Multiracial Experiences: “At school I was called a half-caste!”

Whenever the moment comes when I have to choose the box on the Census that asks me to describe my national identity, my hand hovers over which one to tick.  With my fair hair, pale skin and green eyes, I certainly look like I should be picking the category that says ‘White/British’.

But by putting my mark in that square, I would not be doing justice to all that I am.  

Like more than one million people in Britain, according to data from the 2011 Census released yesterday, I am a member of the fastest-growing population group in this country: those born to parents in inter-racial relationships.

Writer Tanith Carey was teased by schoolmates for being born to a white mother and Indian father. But now she says she has learned to be proud to be a mixed-race BritWriter Tanith Carey was teased by schoolmates for being born to a white mother and Indian father. But now she says she has learned to be proud to be a mixed-race Brit

Jubilation over the successes this summer of Olympic athletes such as Jessica Ennis — the daughter of a Jamaican father and a white British mother — has shown how far we have come in embracing such a large mixed-raced population.

When talking race, people are very quick to talk about the negatives — discrimination and the difficulties of integration, to name but two. But let’s not forget how tolerant Britain is as a nation, and how inclusive we have become in the space of just a few decades.

As the granddaughter of an Indian entrepreneur who was at the forefront of this transformation, I can testify to just how far we have.  When I was a child growing up in the Seventies, it was not uncommon to be called a ‘half-caste’.

Sometimes the phrase was used to try to pigeon-hole me when I was asked about my slightly more exotic origins.

At the time, the term ‘half-caste’ implied that because you were the sum of two halves, you amounted to nothing much. It was used as the worst of all insults.

I felt this sense that I was ‘different’ — and not in a good way — keenly throughout my childhood. So bad was the prejudice I experienced that, when I was a young teenager, I actually dropped the Bengali surname I was born with.

The name — Mukerjee — is now a huge source of pride to me, but back then I could not see beyond the teasing it provoked.

So, utterly worn down by my small-minded classmates, when I moved to America after my parents’ divorce at the age of 13, I agreed to take my mother’s more ‘normal’ name of Carey when I started my new school.

It is a testament to the victory of racial tolerance in this country that it is highly unlikely that any young person would feel the need to do the same today.  But growing up in the Surrey suburbs 40 years ago, we were all still in the middle of a delicate social experiment — and at that time, no one had any idea which way it would go.

Attending an exclusively Anglo-Saxon prep school in Twickenham, I was the only one in my class with an unpronounceable Indian name; everyone else was called Davis, Williams, Johnson, or the like.

Tanith as a baby with her father Kim Mukerjee

Tanith as a baby with her father Kim Mukerjee

When my grandfather, Sunil, arrived in the UK in the 1930s, he had chosen to anglicise it with the spelling Mukerjee (even though it’s more usually spelt with an H after the K), so it always got pronounced — wrongly — as ‘MUCKerjee’.

It not only made me wince every time I heard it, it left me wide open to being teased by my fellow pupils, who used some not very creative rhyming slang to pursue me around the playground.

People who said it sometimes even pulled faces.

I still remember a teacher asking: ‘And what kind of a name is that?’

But then, of course, Britain was still a comparatively sheltered nation. TV was still dominated by sitcoms like Mind Your Language and It Ain’t Half Hot Mum, in which it was deemed perfectly OK to make fun of Asian names and accents.

But though I hated the teasing, deep down, another part of me also loved the fact that being part Indian made me in some way special.

As a child, I divided myself up like a pie-chart. I would tell anyone who would listen that I was one quarter Welsh from my father’s mother; a quarter Irish from my mother’s father; and a quarter English from my mother’s father.

But it was the final quarter — the Indian bit from my father’s father — that sounded most interesting of all. Even though my father looked Indian and identified himself very much as such, we never celebrated religious festivals.

The only clue to his Hindu roots came in the form of the symbol ‘Om’ cast in gold as a pendant, which he made me wear every day under my school uniform.  In many ways, our family was just like any other white British family, in that we followed this country’s customs and celebrated Christmas with as much enthusiasm as any Christians we knew.

Tanith with her parents in India. She says as a child growing up in the Seventies, it was not uncommon to be called a ‘half-caste’Tanith with her parents in India. She says as a child growing up in the Seventies, it was not uncommon to be called a 'half-caste'Still, there were occasions when my father, Kim, would ensure that I remembered my Indian heritage.  Once, when I was aged nine, he refused to speak to me for three days after I brought home a library book about Jesus.

But my assimilation was far less painful than it had been for my father or grandfather. My grandfather, Sunil, had been at the forefront of this century’s first wave of immigration from the Indian subcontinent.

The son of a judge, he came to London to study chemistry at Imperial College. In circumstances no one has ever quite got to the bottom of, he met Mary — his Welsh-born wife and my grandmother — when she was working as a shop assistant at Barkers department store in London’s Kensington High Street.

As a mixed-race couple in an era when almost every white British person would have been opposed to inter-racial marriage, they must have faced considerable hurdles.  

Yet it was never talked about, and my grandfather died suddenly from a heart attack before I was old enough to ask. And when I questioned my late grandma over chicken dinners on Sundays, she was reluctant to elaborate. But they lived a harmonious co-existence. Every day she made him delicious, home-made vegetable curry (even though she claimed never to have touched the stuff).

