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I don’t want to tick the box that says “Other. Please explain”

The government wants me to squeeze myself into a category, so it knows where I belong.

By Anna Maxwell

I’m eight. I don’t want it to be my turn. I sit rigid in my tiny grey plastic chair wishing it could whisk me away or, better still, that it would burrow into the buffered school floor and swallow me up silently.

My classmates shout their brilliantly British fathers’ names loudly and proudly. “David”, “Stephen”, “Michael”. My skin prickles with shame, the weight of it bowing my head. The alien whisper that is my voice murmurs “Amir”, as real or imaginary sniggers reverberate around the room. The next name is called and the attention leaves me, if not the shame.

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I carry this internalised shame home with me. It festers. Mixing with hurt and confusion, it bubbles away until it bursts out violently, projected onto the perceived source of its origin. I scream loudly but not proudly, “I don’t want a black bastard for a dad!”

The residual guilt from this childhood outburst still haunts me, languishing deep within. The memories  I have of feeling my family had tainted our white village, that I didn’t fit in, that I had no sense of belonging, allow me to understand, not excuse, my behaviour. Shame erodes my self-esteem. With these internal barriers, my life is steered down a narrowing path.

I’m 48. I don’t want to tick “Other”. I stare at the ethnicity tick-box form. The government wants me to squeeze myself into a category, so it knows where  I belong. “Other” is always at the bottom of the list. It’s reminiscent of being ordered to the back of the line at school for a minor misdemeanour. The word “Other”  is followed by “Please explain”. Just like the teacher demanding an explanation for bad behaviour.

Paradoxically, I pass as white – excluding the occasions when my ethnicity is questioned, as I’m asked if I have “a bit of foreign blood in me” or I’m told I look “a bit exotic”. My dad and his siblings reinvented themselves as white, two of them abandoning their Iraqi names to fit in more easily. But if I mark the “White British” box, always at the top of the list, I’m not honouring my heritage, resulting in an uncomfortable, undignified feeling of being a fraud. I procrastinate as  I hold my pen. If only there was a “Prefer not to say” box I could tick. Or better yet, “It’s complicated.”

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Anna Maxwell is supported by A Writing Chance, a UK-wide project from New Writing North designed to discover new writers from underrepresented backgrounds whose voices have historically not been heard in publishing and the media. You can read work by other writers in this initiative here.

A Writing Chance is co-funded by Michael Sheen and the Joseph Rowntree Foundation and supported by the New Statesman and the Daily Mirror. The project is delivered by New Writing North and literature organisations nationally, with research from Northumbria University.

This piece is published in Michael Sheen’s guest edited issue of the New Statesman, “A Dream of Britain”, on sale from 25 March.

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This article appears in the 23 Mar 2022 issue of the New Statesman, A Dream of Britain