Yesterday I went to London to spend the day with my family. At first, I was planning to wear one of my very regular outfits which I like because it completely hides my body figure. Due to health and personal issues, I have gained a lot of weight during the last year and I’m apprehensive of being around my family while looking like this. However, while getting ready on the morning, I spotted a crop top and a pair of culotte pants I had recently bought. I looked outside, and it was sunny. Perfect day to wear that clothing combination. So, why not?
2017 is being an intense year for the Western world, marked by the rise of nationalist movements. Anyone with a basic understanding of fascism, xenophobia and white supremacy would have probably seen this coming in the last few years.
When politicians across the spectrum use migrants as a basketball ball to score points, when challenging racism becomes a bore-some activity for so called progressive/liberals, when dealing with inequality and xenophobia is seen as a matter of “overrated identity politics, when people pretend only white people are working class and suffering since the financial crisis of 2008, when the media is still unable to check their biased language, and when all of the sudden everyone wants to pretend we are all equal as if a few decades of brown and black people seen as human (debatable) erases the effects of centuries of genocide, slavery and colonisation, well…. You get this. A region in which racial supremacy and discrimination are okayed again (to be honest, were they ever not okayed?) in the name of freedom of speech.
At the same time, everyone willing to challenge this bigotry is called a “regressive leftist” by people who genuinely believe they are progressive leftists, while being moderate centrists, if anything. Neo-Nazis and conservatives might refer to them as “easily triggered snowflakes”, which is ironic since they turn purple and angry whenever you call their statements ‘racist’. “Clueless social justice warriors” is another label used often by people who still don’t know their right to freedom of speech can only be violated by governments and their agencies/bodies, not by fellow citizens counterarguing what they say.
And lastly, my personal favourite one: “entitled millennials”, a tone-deaf term used by adults who believe young people under 30 years old are all middle-class babies who had everything handed to them (working/lower class young people don’t exist anymore), were rewarded for mediocrity (seriously, where are all these awards? I didn’t get mine) and can’t live outside safe spaces (apparently young people live in protective bubbles away from the cruel real world, I can’t believe I didn’t get one!).
I’m not going to go any deeper into the political situation in the West, I’m still on an indefinite break from writing about social issues at a non-personal level. I just wanted to give a brief look at the context in which this personal article is set. The ongoing discussions about nationalism, patriotism, culture and ethnicity have made me think deeply about my own identity. How I identify and how I am identified. I struggle to determine to where I belong and to which countries/regions I should be loyal too. My national, ethnic and cultural identities are complicated to the point in which I’m uncertain I have any of these.
I was born in the Basque Country, an autonomous region in Spain. I lived there till 2012, the year I moved to England, where I currently reside. My nationality is Spanish and despite living in Britain for over four years, I still have a strong (Northern) Spanish accent. At the same time, I have adopted various British customs, such as saying “sorry” non-stop without an actual reason, eating roast on Sundays, being passive aggressive and drinking a lot of tea throughout the day (just joking!). Despite all this, I was born (and I live) in a different place to where my parents and grandparents were born. Hence, my nationality and place of residence say little to nothing about my ethnicity and heritage.
My mother was born in Equatorial Guinea, located in Central/Middle Africa. Her mother (my grandmother) is from there too, while her father (my grandfather) was originally from a West African country, either Cape Verde or São Tomé and Príncipe (I can’t confirm which one it is since I have been told different things). As you can see, simply in my mother’s side there is already a mixture of ethnicities, which would be even bigger if specific ethnic groups/tribes would be considered (which I won’t do because I don’t want to overcomplicate this article).
Although it might seem confusing, describing my maternal heritage is easy compared to my paternal heritage: my biological father (from whom I inherited my genetic traits) differs from my legal father (who legally recognises me as his daughter). I have never met my biological father and I know little about him. Meanwhile, I was raised by my legal father and he is the only person I consider a “father” in my life. I was told that my biological father is Senegalese and Bissau-Guinean (both West African countries). My legal father is from DR Congo and his parents (my grandparents) migrated there from Angola. Both countries are in Central/Middle Africa.
