The experiences of ethnic minorities, like our names, are often shortened to become more appetising to the tongue, easier to swallow by means of their watering down. Our names started life with ignorance and naivety. Unaware of the cruelty which comes from the purposeful mispronunciation of letters, turned into rhythmic mockery.
So we shortened them, pronounced it with an anglicised tongue: still exotic but more palatable as it is enunciated by those who will say “oh, that’s…..a unique name, where are you from?”. Just as you are about to reply “Battersea, South west London” you pause. Of course they don’t mean where you were born and raised as it would apply to anyone else. But the colour of your skin and complication of your name doesn’t accord you the right of a simple response so you say “The Gambia”. Their faces twist into a question mark at the name of a country that they have never heard of so they simply say “oh. ok”. Another conundrum they are not willing to tackle so they move on. Next name on the register is Jacob, much easier and it requires no further questions so they move on, and on and on. With every name that escapes their lips, yours gets washed away, forgotten in the sea of other difficult names until the next week when they pause midway through the register. You know the drill by now, whilst others proclaim their presence with their names, you do so with the silence.
This pause before the proclamation of my name has always struck me as an ominous depiction of what it’s like to be a black Muslim woman in the UK. My whole identity and appearance is a cause for hesitation. People are not quite sure what to take in first, my headscarf, the colour of my skin or my gender. Because of my appearance, I am received with some scepticism when I say that I am British. So when asked, “where are you from?”, I am forced to bite my tongue and say “The Gambia” while denouncing the other part of my identity to appease those who do not consider me to fit the image of “Britishness”. I am Gambian and I am British but being a product of these two different worlds means that I cannot fully belong to either: too western to be African, and too foreign to be considered British.
There is something unsettling about identifying yourself as a member of a group which collectively doesn’t see you as one of them. As a result, we alienate a part of ourselves to the extent that we question who we are and where we belong. As I was writing this post my younger sister asked me “am I British?”, “yes” I replied to which she said, “I thought that was reserved for white people”. At times, it does feel as if being British or “English” is an exclusive club for whites only. However, nationality is not always predicated by the colour of your skin.
While you are being told where you don’t belong at the same time you are being challenged to prove your legitimacy. Like many others with dual identities, we are straddling the line of two nations. We cannot readily swear our allegiance to one without a sense of betrayal and ingratitude to the other. I cannot easily detach myself from either places because although I was born in England and spent the majority of my time here, my earliest memories are of dancing in the monsoon rain and seeking shade underneath mango trees from the sweltering beams of the sun. Running bear feet, the warmth of the hot yellow sand leaving imprints on the soles of my feet. I carry these memories of my childhood in the Gambia with me as I walk through the grey concrete streets of London.
At school, they made us draw maps of the Gambia. Cradled by Senegal on all three sides and the Atlantic ocean to the West, it is the smallest country on mainland Africa. It is shaped like a mouth carved within the land of Senegal hence its moniker the “smiling coast of Africa”. We’d draw this map so often that I can trace its outline on the palm of my hand as if they were preparing us for a time when we may need to find our way back home. But my home is also the intersecting lines of the London underground. It is the smell of Kebab and chicken as you walk down the high street. Home is the people you meet who make you smile – the spontaneous singing on the bus and the guy on the train who tells you all about his day and how he couldn’t sleep the previous night.
My two homes proudly exist in me. I speak Wollof mixed with English, I love fish and chip (the quintessential “British” cuisine) and also love my benachin (Jollof rice) with scotch bonnet peppers. My culture and nationality are amalgamated to make me. However, like many others, the question of where you belong is a constant struggle. Nevertheless, YOU know who you are and where you call home. So tell others your name (and make sure they pronounce it correctly), tell them who you are and where you come from and educate those who try to tell you otherwise. Your presence and your voice will force them to acknowledge that to be British or “English” does not only mean to be white. As a black hijab wearing woman of Gambian descent, I am walking proof of that!