Navigating mixed-race South Asian identities

by Ciara Garcha

At a family wedding as a child.

In the 2011 census, 1.2 million people in Britain identified themselves as ‘mixed race’, over 300,000 of whom identified as ‘white and Asian.’ This is the group I include myself in; I tick that option on questionnaires, enter it on forms, I put myself in this box day after day, whilst also aware of the fact that my identity cannot be put in a box.

My paternal grandparents emigrated from Punjab, India to the UK in the 1960’s, whilst my maternal grandfather came from Ireland and married my Birmingham-born grandmother in the same decade. That makes me half-Indian, half-British-Irish. Over the years, it’s proved quite a mouthful to say and somewhat difficult to explain when people ask me what my family background is. The traditional Gaelic name (Cíara, meaning dark-haired) and the Punjabi surname seem to cause quite a lot of confusion, provoking questions and an inevitably long-winded explanation.

My paternal grandfather – photo taken soon after his arrival to the UK

For years I hated my name, firstly because no one could pronounce it and secondly because few people seemed capable of spelling it right. I craved a ‘normal name’, though, in truth, I’m still not quite sure what I thought that was. Now though, as I consider my identity as part of South Asian Heritage Month, I think my name captures it perfectly: an Irish-Indian name, for a British-born woman.

A shop in Dublin called ‘Ciara’, that I insist on making a pilgrimage to every time we visit Ireland

As a mixed-race person, for years I struggled with the idea that nothing was ‘mine.’ I felt like I had no culture that was completely my own: there was always someone more ‘Punjabi’, or more ‘Irish’, or more ‘British’ than me who would claim it instead. It felt like I didn’t have ownership over the component parts of who I was: I wouldn’t belong anywhere because none of it was truly mine.

As humans, we are social beings and we all desire to belong. Wanting to partake in something, or be a member of a group is one of the most fundamental desires. But because of my mixed-raced identity, I spent a very long time thinking that I just didn’t. No matter how many people identify as ‘mixed race’ on a census and regardless of social analysts predicting that the majority of the population will be mixed-race in a few decades time, the feeling of not fitting in with either side of my family or with any neat group made me despair at my own mixed identity.

It took a while for me to change my thinking about who I was. It wasn’t until I spent time listening to all of my grandparent’s stories and appreciating all of the sacrifices that were made by both sides of my family, that I saw the beauty in my own mixed-race identity. I learned Punjabi with one side of my family and read Irish legends with the other; I listened to stories of my grandparent’s home in India and was lucky enough to visit my grandfather’s birthplace, Ireland; I ate different foods and had different experiences depending on whose house I was visiting. Not fitting in with one group and one culture was a good thing, because I got to grow up with them all.

Mixed-raced identities have long been taboo in many cultures and the British South Asian community is no different. For my mum and dad to come together, in spite of their perceived differences, was incredibly brave. Cultural norms and social expectations can be strong, but my family was stronger and that is something that continues to inspire me, years later. The best way I can honour that strength and bravery is to commit to embracing and celebrating all parts of me; all parts of my own mixed-race identity.

South Asian Heritage Month is a chance to celebrate the part of my identity that is proudly Indian and proudly Punjabi. It has prompted me to consider some of the things I love most about my Dad’s side of the family. It’s made me remember all the near-week-long Sikh weddings I’ve been to, and the incredible, glamourous outfits I’ve gotten to wear. It’s made me think about my granddad teaching me to write my name in Punjabi and my Poaji showing me how to make roti. It’s made me think back to marking ‘Brother’s Day’ (Rhakri) and celebrating occasions with Bhangra music and drumming (the Dhol).

Making roti in my grandparents’ kitchen

As part of South Asian Heritage Month, I want to celebrate my Punjabi roots, whilst also acknowledging the part of my background that is not South Asian. I want to appreciate how being South Asian and having a big, vibrant Punjabi family has shaped me and made me into the person I am. I want to celebrate the foods and fashions and music I grew up with and my place within the diaspora. Though I may not be wholly ‘Punjabi’, or ‘Irish’, I belong to the diaspora of both. I am not completely ‘Punjabi’, ‘British’ or ‘Irish’: I am all three, and that is something that is my own, in its entirety.

My parents and I

Ciara Garcha is a History student from Manchester. She is Politics Editor at the feminist website, The F-Word, and is interested in the history of race and immigration, as well as political history.

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