It was 10 minutes past 11 a.m., a Sunday morning in early spring, and as usual I was running a bit late, while running up the stairs of the British Humanist Society’s headquarters in central London to attend a secular church meeting with a friend.
I got up to the balcony and pushed open the big heavy door, and within a second of quickly looking around at the figures filling up the balcony, I suddenly felt so alone and so out of place.
I suddenly felt like a little immigrant kid who was not supposed to be there.
All the people around me were in their late 20s or early 30s, upper middle class, and clearly open minded enough to spend their Sunday morning listening to essays, rather than sleeping off hangovers.
Well, here’s the deal: Everyone was also white, and very British. While they laughed at the pop song they were singing and the dance moves of the guy onstage, I felt like they were in on something that I was not invited to, like they were sharing a joke that I was not privy to, able to understand glances with codes I was unaware of.
I shouldn’t feel that way; I was born in Iran but have been in Britain since I was 2. I went to some of the fanciest schools here and have spent nearly all my career at the national broadcaster. On top of that, I’ve also always relished being an individual and am comfortable doing my own thing too. So I shouldn’t feel alarmed if I am left out.
But bursting onto the balcony was like barging into a closed closet, one which I’d known was there for a long time, but which I was happy to walk past without opening and delving into.
“You don’t belong here,” a voice inside me said.
I live a charmed life here in London, working and hanging out in a very international circle. My British friends and colleagues are pretty international too, many either partly grew up overseas or speak a few different languages themselves, and have an interest in the world. I had a wonderful and open-minded education: My middle and high school looked like something out of Harry Potter, complete with an organ, a harp and cloisters. It was the sort of high achieving academic place where feisty young women were also nurtured to be creative and expressive. Most importantly, our emotional health was a priority, and we were really well looked after.
And yet, in this immensely open and nurturing environment, I don’t recall there being a single conversation about race. I don’t recall there being an acknowledgement that quite a few of the girls there didn’t know about what to wear for our annual Christmas services in the church, or didn’t have family knowledge on the intricacies of which universities had what sort of reputation and which doors those could open and close. And there were plenty of us who didn’t have British parents: There were a handful of other girls with Iranian families, a few Japanese, one Korean, a couple from the Middle East and a healthy contingent of Italians. All were born or raised in the UK.
And yet we all pretended like everyone was the same, like we all had the same experiences with our families, like we all shared the same cultural nuances as the majority Brits. And what’s especially odd is that there didn’t appear to be much allegiance among us non-Brits either, some sort of banding-together. It’s like we ourselves were ignoring that we were different and unacknowledged.
In contrast to this, I spent the last year in New York at graduate school. Americans talk about race — so much. At first I found it odd and sort of annoying. Who are these people, I’d think, constantly ... emoting? Always over analyzing things and blowing them out of proportion? Talking about their feelings in depth, and with near strangers too? And talking about race again and again, and if not in person then in endless comment pieces online.
The other thing that struck me was this pride in being both American and from somewhere else too. People are Chinese American, African American, Mexican American and so on, and the fact that they are one doesn’t seem to negate the other. I should be "British Iranian" I guess, but I don’t really think that term is used, or know what it means. It just doesn’t feel right.
I find myself always hovering over the ethnicity box in various surveys, not knowing what to put. I often wish there was a box for "Londoner," as that’s the only category which feels right. Then I remember that’s not an ethnicity, but rather another way of saying "international person who hangs out with other international people," which then further highlights not feeling like a local.
And even the other Americans have a pride to them that has gotten me into trouble a few times. I can drop jokes with Iranian Americans about weird things non-Iranians do, but the once or twice I made damning statements about Americans I was very clearly and sternly told not to offend them that way. These experiences were at once disorientating for me, and also made me sad at my own lack of loyalty to Britain.
And that goes to the heart of how things are done over here. No one really talks about anything. And by not talking about things, that means that they aren’t acknowledged, it means they aren’t seen as being important or worthy of thought and consideration, of even existing in the first place.
I face almost zero overt hostility or racism over here; I once had a guy on the train keep hissing "I don’t like Arabs" at me, but then he was French, and an Englishman kindly came to my defense with a "leave her alone mate." And another time an old lady at a bus stop started lecturing me about being a foreigner. And I think that is it. I’m sure there is plenty of hidden hostility, but I do appreciate that day-to-day life is pretty harmonious and conflict-free here.
But on the other hand, we don’t have belonging either. I can’t imagine marrying a British person, or spending time in close proximity with a friend’s family at their home. I often feel like the exotic person in the room, where my life experiences and home culture are really interesting and fascinating but this curiosity feels more like they are looking in at a curious museum exhibit from their position of being rooted and established and belonging, rather than like a hand outstretched or a call to form a genuine connection.
In all aspects of life, growing and learning and improving require effort, they require asking hard questions and facing up to unpleasant truths. There is no progress without discomfort. And that is the problem with the UK and race. Things are nice and non-confrontational, and there is a general daily level of serenity which is really nice. But it’s just that. It’s nice and inoffensive, but doesn’t go anywhere.
You can’t integrate immigrants into a society by ignoring the fact that they are immigrants in the first place, by not wanting to talk about it, by pretending that everything is fine and that there is no problem, that people and their cultures aren’t different, and that immigrant kids often feel weird because they don’t look like the locals, and they don’t get a lot of the local nuances, that they aren’t OK with their kids taking part in a lot of activities and that their family lives are so different from those of the local kids. You can’t have them feel at home if there is no awareness that all immigrant kids have an internal struggle between trying to reconcile the home culture with the host, by ignoring the fact that every day they are facing challenges from two different cultures where they have to try their best to fit in with both.
You can’t have immigrant children grow up to feel like they belong if you don’t acknowledge them in the first place. That is akin to saying they don’t exist, that there are no issues or challenges and that they aren’t welcome nor is there the intention of opening up a permanent seat at the table to them.