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Coming home to myself: Belonging as a mixed heritage, queer, east Londoner

26 Jul , 2017  

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Belonging makes you feel the opposite – Kim Latchford

I was born in East London in 1985, when my mum was a hippie and my dad was a punk. He was also labelled a ‘paki’ on account of being south Asian, and a ‘poof’ on account of his black nail polish and waist length hair.  When I was old enough to notice, but young enough to not understand, I saw strangers look from me to my mum and back to me again, as if trying to figure it out – how we knew each other and, ultimately, why a white woman was holding a brown child by the hand. Both my parents have experienced difficulties around ‘belonging’ themselves, but it was when another child shouted ‘paki’ at me and my brother as we played in my grandma’s garden that I began to know racism, and that my identity was different to my mum’s.

Around the time I figured it out, I also understood why an older woman in my block kept telling me to ‘go home’ and that she didn’t mean upstairs to my flat, but to Pakistan, a place I had never been to and knew little about – other than that my grandparents migrated from there to Bradford, decades before I was born. I also became aware, and scared, of the National Front and the British National Party, who often featured on the news for their violent racism towards black and Asian people.

So I began to know that I was different from my white mum and grandparents, and I began to know that ‘difference’ was hated and threatening.  But I was also told I was different to my Asian friends at school. My white peers would say something casually racist, followed by, ‘but you’re different’. At the same time, my Asian friends would tell me I could ‘pull off’ Asian clothes even though I didn’t ‘look Asian’, or that I could still help out at their weddings even though I was ‘white’. My ethnic ambiguity provided a kind of oppressive safety from some forms of racism, but was also very isolating. For much of my childhood I felt as if I was on the peripheries of two worlds, or just outside of something, and I felt these tensions as much within my family as I did externally.

Coming out as a lesbian in my early twenties came with new challenges around belonging, both in existing relationships and new LGBTQ scenes, and involved slowly re-navigating the spaces I had inhabited and re-learning people with their new notions of who I was. I had some friendships where sexuality hadn’t come up until I came out – and realised that our different views on sexuality (read: their homophobia) meant those friendships were no longer for me. Alongside this, I came to realise that differences and oppressions, including racism, sexism and transphobia, continue to occur in LGBTQ spaces; just because a space is set up to centre LGBTQ people, does not mean that all LGBTQ people will feel they belong, or are safe, in that space.

The push and pull of belonging, and not belonging, is a constant and complex feeling that is linked to power. Who gets to choose, for example, who belongs and who doesn’t?  Many of us have the urge to belong somewhere, particularly those of us who have in some way been categorised as ‘outsiders’ during and post-colonialism. These feelings are reflected in the words of my brother Kim, sister Ella and partner Wendy, who tell me:

With belonging and identity it’s a constant struggle, and linked to my mental health and psyche… I’ve struggled with my identity for as long as I can remember, and I’ve struggled with depression for as long as I can remember – Kim Latchford

It’s tricky, complex, it’s a hard one… it’s not a comfortable feeling, it feels contested… belonging makes you think of ownership too – Ella Jay Taylor

For so long I wanted to belong but never felt like I fit anywhere, as a French person that wasn’t white… and even within the lesbian community I didn’t necessarily feel like I fit with ‘femme’ or ‘butch’ identities  – Wendy Abrantes

As my sister says, it’s ‘tricky’ – we all inhabit multiple identities and contend with belonging in multiple ways. There is strength, safety and joy in connecting with others, but with the very idea of belonging, comes the possibility, or reality, of not belonging.  From an early age, I grappled with belonging in all the ‘communities’ that made up my identity and had a sense that my identity did not belong to me. While identity is fluid and changes within and across spaces, places, and over time, others, determined to file me in the right location to fit their view of the world, often boxed me into static identity categories. For a while, I tried to ‘fit in’ at school and college, and to hide my differences, but I came to understand that there is no monolithic, essentialised community within which I can place myself.

I’m now much more comfortable with the ways in which I’m different and much more aware of the complexities of ‘community’ and notions of belonging. I have come to terms with the simultaneous feelings of difference and relatedness I have to others, including to both my parents. For me, it isn’t necessarily about ‘belonging’ to those that look like me, or those who come from a shared geographical location, but a shared knowing or experience of something. Again, my family capture these feelings well:

In my early twenties, the acceptance I felt was by fellow party goers in the illegal rave scene, acceptance of people who do the same things, who are all there for one reason… It’s similar to protests for me now, large groups of people that come together because of one shared experience… When you’re on the dance floor and other people are dancing you feel accepted.  When you chant and other people are chanting with you, you feel accepted – Kim Latchford

For a long time I was trying to fit and belong somewhere until I realised that there’s no need.  Actually, I don’t want to try to fit and my group of friends will be the ones that accept me for what I am and that’s where I guess I belong… with the people who accept me – Wendy Abrantes

Over the years I have begun to feel a sense of belonging, or acceptance, in spaces of ‘difference’ – in which everyone has their own experience or relationship to being the ‘other’, that is bound up with legacies of colonialism and oppression. These are the spaces where I feel most held and celebrated. Working at Imkaan for example, a black feminist organisation made up of women of colour, and the friendships I’ve made through that space, has provided me with a source of strength and acceptance of self that I had never fully experienced before. In spaces like this, we recognise that while our journeys are distinct, and experienced subjectively, our histories, futures and work towards equality are also intertwined.

Dealing with belonging is a lifelong journey that will continue. I still have no time for the inevitable small talk with strangers about where I’m really from, why I look the way I do and the apparent disconnect between those two things. But in unpicking ‘belonging’, understanding its contentions and trickiness, I have also attempted to take ownership of it and to carve out my own spaces of acceptance and love.

In 2017, when people of colour are confronted with national and global conflicts, Brexit, Trump, border control, state brutality and ‘alternative facts’, spaces where we can be ourselves and build our strength and solidarity are as important as ever.  For this reason, I recently co-created Pocolo, a digital platform for people of colour to connect, celebrate each other and remind ourselves, we are powerful, we are beautiful, and you can sit with us.

For more information, check out Pocolo at www.pocolo.world or follow us on Twitter @pocoloworld

This article first appeared in the spring ’17 edition of Consented’s quarterly print magazine which you can buy online now.


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