I must have been 13 years old. At home just outside Brussels, Belgium, my family – parents, brother, sister and I – were eating supper in the kitchen. The radio was on, tuned to the BBC as always. A program about Nelson Mandela – at the time still incarcerated on Robben Island – was coming to an end. As we sat around the table, my mother said, “You know, if we lived in South Africa, our family couldn’t ride on the bus together.” While I tried to wrap my mind around what that meant exactly, I was mostly aware of the resounding silence that followed my mother's observation.
To this day, I am not sure whether she was just thinking out loud, or whether she wanted to help her children become more conscious about their racial identity. We were a mixed-race family with a white mother and a brown father. We were the only mixed-race family I knew. We lived in a white neighborhood, went to predominantly white schools, had mostly white friends and, despite our mixed-race, we children ‘passed’ as white.
Race was not something we talked about. On one level, we didn’t notice – which was our version of colorblindness. On another level, we felt it deeply.
Dad was born in India in the 1930s and had lived through the years leading up to its independence from Britain in 1947 (followed by partition, when ‘British’ India was divided into India and Pakistan). He grew up in Mumbai (then known as Bombay), and was educated in a school where classes – as was often the case in colonial times – were taught in English. After completing his BSc in Bombay, he accepted a university place in the UK.
In 1956 my father left India by ship, bound for Manchester to study for his Masters. As he set foot on British soil for the first time, the perspective he brought with him was that Britain, when it colonized his home country, had done mostly good things. The British built the railways and brought quality education and institutions of government. As he settled into his chilly college digs, I imagine he was already starting to put India behind him – physically and emotionally – and he would not return for 28 years.
While living in the UK, he met my mother, a British woman from Kent with fair skin and auburn hair. Despite pushback from both sides of the family, they married in 1961, and I’m proud of them for being resolute in their love for each other. A decade later, discrimination at work was not unusual, and it seemed that 1970s Britain would not make it easy for people of color to progress in their careers. My parents packed their bags and left England, with three small children in tow. We moved to the United States and then, a few years later, to Continental Europe, finally settling in Belgium.
As kids, our travels exposed us to different countries, cultures, languages and people. The one constant in our lives was that we were three almost-white children, with one white and one brown parent. We must have turned heads wherever we went. Whenever possible, we spent summers and Christmas with extended family in the UK.
Our difference was always lurking unspoken under the surface. When we were with our English relatives on Mum’s side of the family, in some hard-to-put-your-finger-on way, I never completely felt like them. At the same time, when our Indian grandparents flew over to spend time with us, the house would be transformed – with aromas of delicious food, incense from their puja [ceremonial worship], and offerings of fruit to the Gods. During these visits, all my senses told me I was different. With my eyes I saw a different skin color, with my mouth I tasted different food, with my ears I heard different music.
As I look back at my 13-year-old self at the kitchen table, I recall the silence that greeted my mother’s statement about not being able to ride on the bus together. What strikes me now is that my father said nothing, although at the time this didn’t feel unusual. He never said much about his past. When family and friends visited from India, we would all enjoy good conversation, fun and laughter, but Dad couldn’t seem to remember his childhood. He struggled to speak his native tongue of Gujarati. He rarely shared stories. Instead of hearing memories of him playing cricket with friends, I experienced a huge void. A resounding silence.
Many years have passed and today I have my own family. I’ve settled in the United States with my husband (born in Germany), and we’ve raised our three children here. Following the recent murder of George Floyd, and renewed focus on police brutality, I have found myself reflecting deeply on my family story and what it can tell me about my own relationship with race.
Just last week, a friend sent me a recording of Malcolm X, and this has helped me better understand the system that has shaped me. Speaking to a gathering of young people in Detroit, just days before his assassination in 1965, Malcolm X said:
“Up until 1959 Africa was dominated by the colonial powers. They projected the image of Africa negatively… jungles, savages, cannibals, nothing civilized. It was so negative that it was negative to you and me. You and I began to hate it. … And in hating Africa and hating the African we ended up hating ourselves, without even realizing it. … This is what the white man knows. So they very skillfully made you and me hate our African identity, our African characteristics. We hated our hair, we hated the shape of our nose. We hated the color of our skins… in hating our features, our skin, our blood, we hated ourselves.”
