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It took until my thirties to realise I might not be white

When you’re biracial, you’ll often find even the most random strangers are desperate to try to solve the mystery of your racial heritage. But what if you don’t have an answer or don’t actually care a huge amount? After a lifetime of this, Oliver Keens has a coping device all of his own

Tuesday 11 July 2023 06:30 BST
‘A good Iranian son would have learnt to speak Farsi in their teens but I rebelled’
‘A good Iranian son would have learnt to speak Farsi in their teens but I rebelled’ (Rob Greig)

When I was young, I went through a phase of desperately wanting to be a mod. Yet even though I had a keen eye for the crisp sartorial nuances of this very British subculture, something ultimately wasn’t quite right. While my mod era was short-lived (I went to a club and someone threw a huge hulk of crumbling wall plaster at me, missing my head by a few inches), that phase stays with me for quite profoundly sad reasons. In pictures from that time, I see things now that I didn’t see back then. I was a brown-skinned, mixed-raced, wavy-haired mod. I’d never realised how far from the pale-skinned, straight-haired archetype I was. I looked like a confused mess. Someone trying to be something he wasn’t.

Though I’ve lived in London almost my entire life, I estimate about 50 per cent of people I’ve ever met would casually describe me as “Iranian” if asked. My mum is from Iran, my dad was from Essex. The longest I’ve been to Iran is a three-week holiday when I was 14. I’m the product of one white parent and one non-white parent. While everyone wants to know everything about Iran when they meet me, I’d say only 13 people have ever asked me about my Essex heritage, a fact that – weirdly – pisses me off more than the pernicious racist banter I’ve experienced in my life.

Have a good look at me and you’ll see I’m what you might call “racially ambiguous”. That sounds like it’s a problem but – through a slowly unfurling series of realisations that went on until my thirties – I’ve decided finally that it’s actually not my problem at all. It’s only a problem for the many, many people who belligerently try to guess my background on the first meeting. Italy, Turkey, Israel, Mexico, Spain, Iraq, Greece etc etc... the names of countries always whizz by, like talking to a coked-up travel agent. In my youth I used to unleash hell when I heard the dreaded phrase “no, but where are you really from?”. Without wishing to seem simpering and appeasing today, I’ve actually made peace with it, after realising – by virtue of living in a genuinely multicultural city – that the majority of people asking me were themselves from elsewhere. I honestly think that when people use that phrase in London, it’s mostly done with a discrete optimism that you might somehow be from the same part of the world as them. It’s still racist perhaps, but then, newsflash: non-white people can be racist. It’s something you perhaps only learn when you have a non-white family.

A good Iranian son would have learnt to speak Farsi in their teens, but I rebelled. I knew it would suck me into the Iranian diaspora in London, whereas all I wanted was to listen to Elastica, go to Camden Town and use straighteners to betray my wavy roots and have floppy indie-boy hair. FYI, I don’t regret any of this today. As I reached my twenties, I slowly felt like my Iranian side was more passive in who I was and my white English side was much more active. So in my head I thought everyone just saw me as, well, white.

But does anyone really know what they look like to other people? I remember the first few occasions when I started to get the hint that people didn’t see me as simply white. One was realising that everyone I dated turned out to have “a type”. Second was the slow trickle of “lookalikes” that everyone gets shown or sent, except mine were always... Bollywood actors?

So in 2008, aged 28, I started brazenly asking people I met for the first time a simple, deliberately naive question: “Am I white?” I still do it on occasion to this day. Most people I meet, because they’re respectful and sensitive, do a hilariously exaggerated inhale of breath, like they’re impersonating a distant rocket taking off. Then they ask a billion questions because they think it’s a trap, but once I assure them that there’s no right answer – or, in fact, any answer as far as I’m concerned – they mostly just say what they honestly think. What’s changed my life is that, like a human Brexit, my identity has historically split people 50:50. Half say yes, half say quite vehemently: “No, you absolutely are not white at all.” This has shifted over time, with more people now deferring to my brown side because major events have made people in the West discuss race with more depth and understanding.

Since clearly nobody can make their mind up what I am, and because all the words we use are still dryer than toast, I’m just saying yes to it all

I was christened Oliver, but pretty much everyone calls me Oli. I don’t write under the name Oli because, well, I think it sounds too much like “Wally” to be taken seriously. But at least that was my choice. Like lots of people with nicknames, I never chose it – I just very slowly came to accept that everyone wanted to define me a certain way.

Because I’m in the privileged position of not having to think of race every moment of my life, of not feeling the effects of racism in the course of my living day since being a teen (when I may or may not have been racially attacked in a mod club, I’ll never be quite sure), I’ve let a similar laissez-faire attitude take over the way I think about being mixed-race today. It’s empowering, I promise you. Since clearly nobody can make their mind up what I am, and because all the words we use are still dryer than toast, I’m just saying yes to it all. Whatever you say I am, I am. If you have issues with me feeling white, then fine – I don’t have the energy to correct you. So what if the only thing I know about the Iranian language is that the word for popcorn translates as “elephants farts”? If you want to call me Iranian, go for it.

I’ll never forget the day when my kids, both under eight at the time, started making unprompted comparisons of their skin tone with mine. With a bluntness and forthrightness I love them for, they told me: “You and grandma have brown skin, while we’ve got peach skin. We’re not the same, daddy. We’re different to you.” It mortally wounded me – for about three seconds. And then I just moved on. I know deep down we’re the same really.

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