I went to a majority white school, where there were probably five people of colour out of a year group of 200 students, and I was taught exclusively by white teachers. It is easy to start thinking you are white even if you are brown, in my case glaringly so. After discussing my experience about growing up in a majority white community with other students who have experienced similar things, I found that most people coped by assimilating. In my case, that meant shedding everything about my Indian culture, which included: refusing to learn Punjabi; not showing any obvious signs that I am a Sikh; I even refused to eat Indian cuisine in public or acknowledge music or television that was remotely Bollywood. If I could change my name from Vaneet to anything else, I would have, and I would have been overjoyed about it.
That is not what sparked this conversation for me. My mother asked me why I did not refer to myself as Vaneet Kaur Sandhu for anything – including my writing – anymore. I am Vinny Sandhu now. I could not think of any other reason than wanting a little rebranding. I mean, there was also the fact that I hate the way people pronounce my name because they refused to change the way they pronounce it. Those are the main reasons. Furthermore, I have always been acutely aware of how there would always be something different about myself to those who were white, therefore my ethnicity, my religion, even my nationality was always questioned and acknowledged. I essentially never really grew up in a world where race could be inconsequential to me. My race was always made a key part of my identity. For instance, I was the diversity child used in promoting my secondary school. Another example is how if a teacher ever mentioned India in any context, the entire class would turn to me for affirmation.
The tables then turned on me. I came to university, one with a diverse student body, even in the School of History. At Queen Mary, 60% of the undergraduate student body are BAME, but when I looked at who was on modules, many of them were white. I took modules on topics that I found interesting, but another student pointed out how those modules were glaringly white too. These modules largely consisted of Eurocentric histories, instead of Asian or African ones, which seemed to attract more white students. If my module covered colonialism, it was usually from the perspective of the empire, instead of the subaltern. I have only taken two modules out of my entire degree that focused on the subaltern. It was another way of saying how I was not brown enough because I had chosen topics that attracted more white students. In turn, it was no longer a case of not being white enough; it was a case of not being brown enough. I did not go out of my way to show how much Punjabi I could speak; or how faithful I was to my religion; or how much I had reconnected to my own culture in private. Yet, it was obvious, I was not enough for either group. I was a coconut? Yes, I was called a coconut at the beginning of university for being “white on the inside, brown on the outside”.
These labels, such as “coconut”, were chosen for me. It is not my fault for others labelling me that way, but I am at fault for encouraging them by making jokes about myself that way and accepting it. This is an insult. I should not familiarise myself with it. I should write a sign on my forehead saying “Hi, I don’t belong anywhere”. If you are looking for a resolution, I do not think I’ve ever really found one. Although, I have learned to accept myself more and have created my own cultural identity where I bring the best of both cultures together.
I can string a few sentences together in Punjabi; proudly reveal my religion whenever I want; and genuinely participate in Indian culture. I can walk into the spaces that allow me to do these things, but I do it for myself, not for anyone else. I am Vinny, but you can call me Vaneet, just don’t make a big deal out of it because it’s not like I actively hide it. What did I learn from this? I proudly proclaim I am a brown girl, I am celebrating it, however, I want others to understand that while it is a big part of my life, it is not all that I am. I am a writer. I create through makeup and art. I love classic novels. I am not white. I am brown. More importantly, I am Vaneet Kaur Sandhu, you can call me Vinny or Vin though.