Emma Pinto, 20, Student
The Problem of ‘Other’
Art work by @realbothy
When I was in high school, my friends and I had a running joke that I identified as ‘other’; every application form I encountered brought the same feeling of confusion, which box should I tick?
Every application form has a selection of choices, you could be “white and Asian” or “white and black-African”; you get the choice to be two ethnicities, but what if you are three? I am half Guyanese, a quarter Indian (Goan) and a quarter English. I therefore can’t identify with any of the specific options on forms which require my ethnic background, which makes me an ‘other’!
What’s wrong with not having an identity that you can put a label on? The problem is that not being able to identify with a specific ethnic group creates an ambiguity in your own mind towards yourself, and where you fit in in the world.
Growing up in London, I have always been exposed to people with heritage from outside of the UK. During high school my group of friends were predominantly white, but many of them had Irish backgrounds which I could never relate to. The feeling of difference continued when I went to college when my group of friends changed to being predominantly black (both African and Caribbean) and again, there were always times when I felt like I couldn’t completely relate to the people around me.
When you can look around a room and realise you are the only non-white or non-black person in a group, it’s psychologically quite isolating, and opens up a spectrum of questions towards your identity. It creates a conscious anxiety that people might question your position because you are not like them.
When my friendship group was predominantly white I subsequently met a lot of white people through them. One memory that resonates with me was when a boy (I say boy because I must have been around 14) used the “p” word to derogatively describe an Asian, and then turned and looked at me and said “oh sorry”. It was a really strange moment. At the time I remember thinking, what? I’m not one of those, I’m not that “p” word, but I also realised that I had been put in that category because of my skin colour: because I wasn’t white. I used to just laugh along awkwardly when people would say things like that because I didn’t want to be seen as different to them but I would think to myself “don’t you know the difference between a Pakistani and an Indian?” The answer to that question for some of those people is probably still “no”. Intolerance towards Asian’s from white English people made me question my own identity and for a long time I would permit the fact that I was part Asian. When people would ask me what country I was from I would only mention Guyana, because for some reason people don’t have anything against South Americans.
The ignorance I experienced by no means only came from one race. I have also had comments that submit to the white stereotype; being asked whether I season my food was laughable when you think about typical Guyanese or Indian food. Colour perception is strange, I have been classed as white by multiple black people but at the same time I have been viewed as Asian by white people and in both cases the suggestion of otherness allows people to assume there must be an automatic difference between themselves and you, and as a consequence you are faced with stereotypical comments that make you question your own identity.
Why are people so determined to point out ethnic differences between people? When you live in a city where there are people from every country I suppose it is normal that the majority of people naturally want to be around others from their own culture. If you have a mutual understanding of someone because you have been brought up the same way, of course you have an immediate connection. I know that it is highly unlikely that I will come across someone with the same ethnic background as me and I’ve accepted that, I think the most important thing is finding a group of friends who you feel completely comfortable to be yourself around. Once you find friends who inspire you to do well, people who want to see you achieve and show a genuine interest in you, it doesn’t matter what colour they are.
The issue arises when people decide for you when it’s acceptable to be friends with one group of people, but more problematic when you’re mixing with another. Every society is full of ignorant and close-minded people who keep stigmatisms about race alive. It’s so important to not let other people question your identity for you. There is nothing wrong with questioning yourself; throughout adolescence it’s common to doubt yourself and your position in the world. Humans crave acceptance and this is something no one can escape, but eventually you come to a place of contentment towards where you fit in and you will realise that your existence is just as important as everyone else’s.
Self-love is also vital, as cliché as it sounds. Once you accept the person you are it becomes almost impossible to allow a comment to make you question your identity all over again. It takes a while – it’s almost like a journey of your inner self, I’ve come a long way since hanging around with people who categorised all brown people with one word. Now I’m proud of saying all three of the countries I’m from. You will grow to love yourself even if right now you hate not fitting in, you will– once you find your place in the world, there is no one who will be more proud of yourself than you. There’s nothing wrong with a bit of healthy narcissism!