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24 November 2016

Why, as a British Asian, calling me a “Coconut” hurts as much as the P-word

Second-generation Asians in Britain are caught in a cultural crossfire; shaming each other for “acting white” only makes it harder.

By Rohan Banerjee

The first time someone called me a “P**i”, I cried. It was in primary school and a girl named Holly had taken issue with me tagging her in a game of tag. Now, I’m not sure that Holly fully understood the rules of the game, or indeed at the age of eight, appreciated the gravitas of what she’d said, but I certainly did.

It hurt more than anything I’d been called before then – including the sting that was “snotty snot face bum head” in Year One – because it targeted something that I couldn’t help: my skin colour. And ultimately that’s what racism does; it leaves you feeling helpless, wondering what you did to deserve it.

In the years that have followed that unsavoury playground incident, I have wrestled with my racial identity. I was born in India to a half-Indian, half-English mother and an Indian father. In the early Nineties, I moved to the UK and grew up in South Thanet. Any alacrity to westernise, I think, has largely stemmed from a desire to avoid being called a P**i again, but another part of me asks why it should be me who’s making the conscious effort to change?

Unfortunately, the former often offered the quiet life and, as a youngster, I was perhaps more willing to concede. I would tolerate Anglicised alternatives of my name – Rowan, even Ronnie – to dilute the sense of difference. I answered my mum’s Bengali with Home Counties English and indulged in plenty of piss-ups before I was 18. I wasn’t immune to all Asian stereotypes, mind; I started shaving at 11, I thought Mercedes meant happiness, and with my academic performance on its books, Waterloo Road might not have closed.

In essence, the cultural crossfire that myself and so many other second-generation Asians in Britain experience toes a fine line between integration and absorption. It is at best difficult to reconcile that desire to fit in against a charge of selling out; and while being viewed as an outsider isn’t nice, arguably worse is having backs turned on you by the same community that you come from.

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The term “coconut” – which means brown on the outside, white on the inside – is comparable to P**i as far as I’m concerned. It’s just as unfair and even more illogical. “Coconutters”, as I’ll call them from here on in, reckon that replicating any “white” behaviour is a sin tantamount to witchcraft. This might manifest itself as not speaking enough of your mother tongue; pursuing a career or relationship that’s not expected of you; or not following the faith you were born into and had no choice about in the first place.

Coconutters treat being Asian as a contest – you somehow score points for the level of spicy food you can handle, for example – but in reality it’s just needless infighting. Racism follows no rationale, let alone an idea of hierarchy. Even being westernised won’t spare an Asian the risk of being called a P**i, so why do coconutters think that it will?

As I’ve got older, I’ve grown more confident about my identity and, as such, I’ve been inclined to engage with my Asian side. But how and to what extent I do that should only ever be a matter of personal choice. That I opted for arts over sciences or that I butcher my Bengali with Kentish cadence makes me no less brown than the accountant who, five years after buying his TV, still leaves the plastic on the remote.

Being Asian isn’t something that I need to try to be, it’s something that I am, and even if I “act white” in the eyes of some, it won’t change the fact that I’m not.  Both the perceived coconuts and the coconutters who shame them would do well to reach a similar conclusion.  Indira Gandhi once said: “I cannot understand how anyone can be an Indian and not be proud.” Quite; but I think that Popeye the Sailor Man probably put it better: “I am what I am.”

Rohan Banerjee is a Special Projects Writer at the New Statesman. He co-hosts the No Country For Brown Men podcast.