White colonizers had a similar narrative about India. In simple terms, they believed this was a land whose people needed to be subjugated, civilized and Christianized. What better way to capture the minds of the next generation of Indians than to introduce the English education system, to teach European literature, music, art and languages, and undermine Hinduism by planting Christian missions and schools. My father came to the United Kingdom as a product of those colonial times. I sense that he left his Indian-ness behind, and replaced it with a story of whiteness that disconnected him from his past.
Today I am weighed down by the silence that descended upon our kitchen table. I am disappointed by the possibility that my father turned his back on his identity and people. I wonder why it took him almost three decades to return home. It angers me that the world my parents inhabited made them feel – even unconsciously – that they had to choose white over brown. When we lived in the US during the 1970s, South Asian lives felt almost segregated from white American lives. The two didn’t seem to mix, so we socialized with both communities, but we did it separately. (When we returned to Europe in the late 1970s, opportunities to be with brown-skinned people were few and far between, so again the die was cast.)
Perhaps that’s the hardest part about this: that in the western world there’s an underlying message that white is supreme. It’s unspoken, and it’s woven into the fabric of our society. It’s present in the way we colonize other nations. It’s present in the way we structure our neighborhoods, schools and judicial systems. It permeates the movies we watch and the books we read. Whites dominate and whites are the saviors. Whites take what isn’t theirs and make it their own. Whites have even stolen the ancient Hindu spiritual practice of yoga and turned it into a ‘lifestyle choice’ – something you do at the gym.
We are conditioned not to see it and God forbid we say it out loud, but white is there, working tirelessly to maintain control, keep the best for itself, and devalue that which is ‘other’.
The time has come to break the silence and start some uncomfortable conversations – at home and at work – about race. Whether we are black, brown, white or anything in between, our lives are influenced by the color of our skin. All of us are impacted by our race. Some of us get to experience more of the upside, others experience violent discrimination.
My almost-whiteness allows me to feel safe most of the time. I am not judged by the color of my skin, and I have had many opportunities because of the choices my parents made for me – and my siblings – to live a life predominantly of whiteness.
For me, breaking the silence means starting with myself and putting words to how I have been conditioned and privileged. It means examining how my skin color and ancestry have allowed me to become who I am today. It means seeing where white and brown reside in me and what needs to happen to allow them to live, equally, alongside each other.
It means understanding why my father made the decision – a courageous one – to leave his country and embrace a new life in Britain. He had grown up in colonial India and was influenced by the colonial way of thinking. Perhaps he sensed that leaving his Indian-ness behind would help him get ahead, to forge a life of his own and create the foundation for his own future – as a professional and a family man. Being white – even as a person of color by birth – was an easier, faster way to succeed. I imagine that was the choice he made – for himself and for us – and he never looked back.
Bringing my focus back to the present, I am aware that I will never know what it feels like to be Black in America. I can be conscious of my own experience and, more importantly, listen to the stories of people whose lives are different to my own. I can take the risk that I might say the wrong thing (and by doing so, offend others), and be willing to learn that I have my own blind spots. I can use my voice to help break the silence. I can find the words to speak about what I see, feel and know, and to learn what I don’t know. I can help others to find their own words, so that we can all join – and shape – the conversation about race.
For my 13-year-old self, that would have meant sitting with my family, in the safety of our kitchen, and talking about what it means to live without the freedom to ride, as a family, on the bus. To be split apart, rather than journey together. To be treated according to the color of our skin.
For the person I am today, it means exploring – with others – how this came to be, and what it will take to make it better. It’s hard, and we won’t always get it right. But we can try – and we must.
Silence is betrayal.
Betrayal of ourselves, our neighbors, our friends, our communities, our world.
Let us break the silence. Let us start conversations around our kitchen tables, in our schools and faith communities, in our teams and organizations, or wherever we spend our days – and talk about how the color of our skin, whatever color, has impacted our lives.
This is a first step that all of us can take, and it’s long overdue.
UPDATE, July 2020
Since publication, my family has experienced both the uplift and the division caused by discussions about race. My father disagrees with my perspectives. Yet this is my truth, and while I respect that he might paint a different picture, I feel we must honor one another’s stories. I believe it’s this very sensitivity around race that calls for every one of us to join the conversation.
Leaders' Quest is hosting a series of conversations on race and social justice, as part of Leaders Link. You can watch previous sessions here - and register to participate in upcoming ones here. These online events are free and open to everyone - we'd love you to invite your networks.
To find out more about how Leaders' Quest can help your leaders and talent explore ways in which they, as individuals and leaders, can tackle social injustice and work towards building a better, fairer, future, get in touch with Rachel, on firstname.lastname@example.org