It’s a strange feeling to see the phrase ‘we champion diversity’ (or some version of it) splattered across the internet. To hear people talk with enthusiasm (that wild look in their eye) about the need for more writers of colour, more actors of colour, more visibility for underrepresented voices. When (why, really) did people decide that suddenly difference should be celebrated?
In May 2018, on the red carpet at the Oscars, Daniel Kaluuya shut down a reporter who tried to claim that Get Out “ticks a lot of boxes”. His response: “We’re not boxes, though. Articulating the black experience isn’t a box... we’re articulating our truth. We’re human beings.”
We’re human beings. Yet it seems like to tell your truth, if you’re not white, you absolutely need to tick a box. You need to be proud to tick that box. If you’re starting out, and you’re telling a story that’s not about white characters, people practically lunge at you trying to explain how important and relevant your story is. They tell you that people need to hear it, that the world needs it to move forward and be a better place for all of us. Because these are new stories!
Don’t get me wrong - I think quotas can be great. I think these boxes can be helpful - hell, essential - at getting your work off the ground when you’re a minority and for so long you’ve been invisible to people. We can’t just rely on people to see beyond their prejudice, not yet, we need certain systemic devices in place to ensure that people are being more open minded. This shouldn’t be news to anyone. But what surprises me is how little understanding there is around what this attitude, this attempt to attribute fake importance to someone because of their ethnicity, can do to you if you’ve spent your whole life thinking you should hide that part of yourself.
I grew up believing I was white. In fact, it wasn’t until I started acting, going on auditions, that a whole alternative world opened up to me. The breakdowns I started getting through puzzled me. Anything from mediterranean-looking (fair enough) to Middle-Eastern (fine) to suddenly Pakistani and Indian (erm...) My best friend, who happens to be Pakistani (and is not an actress) regarded all this with a mix of bemusement and slight irritation. “You’re European,” she frowned. “Have these people only seen blonde people their whole lives?”
The truth is, I still don’t know whether I am European or Middle-Eastern (though I’m not Indian or Pakistani, I can tell you that much for free). My father is half Russian, half Iranian, and my mother is from Azerbaijan. Azerbaijan is a country in the Caucasus, a region sandwiched between Europe, the Middle-East and Asia. It literally defies categorisation. The culture is just as confusing/multi- faceted. It’s a Muslim country, but it’s been safe haven for Jews for centuries and has had Christian populations, and has always been secular. Throughout the twentieth century Baku, its capital, has been home to a mix of European and Middle-Eastern populations and visually looks like a cross between Paris, Budapest and Dubai. We have our own language - Azeri, or Azerbaijani - which is a Turkic language (you have Google) but many people still speak Russian because we were part of the USSR. Ask a Bakunian on the street where they would position themselves on the cultural or geographic scale, and you might get a different answer depending on who you ask.
My parents find the ‘issue of identity’ baffling because for them, growing up in one of the most multicultural places on the planet (thank you Soviet Union), the answer to my question was always: Who cares? You could be from anywhere. Enjoy that.
Enjoy that. Bit difficult when the industry of storytelling (Liberal! Innovative! Breaking boundaries!) does care. You’re an artist, sure, but if you want to make something, you have to accept that you’re a product and you need to be packaged properly. And you know what the catch is already - ethnic ambiguity doesn’t fit in here.
If you can’t be attributed to a community or a category, people simply don’t know what to do with you. I can see that attitude extending beyond my work as an actress or writer. Few of the people in my life who ‘get’ my ethnicity are white, and a lot of my close friends are mixed race. In fact the most obvious signs of racism I have experienced have been when I have gone to Russia, where there is a more heightened, shall we say, disregard for people who look like they’re from former Soviet states.
You would think this ambiguity would be a good thing. You would think it would allow me flexibility to transform into different parts. Not so. And with our sudden interest in casting projects as authentically as possible, it leaves mixed-race performers in a bit of a jam. Ah yes, we’ll just take parts in the projects with all those specifically mixed-race casting breakdowns.
One of the advantages of being an artist is that it allows a certain self-reflection which can be therapeutic. I’ve learned a lot about myself from being confronted with this confusion and irritation on people’s behalf when they’ve not known what to do with me. It’s made me realise that being afraid of difference is human. It’s made me reflect on the very real existence of internalised racism, how it’s affected my own life, and how I still need to make some effort to overcome it.
But above all, these experiences have shown me that whether or not you choose to make work about you, your experiences or your trauma, your work matters, especially if people try to shut it down. If your work is truthful (though not necessarily confessional) people will respond to it. We are now starting to understand that there’s a wonderful universality in the specificity of someone’s life, our humanity unites us beyond all these other ‘boxes’.
Our show Alice (which I’m writing and is produced by Klein Blue) will be on at VAULT 2020. This has become an opportunity for me to explore the unspoken tensions that have plagued my life as someone who still doesn’t quite know where they are from. My hope is that anyone that comes to see it will get a sense of release from it. Either because it might articulate certain anxieties (ones that certainly unite me and my second-generation immigrant friends), or because if you don’t relate to these experiences, you might realise that a lot of them stem from the same universal feelings: shame, fear and a desire to be accepted.