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Not Quite White: Author Laila Woozeer on growing up mixed-race

To mark South Asian History Month, we speak to author Woozeer about identity, family, and history

Author and musician Laila Woozeer’s debut book, Not Quite White, is about being mixed race. To be precise, it’s about being Welsh-French-Scottish-American-Indian-Mauritian.

In Not Quite White, Woozeer charts the pain and confusion of growing up while grappling with a complicated, mixed ethnic identity. From a childhood spent as the non-white one per cent in the rural Welsh countryside, to their first jarring experience of fetishisation on dating apps, it’s a memoir that many mixed-race people will easily relate to.

“In my younger years I was genuinely unclear on whether I was supposed to exist,” they write. “Between confusing messaging from society and a lack of representation in media it was a constant battle for my own sense of self.”

To mark South Asian Heritage Month and celebrate the release of their book, Dazed spoke to Woozeer about their father’s home country (Mauritius), labelling your ethnic identity, and how love can conquer a language barrier.

In the book, you discuss the value of labels like ’mixed race’ and ’dual heritage’ to describe ethnic identities. Are there any labels that you particularly resonate with?

Laila Woozeer: I like the term mixed. I think it’s short and to the point and does what it says on the tin.

I also like ’mixed’. And also ’person of colour’, but I know that a lot of people don’t really like that term. I guess for some people specificity is good but when you have a very diverse background, I guess it can sometimes be easier to be vague.

Laila Woozeer: I use ’person of colour’ as well. I mean, I dislike the label system in general – like when it’s on the census or when you’re applying for a job – because it’s such a weird way to group people. It’s like grouping people based on shoe sizes or something like that. I just think, none of these terms are for me. There are none that I wholeheartedly embrace.

Mixed people have such a small framework for understanding themselves. I felt like I only started to get a grip on that when I was really delving into academic discussions of what constitutes ethnic identity, which is nuts. They don’t teach you that in school.

You said that you felt “shocked, horrified, upset and confused” when you saw the house in Mauritius where your father grew up for the first time. People often ascribe the tension between immigrants and their children to cultural differences, but do you think part of this tension can arise because of material differences too?

Laila Woozeer: In my case, yeah, absolutely. I guess you could say it’s a class difference, but the bottom line of poverty in a [developing world] country is so far away from the working class in the UK. That’s not to say we don’t have poverty or financial disparity here, but in Mauritius it’s not just about the difference between growing up in a small house and growing up in a big house. My dad’s childhood was so starkly different to my experience – of going to a school that had a roof, or having doors in the house. Seeing where he grew up, I was like, “whoa, there’s nothing in this world that I can identify with.”

I think there’s also just a structural difference. When I was a child, there was an understanding that there was the NHS or food banks or just some systems that could offer aid or help. Do they work, are they accessible? Arguably, no. But, however inaccessible, there are some options to progress from one situation into another. Seeing the situation in Mauritius, where there are no options, really affected me.

Mauritius has such a messy, complicated history that I almost never see it depicted in mainstream culture. Was it important to you to shine a light on Mauritian identity and history?

Laila Woozeer: Yeah, absolutely. There are three sections in the book where I talk about Mauritius, and to me they link together to give an extremely brief history of the island: firstly, pre-people, then colonialism, and then post-colonialism. Even with how short those sections are, it was really important for me to keep them in there. Some of the editors said “I don’t see how this is relevant” but I said “well, it is relevant, it‘s how my identity has been shaped.”

I’m always really conscious when I write about my own heritage and identity that people won’t even know where Mauritius is – it’s just this tiny island in the Indian Ocean. But it meant a lot to see you write about Mauritius in your book and not shy away from its complex history.

Laila Woozeer: Mauritius does have a really unusual national identity. A lot of anthropologists have used it as a case study – which is great if you’re in the academic world, but if you’re not, it’s difficult to write about and grapple with in shorter articles. With a book you have the luxury of going into the more complicated stuff.

A lot of second generation immigrants, myself included, often can’t speak the same language as half of their family. How do you navigate not being able to speak Creole fluently?

Laila Woozeer: I found it difficult because when I was younger, you couldn’t just ’learn’ Creole. It’s not an official language. It was like, just learn French and then it’s basically the same. But it’s actually not the same! I remember learning French at school and then trying to speak French my dad, and my dad would be like, “no, well, what you’re saying might be French, but it’s not Creole.”

I would love to learn Creole, but I’m not sure that it’s a language you can learn on a course or through Duolingo. I think this is true for a lot of people in countries where you’ve got so-called like Pidgin languages. So it’s difficult.

When I speak to my cousins, most of them speak English and like, four or five other languages. So I’m very reliant on them, due to me not having learned these languages. That’s the problem with ’English-as-your-first-language-privilege’ – everyone just bends to the English model and you end up coasting by, not really learning any other languages.

“The bottom line of poverty in a [developing world] country is so far away from the working class in the UK” – Laila Woozeer

A lot of my Mauritian cousins speak English but then some of the older members of mum’s family only really speak Creole. But what amazes me is how we still manage to communicate – whether it’s through food, or physical affection, or small gifts.

Laila Woozeer: It just goes to show that there are so many ways to show love. There’s a bit in my book where I’m seven and on our first trip to Mauritius and I say that we didn’t speak the same language but I could tell my aunty loved me because of the food she made me. Once she knew what my favourites were, she would just make them all the time. And I think that really had an effect on me.

Someone said to me that when they read the book they were struck by how I grew up in a Western country and spoke the same language as my white side, but it seemed like I felt so much more embraced by my brown side, even though we grew up in very different circumstances and I couldn’t even communicate with half of them. It’s true –  even though I have family where I can speak the same language as them, I feel so much closer to the side of family where I can’t.

Not Quite White is published by Simon & Schuster and available to buy now.