Modern Identity Is Not All Black Or White
Harlesden had been black, Oxford was white. I went from being the only
white kid on the team to the only black kid on the team.
This was no big deal. My friends' families came from
Jamaica and Guyana and India and Ireland and England and Wales and Spain
and South Africa. I was vaguely aware that I was Jewish; but everyone
was something. None of it seemed very serious.
All this time, I scrawled sarcastic comments across any ethnic monitoring forms that came my way. Well, it's not nice when they don't have a box for you.
That became considerably harder after university, when I got a job running diversity policy for a big company. I learned about institutional racism and about monitoring and about glass ceilings and about how, at every imaginable stage in recruitment, promotion and termination, across all employment sectors, people with darker skin get treated worse than people with lighter skin with the same aptitudes and qualifications. And I understood that without hard data, you couldn't prove this was happening, and do anything about it. And that I ought to fill the form in. So I started to tick the box 'mixed race'.
As part of the job, I started to try and get more
people from different ethnic backgrounds to apply to the company. I went
out and started talking to groups of black people or Muslims or whatever.
And they all thought I was one of them. The black people thought I was
black - light-skinned, certainly, but black. Muslims assumed I was Muslim.
Indians had me down as an Indian. Arabs thought I was an Arab. Greeks
- well, check the surname: Mokades.
I told him no, not exactly, but it didn't matter. He'd made his mind up - I was a brother. So he was going to show me Harlem. And as we crossed 110th street, down went the windows, up went the music, and out came Raul's chat. 'Hey, shorty!'. 'Lookin' fine, sista'. 'Where you headin', girlfriend?' And so on. By the time the impromptu tour of Harlem was finished, Raul - who had confessed to me both that he had eight women on the go and that he was a member of the Nation of Islam - had decided I was not just a brother but a friend for life. 'Here's my number, man, put it in your cell phone and give me a call Saturday. I'm a go' hook you up with the finest ghetto sistas'.
So there you have it. I'm black and I'm brown and I'm a brother and I'm Indian and I'm Jewish and I'm Muslim. White people have told me I'm white, too: after all I went to Oxford and I talk properly, don't I? Wherever I go, I can fit in. So I'm everything. But I'm nothing. I fit in, but I'm never at home. I'm not part of a 'community'. I'm Jewish, but I don't practise, and I'm about as unlike your average north London Jew as it's possible to be.
So talk of 'people from ethnic minority communities' makes me feel a bit left out. I don't spring from a community. I'm not alone, either. Among my friends I count a woman who is half-Zimbabwean, half-English; another half-Filipino, half-German Brit; a guy who is half-Dutch, half-Nigerian; and so on. All of us have complex identities.
And it may be that in the future there will be more rather than fewer of us - the 2001 census suggested that mixed-race people had the youngest average age profile, and one in five of London's schoolchildren will soon be from mixed-race backgrounds. I know there can never be a box on those forms for every possible permutation of ethnic origin. But I also hope that as mixed-race people become more numerous and start to reach the higher echelons of British society, a more sophisticated understanding of ethnicity will evolve: one which allows people like me to be seen as a subtle shade of beige.
Raphael Mozades is managing director of Rare
Recruitment, a recruitment agency for ethnic minority graduates. firstname.lastname@example.org