Where are you really from? is a project founded and run by the writer Louisa Adjoa Parker, set up to tell the stories of black and brown people living in rural Britain, an experience which is rarely explored in conversations around ‘race’. This is a series of interviews from the project. Here Louisa speaks to Tamzin, who now lives in Cornwall.
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Tamzin was born in London, where her mum’s family had lived for a couple of generations. She thinks originally they were of Italian Jewish/Roma Gypsy descent. Her father is Egyptian. His mother was more Arabian than his father, who was probably from a southern Egyptian/African background.
She now lives in Cornwall; her mum made the decision to move after her parents split up. ‘I do feel,’ she says, ‘that not having my father around, someone there to physically identify, with has had a huge effect on my growth as a person even though I’m white and he isn’t.’
Tamzin has trouble defining her ethnicity, and generally finds herself explaining the above, and ‘handing the labelling of my ethnicity over to the other person.’ To the average Cornish person, she will reluctantly say she is ‘mixed race’ or ‘half Egyptian,’ but when she’s amongst people who aren’t white/Cornish, or in environments where she’s confident she won’t receive backlash she might say ‘biracial’ or ‘mixed heritage.’
‘Living in a rural area, being “white passing” has been an absolute nightmare, especially because my brother is darker than me; when we were together as kids we’d get called half-caste all the time. People would be too scared to be overtly racist to him so I’d receive a lot of what they felt towards him, which to be honest probably caused me to be bit resentful over the fact I was associated with him – if I hadn’t been I don’t think I’d have received as much hatred as I did.’
Tamzin says her brother was often fetishized, or, if people were really racist, they’d call him derogatory terms behind his back. ‘This isn’t to say he hasn’t been on the receiving of racism, but I think it’s probably easier for him to overcome being called a name once in while, than having a whole town insinuate there’s something vastly wrong with you all of your life but not tell you to your face.’
Tamzin has found herself questioning attitudes towards her, asking why people have treated her this way. People have always seemed very interested in her brother. ‘I think they thought I was his PR manager or something with the constant questions, and in a way I guess that played a part in taking away my identity – I felt like a spare part and didn’t have the other side of my family to compare myself to. So growing up with a white mum who has blonde hair and blue eyes I always felt like it was that or nothing because I wasn’t like my brother. It was the idea that I was either white (but everyone around me would make it clear that I wasn’t) or I was made to feel like damaged goods for not being white.’
Tamzin has experienced overt racism and threats of violence towards her family. ‘One time a lady rang my mum’s doorbell at about 8 am and told her to get her “half-castes out” whilst threatening to burn the house down.’ Another example is the time she was walking back from the shop, aged 11 or 12, and a middle-aged couple threw pebbles at her whilst calling her a p**i. ‘I have white skin, hazel eyes and curly brown hair so I don’t know how that correlates to being Asian, but there we go.’
Once a girl pushed her into a toilet which had urine in, which made her coat wet. The girl told her it was because she was ‘half Egyptian and they’re yellow.’
Tamzin remembers instances of more subtle racism, like the time all the girls in her year group at school were invited to a party except for her. ‘The girl having the party told me (even though I hadn’t questioned why I wasn’t invited) I wasn’t allowed to come “because you’re mixed race and you’re not Cornish.”’
Another girl chopped off some of Tamzin’s hair, a ringlet, in the middle of a maths class and made a joke about “that dread” being “gone”. She doesn’t have dreadlocks. Her hair has been an ongoing issue. Throughout her school years, people threw things into her hair.
‘I used to have my hair natural with no product so it’d be pretty huge (now I keep it tame with oils and stuff which reduces the volume) and I could never tell if someone had put a flapjack or, another example, 11 pencils in my hair. Stationery was a common choice. As a result they’d all be laughing at me until I realised, which was really upsetting – the kind of feeling where your heart sinks.’
There is a bus driver who Tamzin feels hates accepting her (and a black lady) onto the bus, and when she or the lady says thank you, he’ll groan instead of thanking them back, as he does with the white passengers. ‘Again, this is subtle, but it doesn’t go unnoticed.’
So how have these experiences impacted Tamzin? She says that more recently, it’s mainly disapproving looks from people, which she doesn’t care about, or the occasional racial slur. However two years ago, she was reduced to a breakdown.
‘I sobbed on the floor telling my mum I didn’t know who I was. Subsequently I rarely left the house for about the same time period and I gained a lot of weight after being really skinny which didn’t help my self-image. Although I’m quick to shut down any racist remark now, it’s had an overwhelmingly negative effect on my emotional well-being throughout my whole life to the point where I’m only just beginning to recover and starting to edge into feeling like a part of the community. I’ve accepted that I’ll never be a part of the local community where I live but there are groups of people elsewhere in Cornwall (Penzance mainly) that make me feel a part of the community.’
When Tamzin leaves Cornwall to go back to London, it’s the same feeling as taking her makeup off after a long day. ‘It’s like taking off a mask; a feeling of prolonged suspense, then satisfaction. Ultimately it’s bittersweet because I’m back to feeling like myself in a space where I’m allowed to feel like myself within a community that’s physically representative of me, but along with that, comes urbanisation and a structurally segregated environment.’
Louisa Adjoa Parker’s costal memoir will be published by Little Toller in 2021. She is a writer and poet whose work includes Salt Sweat and Tears and How to Wear a Skin. Her writing and research has appeared in many journals and anthologies. She is also the curator and edited of the Where are you really from? project – if you’d like to share your experience, please get in touch with her via her website.