• PHOEBE

On Identity

Updated: Nov 14, 2019

In the midst of my usual scan of the online papers last weekend, a headline on The Guardian's website jumped out at me. ‘No, I’m a Londoner’ is an essay by Yann Demange, in which the director - who is French-Algerian but grew up in London - breaks down the multilayered backstory of his preferred demonym. Personal identity is a complex thing at the best of times, but to feel you are the child of a single city - and a very singular era in that city's history - can be a hard thing to explain. As Yann puts it (like a true Londoner): "I’ll continue giving my short answer to the question “Where are you from?” Because as you can see, the alternative answer can go on for-fucking-ever, innit." Indeed.

I was 24 when I, like Yann, moved to LA, and no doubt far more oblivious to the dark underbelly of my American dream than he. Obama won his second term weeks after I arrived, and I remember vividly the sense of elation, hope, and progress that came with that victory. Six and a half years, a cross-country move, and one abhorrent incumbent President later, that obliviousness has long been wiped away.

My initial ignorance was informed, at least in part, by the colour of my skin (which has has afforded me the luxury of naivety in this country and many others). This piece is not a refutation of my white privilege, which is irrefutable, but rather an acknowledgment of an additional privilege that I also carry, was also blind to, and now I see: my London privilege.

Although I've always been a proud Londoner, the edges of this vague self-identification only came into focus when I moved to LA. Suddenly I found myself in a city that was the opposite of all I'd known, and nowhere more so than in the segmentation of its ethnic communities – a sharp contrast to the 'melting pot' of my hometown. In my desire to create a community formed on the basis of a shared creative and cultural sensibility - rather than boxes ticked on forms - the genesis of The WW Club (started in LA in early 2015) was really more about geography than gender than even I initially understood.

My fellow New York-based Londoner, the writer Zadie Smith, has written about a similar enlightenment to her 'London privilege' that came with age, self-education, and newfound American life. In her 2016 essay 'On Optimism and Despair', Smith recounts the reception of her debut novel White Teeth - a book published in 1999, when she was just 21 - which was initially celebrated for its vibrant portrayal of multicultural London, and later denigrated when this portrait of urban life was deemed too harmonious to be real:

"...I am reminded that, to have been raised in London [during the seventies, eighties, or nineties], with say Pakistani Muslims in the house next door, Indian Hindus downstairs, and Latvian Jews across the street, is thought of, by others, as evidence of a specific historical experiment, now discredited.

I took pride in my neighbourhood, in my childhood, back in 1999. It was not perfect but it was filled with possibility. If the clouds have rolled in over my fiction it is not because what was perfect has been proved empty but because what was becoming possible – and it still experienced as possible by millions – is now denied as if it never did and never could exist."

Like Zadie, I am conscious that there were aspects of my upbringing which shaped my earlier thinking in ways I have had to subsequently revisit and unpack (not least through rigorous crosschecking with Londoner friends of Jamaican, Indian, Ghanaian, Nigerian, Trinidadian, Vietnamese and Filipino descent). But, like Zadie, the consciousness I've reached is simply that: a deeper level of seeing, empathising, and understanding, as opposed to an outright 'cancelling' of my own experience (which, after all, is one she recalls; Yann recalls; I also lived, and felt, and knew).

Almost seven years after I first moved to the United States, there are still many aspects of life here that I cannot fully claim to grasp. But I do know that living here has taught me this:

That to have had the chance to explore my adolescent identity through the lens of culture rather than race, and to have done so primarily on dancefloors filled with kids of all colours doing the same thing... to have learned to love reggae and dub at family gatherings in the presence of my friends’ first-generation West Indian grandparents... to be able to discern between Ghanaian jollof rice and Nigerian jollof rice after years of stealing mouthfuls from Tupperware packed by schoolmates' Ghanaian and Nigerian mums... to have lived between two parents with open minds and racially diverse friendship groups of their own... to have, even now, an old friend in London whose 5-year-old Dominican-French-British daughter attends a school where every single child in her class (30 in total!) is from a different ethnic background... to have grown up in the London I did, at the moment I did, with all the moments of discovery, joy, and human connection that came with it: this has been the great privilege of my life.

FURTHER READING

"No, I'm a Londoner": Top Boy Director Yann Demange on his tussle with identity in the US The Guardian

On Optimism and Despair, Zadie Smith The New York Review of Books

Feel Free, Zadie Smith Books Are Magic

White Teeth, Zadie Smith Books Are Magic