Tanith Carey pictured with her Welsh grandmother and Indian grandfather. She says she is not sure how they met and married, but they ‘must have faced considerable hurdles’Tanith Carey pictured with her Welsh grandmother and Indian grandfather. She says she is not sure how they met and married, but they 'must have faced considerable hurdles'She would take it to him on a tray, as he presided over the front room from a huge leather armchair.  From time to time his relatives from India would visit — and I would be amazed by great-aunts swathed in lengths of brightly-colored silks, who told me stories of estates back home in Bengal staffed by retinues of servants.

Always an eccentric character, my grandfather’s bedroom was in the attic of the towering five-storey house he owned in Kensington, where he surrounded himself with curling-up copies of the Financial Times and a rug collection which he refreshed by colouring in the faded tones with felt-tipped pens.

Whatever the truth of how my grandparents met, they were keen to do whatever they could to turn their son — my father Kim — into a fully integrated Englishman. My grandfather had invented a cheap way to mass produce vinegar (he supplied all the burger bars in London), and so could afford to pack my father off to Dulwich College, a public school in South London.

School line-ups from the time show Kim in uniform glaring defiantly from the middle of the picture — the only dark face in a crowd of white, freckled ones.

My father died 15 years ago, aged 57, of a muscle-wasting disease, but he told me he had experienced racism at the hands of both the boys and the teachers there.

Tanith as a six year old with her parents. She said at the age of 13, she changed her name from Mukerjee to her mother’s name of CareyTanith as a six year old with her parents. She said at the age of 13, she changed her name from Mukerjee to her mother's name of Carey As a teenager, he carried a pair of knuckle-dusters in his blazer pocket, ready for anyone who was prepared to risk calling him a ‘darkie’. He met my mother, Lynne, when they both worked in publishing in the mid-Sixties. She believes he pursued her so avidly because, as a blonde Home Counties Roedean girl, she was a status symbol to seal my father’s acceptance into British society.

With her own mother absent and her father already dead, Lynne encountered no resistance to the idea of marrying my father.  But still my father’s cultural insecurity ran deep. When she bloomed in both her career and her looks, he became pathologically jealous — and the fall-out led to their divorce 13 years after they married.

Afterwards, when we moved to New York in my early teens, my mother suggested I swap my Indian name for hers. As a teenager, I just wanted to fit in — so I agreed.

After he had tried so hard to make me proud of my heritage, it broke my father’s heart. Had I done the right thing? I really didn’t know. But when I started work as a journalist in the late Eighties, I really felt I had when a local newspaper editor advised me that readers didn’t like to see Asian names on stories.

My divorce from my Indian roots meant that until my father’s funeral, I had only worn a sari a few times.  He had asked to be cremated in the Hindu tradition with his family looking on — but the service still had to be held in a standard suburban crematorium.

To accommodate our strange request, after the red velvet curtain swished shut following the service, the undertakers ushered close family members through a side door.

There, we found a vast room that looked like a smelting plant — and my father’s coffin in a traffic jam of five coffins, waiting like a line-up of buses. The coffin was moving slowly on a conveyor belt towards a large furnace, where two stocky men in T-shirts and jeans prodded it in with the sort of giant paddles usually seen in pizza restaurants.

As I watched the whoosh of flames and saw the door slam shut on my father’s body, it dramatically summed up for me the tension between the Eastern and Western ways of dealing with death.

Yet, even now, with both my father and my grandfather gone, India remains the country I most want to connect with. On my first visit at the age of eight, as I passed through the immigration hall at Delhi airport, the official’s eyes flicked down to the surname on my passport — and then back to my face.

‘She can’t be Mukerjee,’ he barked. ‘Her skin’s too white.’

At that moment, I felt that I didn’t seem to belong anywhere at all. But the passage of time — and the tolerance of Britain — has proved me wrong. Today, there is no doubt that our nation looks incredibly different following decades of inter-marriage. In 50 years’ time, most of our grandchildren will probably be mixed race.

In years to come, I imagine the name Mukerjee will be as quintessentially British as a name like Johnson or Williams — themselves legacies of previous immigrants, the Normans and the Vikings.  Until that happens, I remain proud of my Indian roots.

Since I married a man with another true-blue English surname, I have had many more chances to legally eradicate it from my past.  But although Carey is my professional name, Mukerjee is still my legal one.

Maybe the time is not far off when we will have to scrap those boxes that ask us to define ourselves as anything other than what we are: British. But until they disappear, I have given my daughter, Lily, who is now age 11, the middle name India — so she will always remember how we got this far.

First published in DailyMail


7 thoughts on “Multiracial Experiences: “At school I was called a half-caste!”

  1. Thanks for sharing your story Tanith. I’ve always known Europe was not as accommodating as the United States. I’m glad things are changing and people of mixed race background no longer have to feel ashamed.

  2. *screams* OMG! I feel like she’s telling part of my story. I get mistaken for Italian, Latino, Native American and everything but what I really am…which is mixed race. Thanks for sharing your story Tanith. I think I should probably write mine. *still screaming* cos I’m moved by this article.

  3. My half sister is mixed race and when we were little we used to get asked a ton of questions about why she looked different and how she could be my sister since I’m white. It was embarrassing and frustrating to say the least. Thanks for sharing your story. I wish more people would share theirs to encourage others.

    • Nearly half of the world’s population suffer from racial discrimination. It’s rather sad that we get caught up in an individual’s racial history and overlook their person altogether. Although things have gotten better over the last 40-50 years, we still have a long way to go…

  4. I think sometimes it takes seeing a celebrity stand up for something to get people to overcome their fear. Here in the U.S. we have a lot of examples of people of mixed race ancestry that it is no longer the problem it used to be. Glad Tanith is proud of your beautiful heritage finally.

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