Halfies: a live podcast

Hajar Woodland

Hajar Woodland

“They’re cheating,” shouted a 16-year-old black boy from a London comprehensive when my team called out the right answer. It was 2003 and we were on a Cambridge University open day designed to encourage applications from ethnic minorities. Back then, terms such as BAME and ‘person of colour’ weren’t so commonplace; we tended instead to use ‘ethnic minority’ to let people know when they didn’t quite fit in.

I’d already had every intention of applying to Cambridge and had no idea that having a foreign name, being half-Iranian, and wearing a headscarf would be an issue. I, like many state-school kids, was unaware of the massive class and socio-economic barriers we faced, and naively assumed academia was a meritocracy. Surely my grades, Pride and Prejudice-styled accent, and eagerness to smile and nod at everything a posh person said would see me through. 

The general knowledge quiz was the final part of the day’s programme, and my table was doing well, but clearly some thought I didn’t deserve to be there.

“They’re cheating,” the boy said again, pointing at me. “They’ve just put a white girl in a headscarf.”

Yes, there’s a lot to unpack there. Internalised racism, the sense of injustice and imbalance, the grouping together of ethnic minorities in a way that leaves everyone feeling patronised and unseen, and the fact that to most people, I did indeed look like a white girl in a headscarf. Was I cheating? Claiming a space I didn’t deserve?

Sure, I was used to being asked by white people about the ‘tea towel’ on my head, while also being called a ‘milky bar’ by a Pakistani classmate who deemed it a more suitable racial slur for me than ‘Oreo’ or ‘coconut’.

At primary school teachers struggled with my hijab, often warning me that wearing it during PE meant I might strangle myself doing that most dangerous of activities: the roly-poly. And my name was a constant issue too with many teachers simply unable to pronounce it ‘Hajar like badger’, as per my instruction, and instead would stick firmly to their own alternatives: Hay-jar. Hodger. H’ajar, like a door, and at university, I got Harge like barge.

Yet, despite this feeling of being at odds with everyone else’s understanding of normal, I was in the unique position – as the boy from the London comp had implied – of being able to opt out of my ethnic minority label, should I so choose. All I had to do was remove my scarf and change my name.

These external changes wouldn’t erase what I’d experienced growing up, nor would they reset the neurological pathways or my internal struggles with identity, but they would, I thought, help me to do the thing Cambridge University was leaving unsaid: fit in. 

Of course, even with a different surname and no headscarf, I’m not much closer to making sense of my identity – but I also don’t really care anymore. 36 feels too old to be figuring it out and I’m starting to accept that it’s all one big grey area that’s worth celebrating.

The arts, in its constant quest to praise individuality, loves a label, but the closest I’ve got to one is ‘halfie’, and that will have to do for now.

It’s not exactly PC, but I like it. It’s broad and covers a range of experiences. Whether you’re half-French or half-Ghanaian, dark-skinned or light-skinned, the likelihood is that if your parents are from different backgrounds, we’ll have relatable anecdotes and funny stories that make us feel like we’re not alone in this mixed-up world.

So, to get these conversations going, on Thursday 8th September, I’ll be hosting a panel at the London Podcast Festival that’s all about finding the funny side of growing up mixed race/dual heritage/not-quite-white.

I’ll be joined by the hilarious sketch duo and extremely funny women, Shirley and Shirley (aka Joanna Carolan and Pascale Wilson) along with razor-sharp stand-up and fellow Anglo-Iranian, Darius Davies. 

Yes, there are downsides to not knowing exactly who you are or where you belong, and to constantly decoding two cultures, and to feeling like you’re explaining yourself to EVERYONE, but for me, the funny sides are the parts worth sharing. So I hope you’ll join me and my brilliant guests next week for a feel-good evening designed to help us all celebrate and laugh at the parts of ourselves that don’t always feel like they fit.

Join me for Halfies: a live podcast for the London Podcast Festival at Kings Place on Thursday 8th September at 9:30pm. Book your tickets here!

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