What does a Q&A between a White Englishman and BAME immigrant woman reveal about differences in lived experience and privilege, even between two people in a committed relationship?
I am an Asian woman and immigrated to England at a very early age, so, for all intents and purposes, I think of myself as English and haven’t really thought about how other Brits might have completely different life experiences from me because of my personal characteristics — not least because I have also had a fairly privileged upbringing.
This is, until I met my significant other and we started talking about our beliefs, our experiences, and planning a future together.
It turns out that I have internalised and normalised for myself many of the worries and traumatic experiences that stem from being an Asian woman and an immigrant. This has resulted in some very insightful conversations, not least for the two of us in this relationship — one of which will be written up below. Of course, there may be some differences simply because of personality or the parenting styles of our parents.
He himself has said that he grew up in an extremely “White” city and that he counts himself lucky that he ended up in a more diverse area because of some of the views that he knows people from his hometown now hold.
So, below is one conversation that could well take place anywhere.
Q: What do you think the differences in our lived experiences are, if any?
Him: I think one of the main differences is in our upbringings and our parents’ expectations of us. My parents very much encouraged me to do whatever it was I wanted to do, whereas yours were a bit pushier, to put it mildly. I think a lot of that has to do with education.
Me: I’d agree with that. I think I’ve faced a lot more pressure and much higher expectations in being academically successful and professionally successful, which includes being expected to have particular jobs. I agree with the education point though — I know many immigrants have had similar experiences where, if we come from a poorer household where English wasn’t the native language, academic achievement is not just expected but seen as a means of survival and the sole way to succeed.
Q: Have you ever thought about any difficulties or issues that we could face as an interracial couple?
Me: I remember, fairly early on, mentioning that I didn’t want you to be affected by any racism I might face. It hadn’t occurred to me that this was just something I had taken upon myself. We’ve discussed our ideas about weddings and potential children’s names, and at no point did it really occur to me that there would be anything from my culture in there.
Him: I think, from your side, it was a valid concern based on your experiences, but I didn’t for one second think your ethnicity would be an issue, so I didn’t think that it would be anything that I would need to tolerate or absorb coming from anyone else.
At this point, it’s worth noting that this also came up over Christmas when I met half of his family and it occurred to me afterwards that I felt a strong sense of relief and surprise at neither my ethnicity nor place of birth having come up as a topic of conversation.
Q: What comments have you been subject to about your accent [we both have English accents] or where people assume you’re from?
Him: I haven’t, really. Even when I’ve travelled to France or Germany, people have just spoken to me in that language and assumed that, since I’m White, I must be local.
Me: I have a very typically English accent and I feel like part of this might be because I want at least the way I sound to be undoubtedly British. Honestly, I’m almost more surprised when my accent or my origins don’t come up in conversation with strangers, particularly when I say I’m from the UK and then the response is “But where are you actually from?” — including from other minoritised ethnic people — or when random strangers on the street proclaim they can speak my language and sometimes even shout at me in a random Asian language other than the one I actually speak.
Q: Do you remember when we went out in the West End for dinner, and we travelled there separately?
Me: What happened here is that I was dressed in a somewhat revealing outfit and commuted in alone, since we were both going from work. This meant that I had the very unpleasant ‘Welcome back to London’ experience of being made to feel extremely uncomfortable on public transport, including being quite obviously ogled by two large men who decided to sit either side of me. It hadn’t occurred to me until after we met at the tube station, and I mentioned how much of a relief it was to see you that I only felt safe (or safer) because I was with a man.
Him: You were sending me quite a few messages at the time, and, when I was waiting for you since I got to the tube station first, it was quite clear that you were uncomfortable. I was more preoccupied with feeling like there was nothing I could do to help or to prevent anything from escalating. It’s not a nice feeling at all knowing your significant other could be in danger simply by taking the tube. Honestly, I’ve never at all felt in danger using any kind of public transport myself.
This conversation could go on and on, and we could discuss far more topics, but I think it has been interesting to see the differences in our lived experiences and even our reflexes simply as a result of our personal characteristics, even though our personalities and interests are very similar.
It is unacceptable that anyone should feel in danger or uncomfortable simply because of who they are. If anything, realising how much I have been affected makes me feel more passionate about my work with JAN Trust to empower those who don’t have a voice and counter the dangerous prejudices and hate that can lead to extremism.
Who knows what a conversation with someone you thought you knew well could reveal for you?