Moving from the country to the city made me more comfortable in my brown skin
I grew up in the town of Malvern in Worcestershire, which is famed for its rolling hills.
It’s also 93.2 per cent white, it voted to Leave the EU in the 2016 referendum, and its constituents have never voted anything but Tory – a party that introduced the ‘hostile environment policy’ in order to reduce immigration.
As a young half-Mauritian, half-British girl, at best, I felt a bit out of place. At worst, I felt positively unwelcome.
It wasn’t until I moved to a big city that I truly felt more myself – like my skin colour wasn’t the first thing people registered when they looked at me, or a part of my identity that eclipsed everything else.
To some extent, Malvern will always be ‘home’ to me. Whenever I see the views from the top of the hills, I’m reminded of how lucky I am to have close ties with such a beautiful part of the world. But it’s impossible not to feel painfully conscious of my skin colour when my family are on a walk and we’re the only people of colour in sight.
A report published in September last year by the Department for Environment, Food & Rural Affairs found that both Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic (BAME) people and white people perceive the countryside as a predominantly white environment.
Growing up, I was keenly aware of inhabiting a brown body in a white space. I was the only brown girl at Pony Club or Brownies and that took its toll.
When you’re young, all you want to do is to fit in and I desperately wanted to assimilate. I drew myself as if I were white, colouring using pink felt tips or the so-called ‘skin colour’ – that is, peach-coloured – pencil.
As a teenager, I ramped up the brightness on all my selfies until I looked positively ghostly. And when I was old enough, I attempted to dye my hair blonde. Unfortunately for me, ethnic hair can be stubborn and the result was – as any hairdresser could have predicted – a violent shade of orange.
But who could blame me? On top of seeing white girls in cartoons and magazines, I saw white girls everywhere in real life. I just wanted to blend in and be like everybody else.
I moved to Leeds for university the same year I finished school. At the time, I don’t think I realised that I needed to leave my tiny, rural town to come to terms with my racial identity. I thought I just wanted to move somewhere that had a town centre more exciting than a strip of charity shops and a single Costa.
Looking back, I think I was subconsciously yearning for more diversity. I was tired of looking around and seeing no one that reflected my experiences.
I enjoyed the sense of anonymity I got walking through Leeds – I didn’t stick out like a sore thumb anymore. I also met other girls who’d had similar experiences to me, which was the biggest comfort of all.
We could talk and just know that we understood one another. There was no pressure to explain ourselves. Whether we needed to rant about a guy making ignorant comments in seminars or vent about daily microaggressions, there was a natural understanding between us, which just made everything so easy.
I’d never felt like this in Malvern – I’d always felt different, or ‘apart’ somehow. In Leeds, meeting more and more women who looked like me, I finally felt like I belonged somewhere.
This isn’t to say that British cities are post-racism utopias – but I certainly felt liberated by moving away from the remote English countryside. I felt much less anxious and much more confident.
When I went home for Christmas after my first term, my friends noticed a change in me. They all said the same thing – it wasn’t so much that I was different, it was that I was more myself.
I still love Leeds as much as I did when I turned up four years ago as a wide-eyed fresher: the sprawling summer afternoons on Woodhouse Moor; the skyline glittering from the top of Headrow House; the first, delicious bite into a fresh sandwich from Bakery 164.
There’s always a buzz about Leeds – in many ways, it’s the total opposite to sleepy, languid Malvern.
But now that I’ve moved away, I can appreciate Malvern a lot more. After months on end surrounded by concrete, I do find myself missing the vast fields of grass and stretches of hills, and look forward to my visits home.
It’s still hard being under the all-pervasive white gaze when I’m back though – and spending lockdown in Malvern has been testing – but it’s getting easier. Moving to a city has made me more sure of myself and less concerned with what others may or may not be thinking.
In other words, I’m more comfortable in my own brown skin.
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