I learnt most of this information about my family during the last couple of years. Growing up, I was never curious about my ethnicity and heritage. I never even tried to define them. The only things I was sure about were my race (black) and my nationality (Spanish). While I grew up immersed in Spanish culture, I never felt part of it: it wasn’t something I could claim as my heritage. While Spain is a “colourblind” country in many aspects (when I lived there, race and ethnicity were not officially recorded as in UK), racism and xenophobia are common. People always give you subtle and not-so-subtle reminders about you not being “originally” from Spain.
It was also hard for me to feel attached to my African background because I didn’t grow up with my family (except my siblings). Now and then, I did have access to my parents’ cultures, mainly during family celebrations and spiritual rituals, but these were limited. I can name some basic Congolese food dishes, some basic Equatorial Guinean food dishes. I can understand some words of Lingala (Congolese language) and Pichinglish (Creole language in Equatorial Guinea). I’m aware of some rituals and customs. But my position regarding these cultures is the one of an outsider, rather than someone actively involved in them. In addition, till no long ago, I silently rejected my African background because of the gender roles that were being forced on me in the name of it.
Moving to England and becoming a young adult triggered in me an interest to know more about my roots to define my ethnicity better. In England I saw how most black people, even if British, embraced their ethnicity a lot, not just as “African”, but as Nigerian, Ghanaian, Jamaican… Or even specific subgroups, such as Yoruba. I felt a lot of envy about this, I wished that was me. Meanwhile I realised that I would never be considered Spanish and I wondered if I wanted to live in this continent forever. In addition, when deciding what to study at university, I remember how my dad pushed me to go for something that could help people “back at home”, meaning DR Congo for him.
All this inspired me to learn more about my roots. I asked questions to my family, and I did an Ancestry DNA test to proof-check their answers. While Ancestry DNA isn’t 100% accurate, it is an indicator, and I’m hoping to do a 23andMe check soon, since it is considered more reliable. Here are my Ancestry DNA results:
(*Trace regions are regions/countries which are only possibilities and might appear in the results by chance.)
My reaction to this data was a mixture of confirmation and surprise. I suspected most of my ethnicity would be African. I knew I had some European ancestry because my maternal grandfather was creole/mulatto. I thought I would get a small percentage for Native American (defined by Ancestry as indigenous groups from North to South America) because I was told my maternal great-grandmother has an Indigenous Cuban ancestor (the ancestor might be too distant to appear). I definitely have Afro-Cuban ancestry, something common in my mother’s home country, yet it isn’t reflected on the test since Afro-Cubans, as other Afro-Latinos, are direct descendants of black African slaves sent to the Americas.
I was surprised by the percentage for the Middle East, and although it is just a chance, it might be true due to extensive presence of Middle-Easterns in Africa, particularly in countries that make up my ethnicity. Regardless of this, I’m happy with being just black African, that’s how I have always identified. (Black) Afro-Hispanic is a label that wouldn’t bother me either, since linguistically speaking, I’m indeed Hispanic, which is not the same as Latino by the way (though I do have Latino [and Caribbean] heritage since I have Cuban ancestry and I grew up quite influenced by it).
When comes to individual countries, I already knew I had Senegalese roots, though I didn’t think it would be my biggest percentage. Conversely, I knew I had Bantu background, since my maternal grandmother’s ethnic group is Bubi, a Bantu subgroup, but I didn’t think the percentage would be so small. I was dazed by the rest of African countries and for the lack of mention of Equatorial Guinea, Cape Verde or/and São Tomé and Príncipe, in the list. However, a small look at African history helped me to make sense of this.
Cape Verde and São Tomé and Príncipe were supposedly uninhabited islands when the Portuguese arrived to colonise them. They were populated mainly through European settlers and slaves from continental Africa. That’s probably why countries like Congo and Benin appear in my Ancestry DNA: many slaves were taken from there. A similar logic can apply to Equatorial Guinea: that country was inhabited prior to Portuguese and Spanish colonisation (by ethnic groups like the Bubis), but there was a lot of migration from neighbouring areas afterwards.
