When I started my role at the University of Reading, I made a choice: I asked to be known as ‘Immy’ by my colleagues. My full name is ‘Imogen’, but outside of work and school I have almost always been called Immy. Don’t get me wrong, I love my name and surname, as both have roots that speak to my Irish heritage. That said, I am aware that most people probably don’t expect a mixed race woman of English, Irish and Pakistani descent when they hear the name ‘Imogen Lawlor’. I’ve always considered ‘Imogen’ to be my ‘white’ and formal name, so when people only knew me as ‘Imogen’ it felt like I wasn’t fully being myself to them.
Having mixed heritage can be an amazing thing that evokes pride and provides access to multiple cultures, but it sometimes presents us with puzzling situations. Mixed people generally don’t have to deal with the same degree of racism and discrimination as black people, for example, but we face different kinds of issues. Because I am (mostly) white passing, it was easy for me to hide behind my white name for most of my life, and not confront my feelings about my race. Of course, being white-passing is a privilege, but this has placed me in difficult situations where some white people feel comfortable enough to express racist sentiments in front of me. For example, when a former white colleague ranted extensively to me about their friend “who is so annoying because she ALWAYS plays the race card”, I found myself wondering “Would they have said that in front of me if they knew that I am a person of colour?”. Moreover, white colleagues have used me as a sounding board in the past, to ask the questions they are “too nervous” to ask other people of colour. Sometimes I feel like I am a ‘palatable’ person of colour to them, who they think will tolerate their curiosities because I’m half white. As much as some questions and comments are well meaning, it grows tiring when yet another person remarks on your skin colour, making comments like “But you don’t look mixed, you’re quite pale. Maybe you’re more white than brown.”
Despite the lack of diversity during my undergraduate studies, university was a place where I embraced my identity. I was on the founding committee of the Oxford Mixed Heritage Society: the first university society of its kind in the UK, which is still running and has inspired other students to form their own mixed heritage societies. University is a place where students can explore their identities, but working in a university means that you are bound by a different set of rules and expectations. Race is a protected characteristic by law and you should never feel obliged to talk about your race, if you don’t feel comfortable. Being able to speak up at work when you experience racism relies on a workplace of transparency and allyship for people of colour. I work in a mostly white team now, but I am fortunate that there is a culture of acceptance and inclusivity.
If I were to say one thing to my mixed race colleagues, it would be that you should never feel that you have to pander to white people’s questioning. Your racial identity is your own and it is up to you how you express or define it. Don’t get bogged down answering other people’s questions. You have the right to say no. Moreover, experiences of being mixed heritage are vast and detailed. The difference between Immy and Imogen might be small to some, but it could mean the world to you.
Immy Lawlor, Assistant Student Recruitment Officer