An uncertain ratio

This is an essay I wrote to submit to a journal. Unfortunately it didn’t make the cut, so I thought I would edit it a bit and post it here…

What should we call the kid?

The politics of baby names have been vexing me recently. As a mixed race man in a mixed-race couple, the politics of picking are name are quite complex. Ideally, there would be an algorithm that could calculate this for us, but to my knowledge no-one has found one so its a question we have to wrestle with alone (thanks a bunch science). 

At the moment, this question is purely hypothetical. To my knowledge my fiancée is not pregnant. But we have talked about it, we are of an age now and we intend to have kids. As a mixed-race man, this question opens up a range of further ones about how my child would identify, which really asks a lot about how I do. And how does my Canadian partner fit into all this? So, what would they be?

Try not to over think it

The most obvious answer I suppose, is that they would be ours. That’s the most important classification. But names do count, of course. Mine is Punjabi and despite a primary school flirtation with changing it, I’ve always felt it reflects something important about my background. That said, I’ve never really liked the habit of placing too much emphasis on ethnicity. It’s important, but it under-describes who people are. It over-simplifies things that are complicated, it’s deterministic about traits that are often up in the air. Being mixed race, with a Punjabi dad and an English mum, discussions about my ethnicity have overwhelmingly been focused on the Indian half. This has often felt unbalanced, unfair or simply inaccurate. 

What’s different is what’s decisive?

On the other hand, my mum is English and I live in England.  It may be inevitable that the side of my identity that differs from the majority will attract the most attention. So am I really thinking about which side of their personality will the child have to explain most often? For long stretches of my life that has been the prosaic reality. Maybe, if I had grown up in Hoshiarpur then my mum’s Englishness would feel more prescient. Similarly, there is less imperative to preserve the aspect of a child’s heritage that they will be surrounded by on a daily basis. So, should they get a Punjabi name?

Perhaps the decisive factor is really what stands out.  A lot of the terminology would seem to suggest so.

What stands out

When I was at school, I used to call myself half-caste. I guess half-caste was a reference to the fact that I have a skin tone that is not white, but neither is it as dark as some of those whose skin tone implies their parents both came from sunnier parts of the world.

At some point, I think when I started secondary school, I was made aware that half-caste was insulting. I don’t remember it being explained to me why, but I was told the correct term was mixed-race and so that’s the term I used for at least a decade and a half. Mixed race has obvious advantages.  It is sounds more neutral. It sounds flatly descriptive, broad enough to cover those whose parentage might be geographically disparate even if you wouldn’t know it from their skin tone.

But this very flexibility opens up tensions that lie under the surface when we talk about race and ethnicity. Race may be a construct, but ethnic categories nonetheless have a solidity to them. On reflection, the language is misleading.

What’s mixed when you’re mixed race?

Most people who are mixed race will discuss their particular admixture in terms of being half-one thing and half-another: half-Irish half-Pakistani; half-Jewish half-Jamaican. The fact that both of these would come under the same descriptor is an indication of just how sloppy the term really is. The idea that, aside from the quality of mixedness those two people share any particularly salient ‘racial’ traits is a nonsense. That’s before we get onto the genetic difference that can be found even within populations we might consider to be racially homogeneous. See the pages of fretting on the discussion boards of white supremacists who have recently used 23 and Me to look into their own genome for further proof of this. Genetics only loosely map onto the features  we often use to identify a person’s race.

My mum is half-Jewish. While not religious, she has told me how she felt this marked her out as separate at school; and how it shaped a view of Englishness which excluded her family.  However, lacking any of the religious upbringing that often embeds the cultural side of Jewish life, beyond a penchant for Jewish jokes, I grew up in an environment where mum’s Jewishness often went unremarked, if not unnoticed by those around me. I’ve often felt that being half-Indian and half-English left a bigger mark on my childhood.

A mixed mixture

So how do we classify this second order mixing? Often, we resort to a list of the various backgrounds involved. Sometimes these are even classified down to the specific fraction, one quarter Jewish, one quarter English, half-Punjabi. But how small a fraction do we have to get to before the admixture ceases to be meaningful? My child’s jewishness would amount to only one eighth of their heritage. What about my fiancée’s, father’s Dutch antecedent? Will they require a shout out?

My child would be overwhelmingly white. My fiancée is white, I am half white, their skin-tone would likely be like their grandparents; largely pale. If we were to decide their upbringing on purely arithmetical grounds, the impact of my Punjabi heritage would be minimal.

The politics of baby-names

Would an ‘Anglo’ name be a suitable recognition of this? Would calling them Nirmal, or Malveer actually be a bit pretentious? Like those parents who give their child a name plucked from an entirely different culture, only justified by a tenuous family history.  I don’t think there should be iron rules about who can and cannot call their kid what. Technically, I guess there’s nothing wrong with it. It’s not exactly exploitative, but it strikes me wrong, it feels false. And a look at discussions on Mumsnet on the politics of baby naming indicates that I am not alone in feeling this way.

