The Demented Goddess: Myriam, you hail from French and Irish ancestors. Growing up in London, what sense did you have of your roots?
I was raised in a French bubble in London – my father worked in Paris for a significant part of my youth and every year, as a family, we would discuss ‘going home’ (to France). Yet, I was born in Camden and although we spent a lot of time in France, and I attended a French school, I have never lived there. I think my identity reflects that of many Londoners who have a sense of being from ‘elsewhere’ – which for many of us is in fact a largely imagined elsewhere – but we are united by London culture – UK garage and Notting Hill Carnival, Ally Pally and Hyde Park, Camden market and Chelsea Sloanes. I often say I didn’t know any British people – by which I mean people who had a singular sense of British identity – until I went to university, aged 17. So I felt quite at home, in knowing I wasn’t really ‘at home’ in England. That of course, is quite different now.
DG: How has your sense of belonging changed?
I still don’t feel British (partly because I’m not sure I’ve ever felt like there was a space in British culture for someone like me). I still carry my London identity with pride – the London I stand for. The London where we know we’d be so much poorer if those gripped by fear got their way. The London of resistance. I became Muslim when I was 21, which has added another layer to my identity. I belong to an ‘ummah’ now, a wider international community of Muslims, linked by our common faith (despite the incredible variants in how we practise it). But also, as a result of my Islamic beliefs, I feel connected to a global sense of struggle. As a Muslim, I believe I carry the responsibility to be a custodian of certain values on this earth – justice, fairness, love, compassion, balance – and as such, I feel far more connected to a campaigner for worker’s rights in Zimbabwe than I do to an entitled London banker who tries to avoid paying back into the system.
DG: How does being a Muslim and having worn a headscarf, as a white woman, affected your sense of belonging to or being rejected by communities?
I wore a headscarf consistently for most of my adult life and have only recently within the last few years ceased to wear it as consistently. As a visibly Muslim woman, I was persistently racialised and frequently the target of racist and Islamophobic vitriol – from being spat at or sworn at, to being followed around shops or being made to feel unwelcome in certain space.
This has certainly shaped my relationship to white racial identity, which I now strongly advocate needs far deeper examination if we are serious, as a society, about tackling racism – our conception of whiteness is the framework which upholds the racism around us. And yet many people identified as white would rather avoid confronting the real nature of our whiteness and the impact it has on those excluded from whiteness. I’m not tribal, so I have no issue with not being identified, or not identifying with, those whom it might be assumed I should relate or identify with. On the contrary, I’m in search of new forms of solidarity which can provide us with new lenses to assess our complicity within systems of oppression and provide us with the direction of travel to seek to overcome the constructed differences which hinder the wider strugle for equality.
DG: Our sense of historical inheritance can alter as we age. For example, I come from a feudal Hindu family who built cities. As a kid bullied by BNP neighbours, I took some pride in the creative opportunities and social power enjoyed by my ancestors. But as I grew up, surviving a tradition of family violence arising directly from Partition, I became more and more outspoken of the cost of privilege, both to the privileged and to those indentured to serve them. Now, as the mother of a young, mixed-race boy, I’m very aware that we can all become refugees at any time; and that the supposed benefits of ‘class’ can be destroyed by war, natural disaster, revolution. Has there been a single most important time in your life when you felt like readdressing your roots? What other questions can you envision emerging as you get older?
I think the main part of my identity which I feel needs addressing and readressing is my being identified with a white racial identity which has functioned historically, and continues to function today, as a system of hierarchal value in which whiteness is posited as the pinnacle of human worth. White, male straight, able-bodied whiteness is the absolute pinnacle. We are all enmeshed in systems of privilege, but as someone enmeshed in white privilege, I feel a particular responsibility to remain alert to the ways in which I may unwittingly be complicit in perpetuating conditions of struggle and inequality for others.
As I get older I try and remain open to growth, wherever it comes from. I’m particularly interested, as a feminist, in seeking to shift the value attributed to women’s physicality over our moral or intellectual contributions and to challenge the ways in which as women we are complicit in reinforcing the notion that girls are the best representation of a woman. By doing this, we demean actual, fully fledged warrior women, who bear the scars of having survived the war it is to exist as a woman in this world. When women become women – with age, and experience, and knowledge and maybe even some wisdom – they/we become invisible – and that tells you all you need to know about how much value our society truly attributes to women.
Myriam was in conversation with our Editor Soma Ghosh. Myriam is the founder of www.weneedtotalkaboutwhiteness.com and the host of its new podcast. She is currently judging the Bailie Gifford non-fiction prize and working on a documentary film. You can hear Myriam talk at The Battle Of Ideas this Novemeber 2019.
Follow Myriam on Twitter: @MyriamFrancoisC
Follow Soma @calcourtesan