Except for two, all the African countries/regions in my results are in West & Central Africa. Considering how European-made national borders in Africa don’t respect ethnic groups and tribes, the variety in my ethnicity makes more sense: the ethnic groups I belong to could be found in various countries in the area. Nationality might not be the greatest indicator for ethnicity in Africa. It is also important to keep in mind I don’t have full access to knowledge about my biological father’s family background. And, as I mentioned earlier, Ancestry DNA isn’t 100% accurate, although my results look more right than wrong.
As you can see, my ethnicity and heritage are heterogeneous. My mother, my legal father and my biological father are all from separate places, even different to their own parents. It is important to mention that while I didn’t inherit genetic traits from my legal father, his heritage and ethnicity still influence my cultural identity. Now, add my nationality (Spanish) and my place of residence (England). To which country in the world am I supposed to be loyal? To which country in the world am I supposed to show patriotism? I identify as black African normally, but I’m aware I’m legally Spanish and I’m a citizen of England.
Having a transnational, multicultural and mixed background is supposed to make me richer in knowledge and experiences, which is not untrue. Yet, it doesn’t make you richer in company. It can be very isolating. You belong to so many places that you end up belonging to nowhere. And more nowadays, when nationalism and ethno-supremacy are such a trend worldwide. It is easy to force nationalism upon people when you haven’t been rejected by your country of birth, when the country where you live doesn’t hate you and when you don’t have a transnational family.
My nationality is culturally and ethnically meaningless. Living in England matters to me, but the current war on immigrants and Brexit make things harder. While I’m trying to learn more about the countries that compose my African background, I still don’t feel attached to them. That’s the main reason why I can’t get behind any person or idea that doesn’t consider that who I am comes from more than one country or region, and tries to shame me for not being nationalistic. I simply have a borderless identity not confined to a single culture or place. And I wish people understood this, just as I respect their right to be patriotic. Hopefully one day, people like me will be considered during political discussions about culture, ethnicity and nationalism. Hopefully.
Last Tuesday I made a visit to Southend YMCA, for the current Team v campaign, “Beyond a Tin of Food”. Southend YMCA is a charity that works in Southend, Essex, to help homeless young people. Apart from providing with housing, they also offer other type of support, such as food aid. Due to this, I believed it would be a good idea to work with them for this campaign, since they deal with food poverty.
Fortunately, I got to speak with an enthusiastic staff member in their offices, and I must admit it was a quite enlightening conversation. I walked out of that meeting knowing more than I thought I would. I asked about the organisation and their general services. Southend YMCA has 30 supported housing units. Their main focus is homeless teenagers between 16 and 18 years old, though they provide housing for homeless young people between 16 and 25. Service users are normally referred to the charity. Many of them are victims of neglect and abuse. Others have parents that can’t look after them, due to reasons such as unemployment. In most cases, these teenagers and young people are very vulnerable: many of them don’t have a penny, others have mental health problems and addictions, others are young offenders, and others have disabilities. Situations differ from person to person.
When they arrive to the organisation, these vulnerable people are provided with an emergency food aid parcel, which also includes toiletries. Here is a list of the donations they accept, so you can have an idea of what can the emergency parcel contain, more or less:
Food & Drink
Coffee, teabags, sugar, long life milk / powdered milk
1 litre long life fruit juices (orange and apple preferred)
Individually wrapped chocolate biscuits (e.g. Kit Kats, Penguins)
Tinned hot dogs, ham and corned beef
Tins of chilli, meatballs, meat curry, minced beef, chicken in white sauce, stewed steak
Traditional tinned vegetables
Tins of tuna pasta (spaghetti or shapes)
Tins of baked beans, spaghetti, ravioli, spaghetti Bolognese, beans with sausages
Tins of fruit
Tins of steamed sponge puddings
Tins of custard and rice pudding
SMASH instant mash
Jars of cooking sauces
Orange, lemon, summer fruit squash
Tins of soup
Washing up liquid
Single bedding and duvets
High street vouchers
Without doubt, the aspect I liked most about Southend YMCA’s work is their holistic approach to people in need: they give individual and complete support to their service users, not just housing, food and material goods. They go beyond food and beyond housing: they provide people with training, education and more opportunities to improve their situations. Every young person in their housing units has a key support worker assigned to them, with whom they have regular 1:1 sessions. During these meetings, the improvements of the young person are measured through the “Outcomes Star” system. This a method to assess and support the progress of service users towards self-reliance or other goals, like good mental health, quitting from an addiction, finding employment… Here is a picture and explanation of a “Outcomes Start”:
“An Outcomes Star reading is taken by the worker and service user at or near the beginning of their time with the project. Using the ladders or other scale descriptions, they identify together where on their ladder of change the service user is for each outcome area. Each step on the ladder is associated with a numerical score so at the end of the process the scores can be plotted onto the service user’s Star. The process is then repeated at regular intervals (every three, six or 12 months depending on the project) to track progress. The data can be used to track the progress of an individual service user, to measure the outcomes achieved by a whole project and to benchmark with a national average for similar projects and client groups.