After a certain fraction, surely the percentage becomes so small that it no longer has any meaningful impact on the person’s experience in the world. Far better, to focus on those elements of your background that feel salient to you, and not worry about a strict accounting of your ancestry.

My Asian antecedents shaped me in ways that feel too important to be dismissed purely on arithmetic grounds. On that basis, maybe we should look at the experiences and forget about the numbers.

A family affair

My dad wasn’t born here, but he did a lot of growing up here and is of the generation that considers their integration in British society to be a mark of victory. Hard won in the face of those who would seek to exclude them, politically, culturally and often violently.

By the time he met my mum she already had two daughters – my sisters (half-sister’s technically, but who’s counting) from a previous relationship. They refer to him, now, as their dad, alongside their other dad, but at the time he was a strange man who seemed to be trying to replace their father. My nephews and niece now have an abundance of granddads, so many that they have adopted separate terms for their maternal grandfathers, my dad is Bubba, my sister’s dad was initially Pops (though that changed when he expressed a preference for Granddad), and then their dad’s dad is also Granddad. But this type of ease takes time to develop.

Reluctant to make things more awkward by speaking to his son in a different language, Dad did not bring me up speaking Punjabi.  In truth, I’m not even sure how the pragmatics of us speaking in a different language to three-fifths of the household would work. And at a young age I might have considered the requirement to speak a different language to the rest of the family to be an unwelcome burden.

Quite an Anglo Asian

So how did a Punjabi background impact on me? To my great regret, I never subsequently taught myself Punjabi. A decade or so ago I took some Hindi classes but it didn’t really stick. The feeling that this makes for a poor-Punjabi has stuck around me, to differing levels for most of my life. It is most acute when meeting another second-generation Asian for the first time. As I feel the conversation veering towards the topic of our heritage and the inevitable follow-up question about language, my insides knot. At some point I will have to admit that I don’t have the language. The discovery that I don’t always makes me feel like a phony. Merely by using my full name, and talking about my background, I have falsified a connection to a joint heritage I cannot really claim. Imposter syndrome is bad enough when you actually are qualified, let alone when you really are an imposter. The sense of relief I feel on meeting another desi-descendant who is monolingual is palpable.

The truth is in some ways my upbringing was overwhelmingly British. Nonetheless, I have family on my dad’s side who never lost touch with their Indian background; visits to paternal grandparents, aunts and uncles were brief but regular intervals in an otherwise pretty English childhood. For about 10 years now, I have periodically put on a pag, mainly so I don’t forget how to do it. My ability to tie one – while passable, is put to shame every time I pass a sardar on the street with a properly tied turban. I am embarrassed to be seen out in a turban if there are other Sikhs present. I am sure they will take a look at the hair jutting out under the fabric and immediately denounce me as a phoney, a weekend turban-tier just playing in an identity in which I don’t belong.

A lot of my personality now is shaped, for better or worse, by the need to navigate contradictory impulses. Not speaking the language, not growing up in the culture or religions means I feel like a fraud if I try and put too much emphasis on being Punjabi. But to pretend it’s not there doesn’t feel any more authentic. And worse, it feels like a deliberate snub to a whole side of my family and its history.

Conversations with friends who have similarly attenuated connections to their ethnic backgrounds reveals similar angst. While there are, undoubtedly, bigger penalties to be paid for being an ethnic minority, it is a stress I would save my child from if I could.

It’s probably too late to become fluent enough in Punjabi to raise a child speaking it now. But neither do I feel comfortable with the idea that I give up on that aspect of my background, and raise the child as purely English. Even if that is, largely how I was raised.

My other half

Maybe another answer for what we would call our kid would be half Canadian? We tend to  tacitly assume that ethnicity only applies to non-white people, and that in the west at least, white is the default from which the rest of us diverge. But certainly, for this kid, skin colour may not be the most salient difference.

After all, by definition it won’t just be my background in the mix. My fiancée is Canadian, so how important would it be for her Canadian heritage to be represented?

Does Canadian count? Culturally it has become clear to me that there are bigger differences between my fiancée and me, than between myself and white friends who also grew up here; than between dad and other baby boomers regardless of skin tone. Assuming (and it is a big assumption) that we raised the child here, perhaps their Canadian mother would be the exotic element. Keeping them in touch with their heritage would mean celebrating Canada Day, and having thanksgiving in October. If we were to move to Canada, presumably my being English would be the defining factor. Never mind tying a turban, the priority would be ensuring they spelled it “mum” (at least at home), and teaching them ‘Heads, Shoulders, Knees and Toes’ to the appropriate rhythm (NB. She informs me this is a ridiculous expectation and frankly unrealistic. After some debate we agreed we would call it “The Hokey Cokey” at home as a compromise).

So, what’s a good Canadian name? Well, in most cases (first nations excepted) it looks a lot like a British one. Their name might well come freighted with less significance than I have been attempting to imbue it.

So, what?

