or country.

Some believe that the British Asian identity, in my case British Indian identity, in essence has transplanted Indian identity, supposedly to preserve the ‘Indian’ culture, language and rituals. Others believe that a person who is British Asian is now intrinsically British and should be understood within the context of assimilation and multiculturalism.

During a recent visit to India, the street pedlars gave me a lot of hassle to buy their wares whilst my taxi waited at a traffic light. My response to the pedlars was to politely say “No, thank you” or “I am fine” which somehow allowed the street pedlars to hassle me further. My Indian friends, conditioned to respond differently, were highly amused by my British politeness and suggested that I should have been aggressive by telling the street pedlars to go away.

Have I been assimilated into the British culture to such an extent that my country of origin’s behaviour norms have become alien? I did think my Indian friends’ suggested response somehow contravenes what I had absorbed of the British culture, the concept of courtesy towards everyone irrespective of their status. Putting it another way, was I hooking my personal values into the notion that this is part of the British culture, a culture I am most familiar with?

Photo of two girls - a black girl smiling in the foreground, a white girl smiling in the back.

© Flickr user Viewminder

For me personally, being British and Indian has its advantages, I can easily and comfortably assimilate into either culture. However, there are times when I am very much aware and conscious of my ‘non-white’ status in a meeting or event, especially if I am the only person who is from a (visible) minority background. Admittedly there are times when I feel more British than Indian and other times more Indian than British, for instance at an Indian function when I am wearing a sari, dancing and miming to Bollywood songs and laughing at the in jokes which only an Indian person would understand.

I am aware that I have worked hard, with support from my family, so the incompatibility between being British and being Indian is reduced. My parents have instilled in me the value of independence, free thinking and that there should not be an excuse or reason for being held back. These values and ethics are universal and cannot be labelled to belonging to one country or one culture and fundamentally are more related to an individual’s beliefs and principles.

I have three identities – born in Uganda, of Indian ethnicity and holding British nationality – and all of these backgrounds have made me who I am now. I truly do not believe that I have to sacrifice any of the identities over another. In fact I value what the different identities have to offer and think I have become stronger, more open, accepting and resilient as a result.

*In UK, Asian is used to refer to those of South Asian ancestry, in particular Indian, Sri Lankan, Pakistani and Bangladeshi. The Chinese, Korean and Japanese are not included in this definition and are more likely to be defined by their country of origin.

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