In the mental health version of the Star (called the Recovery Star) shown above, the green line represents the service user’s initial scores, the blue line is their most recent score.”
During the visit, I also had time to ask about statistics and trends of poverty in the area. The figures I was told were quite shocking. Southend is in the top 10% of UK’s most deprived areas. The current need for affordable housing is very high, and this is not only an issue in Southend. Currently, England is suffering from a lack of available, adequate and reasonably priced houses. The lack of availability of houses has lead to hundreds of people sleeping on streets, where their wellbeing, health and safety are threatened. There is not enough social housing for everyone, and families often have to wait years in temporary accommodation, while their name is kept in list. A great number of these families include dependants such as children and teens below the age of 18. The number of families is increasing, while the number of houses available is decreasing.
The lack of adequate housing has lead to people living in bad, harmful and harsh conditions. Thousands of houses are overcrowded; in 2008/9, around 654,000 houses in England were deemed as overcrowded. Bad housing includes houses in need of several repairs (e.g. cracked doors, broken walls, floors with holes), and houses that lack of needs such as water, gas, heat, and electricity. Harsh conditions include excessive coldness or hotness, poor sanitary conditions, low food availability etc. Also, a lack of adequate housing is also conditioned by insecure and problematic neighbourhoods with constant crimes and health issues going on. All this affects the physical health, emotional wellbeing, mental health, social life, education, employment and future opportunities of individuals, mainly of children and teenagers which are very vulnerable to these situations.
The lack of reasonable priced houses has lead severe consequences. More than two million of people have serious difficulties to pay their rent and/or mortgage, and have debts with banks, state agencies, and landlords. In addition, the number of forced evictions in the last years have grown scarily, as more homeowners fail to pay their mortgage and debts contracts with banks and other organisations. On the other hand, families and individuals with low income decide to rent privately and they manage to pay their rent; however, after paying their rent, they struggle to afford good living conditions and vital needs such as food, security, good sanity conditions, education, transport, heat, and water. Therefore, despite having a roof, they still living on bad conditions. All these has a very negative effect on the physical health, emotional wellbeing, mental health, social life, education, employment and future opportunities of individuals, mainly of children and teenagers which are very vulnerable to these situations.
All this may sound dramatic and heart breaking, but it is the truth. And it is not improving: it is actually going worse. The Southend YMCA’s staff member I spoke to told me that they have experienced an increase in the number of people using their services in the last years. Sadly, the waiting lists are very high and they have to reject people due to lack of units. However, the council has created a set of housing strategies for the next years, in order to tackle this issue. And Southend YMCA has also decided to develop their services and open two more houses. Hopefully, these solutions will work out and more people can be helped.
At the end of my visit, I was very pleased with the information I found out. Southend YMCA’s staff members were very helpful and they seemed passionate about their jobs. The person I got to spoke to in particular started in the charity as a volunteer, and then he was offered a job. He also spoke about how involved he is in fundraising activities such as “Sleep Easy”, a national initiative through which people raise money by sleeping rough one night, in order to show empathy with homeless people. And what is more, he highlighted how important my role as a Team v Leader is, saying “volunteering is golden and it will help you a lot in the future”.
On conclusion, I left Southend YMCA’s offices very pleased. Now, I’m looking forward to collect a lot of food for them, in order to support their amazing work.
Sharing my journey through my first Team v campaign,
Emilie H. Featherington 🙂 ❤