In actual fact, maybe it is the height of presumption to think that they will be at all affected by my preoccupations in this matter. It all may well strike them as hopelessly second generation and passé.  Conversations with my parents indicate that the process of picking my name didn’t require anything like the 5-page essay of angst that I have indulged in. They have a friend called Kamaljeet, and mum liked the name. Maybe that’s the best solution. In conversation with new parents, I get the impression that  for all the stress you put into picking a name beforehand, once the child is born, there is such a radical shift of priorities that worrying about the name barely got a look in.

A lot’s changed already

We’re recently engaged, and are planning our wedding. To be honest, I was a bit blasé about it beforehand. I hate those couples who evangelize on the assumption that marriage is the necessary end point of a serious relationship.  After seven years, the fact it would stop people asking me if we’re going to get married, was a non-trivial motivating factor. But at the risk of sounding like one of those people: I was amazed by the change I felt. The quality of what was already a loving relationship shifted inside in myriad ways just from asking her to make me her husband, and her saying yes.

Getting engaged was a decision that only really involved the two of us. The idea that all the obtuse thoughts and preoccupations that have filled these pages would survive contact with the reality of bringing a person into the world and the shared, but total responsibility of bringing them up, is probably for the birds.

And in any case, since starting this essay three weeks ago, I’ve decided I really like the name Jaspreet. So, I’d probably lobby for that.


…which was the style at the time.

So I tied an onion on my belt, which was the style at the time”

The Simpsons: ‘Last exit to Springfield’

Racist attitudes in figures from the past are like the onion that grandpa Simpson used to wear in his belt: they were just the style at the time. Their origins are considered irrelevant and probably unknowable, and anyway it would be unfair to think critically about them because people in the past didn’t know better. Like the diatribe of a bigoted older relative, it is better to just ignore the unpleasant bits and not think too much about it.

Churchill is the archetypal beneficiary of this magnanimous policy. The wrap sheet on Winston Churchill is long, and well-rehearsed. But it still bears repeating. Churchill described Indians as “a beastly people with a beastly religion”, he referred to Gandhi as a “half-naked Fakhir”; Churchill gassed Kurdish tribesmen in 1920; he deliberately allowed 3 million people to starve to death in Bengal in 1943, commenting that starving families had only themselves to blame for “breeding like rabbits”; during the Afghan campaign he declared that the Pashtuns needed to “recognise the superiority of the white race”.

Yet Churchill has been praised as The Greatest Briton. People who query this hagiography tend to get shot down. “Sure Churchill was racist” we’re told “but it was the past, everyone was racist then. And anyway, would you have preferred Hitler to win?”

Well no, but I can also be relieved that Soviet Russia defeated the Nazi’s without being expected to forget about the crimes of Stalin.

There are politics about who gets to enjoy this historical magnanimity. In 2016, critics of the #RhodesMustFall campaign, dismissed criticism his of brutally racist views with the airy disclaimer that Cecil Rhodes was “a product of his time”. Stalin is rightly condemned, despite the vital role he played in defeating Hitler. But in the UK Churchill gets a pass, firstly because of his role in World War Two, our national creation myth. He is intrinsic to the vision of the British as unquestionably the goodies just before the collapse of empire rendered our position in the world very much up for debate.

Secondly, because he committed many of his atrocities in the service of that empire. Culturally, there has not been the reckoning with costs and crimes of British Colonialism in a way that matches the scope of its impact in either the periphery or the metropole.

But that magnanimity does a great disservice. And not only to Churchill’s victims (though it absolutely does to them). It demeans the many people in the past who did not share Churchill’s bigotry. Whose views were also a product of their time, and yet still precluded murderous white supremacy.

Historical racism is not an onion in the belt. It was (and is) an ideology that appealed to specific people and was rejected by others. Its form developed over a specific period of time, and it is possible to trace the indications of this development, to see the absence of later forms in earlier treatments of race. Christopher Hill noted at the beginning of the 17th century:

Othello and Pocahontas are treated as human beings, by the end Thomas Rymer is rebuking Shakespeare for showing so little colour prejudice.

Christopher Hill ‘Some intellectual consequences of the English Revolution’

It was perfectly possible to be alive in the 19th century and to reject white superiority of Cecil Rhodes and later Winston Churchill. By the time Churchill was alive it was even easier. In the 19th century scientific racism became the intellectual zeitgeist; ethnographers, and scientists like Topinard, Flowers, the Comte de Gobineau and Pearson all expounded on the natural superiority of the White race. But, there were a tranche of ethnographers who continually rejected a fundamental division between the races. In the 1840s, James Cowles Prichard set out to prove the single origin of all races against prevailing views of polygenesis expounded by the race scientists. A devout Christian, Prichard believed that scientific racism was fundamentally unbiblical. Sylvia Pankhurst was born in 1882, she died in 1960 and was buried in Addis Ababa after an state funeral attended by Haile Selassie, in 1935 she was a high profile voice calling for the defence of Ethiopia from Italian extraction. Far from embracing white supremacy, as some early feminists did, she was a powerful voice against colonialism.

Churchill’s racism was not a condition to which people born in the 19th century were inextricably susceptible. It had political causes, and political consequences. Some people resisted and rejected it then and we are absolutely entitled to do so now.