Written by Nina Camara
Though the face of Europe may be constantly changing, on a social level that change is often not fast enough.
As someone who has grown up in a predominantly white and culturally homogenous Slovakia, I experienced first-hand the challenges involved in growing up in places where the Black diaspora is scarce and thus not visible in the national culture.
However, being a part of an invisible minority, usually classed as ‘other’ or not defined at all, gave me a unique perspective on important values that, had my experience been different, I would likely have taken for granted.
In Liminal Space is a series of interviews in which I want to highlight the experiences of people who have decided to leave an environment which did not reflect their story for a liminal space ‘between the known and the unknown’, in order to put their past behind them and create a new beginning somewhere else.
This first conversation is with Shakayra Stern from Austria, who left her home country, aged 18, to start a new life in London together her family. She has recently published a book entitled: ‘But Where Are You Really From: A Collection of Real Life Experiences of a Mixed Girl’ by Shakayra Stern.
Life back home
- Describe the place where you grew up. What was it like in terms of its cultural and ethnic make-up?
I grew up in Vienna, Austria, which looks like a multicultural capital on paper but in reality, I was actually the only mixed race girl in my entire school and my mum was the only black lady that I knew in the country. My mother once saw one black policeman when she first came to Austria in the ‘80s – only once and never again.
- How did you feel growing up in this community?
By default, you’re basically always an outsider. There was one boy in my private Catholic school who was Persian and he was dark in complexion. That was the only person that I could see and go ‘oh, he looks like me’. Also, the teachers always paired him and myself together because they always saw us as the same ethnic mix which is really bizarre, thinking of it now, as I’m mixed with a completely different race. We had a bond because we were both outsiders and since it was very challenging, trying to fit in.
- How did people react when they first met you?
Well, the reaction is actually still the same now as when I was a child – a lot of people spoke to me in English rather than German which is my mother tongue and my first language. There was an assumption that I was a foreigner and I could not possibly speak the language. I also always felt like I was approached in a manner as if I was less intelligent, or as if I shouldn’t be there.
You’re treated like a fraud by default. It’s a very strenuous thing to deal with because you could just be going about your day and someone just approaches you in the shop and starts talking to you in English. All you want to do is just to have a look around but you have to, again, explain yourself to them and speak to them in German just to prove that you can speak German. It may just be small things but it shapes the way you think about your home and it’s this weird love-hate relationship that you develop.
- Were there any challenging situations? How did you approach them?
There were several challenging situations. At school it was how teachers spoke to me day to day, they were undermining me, basically denying the fact that I am Austrian, that’s something that I wrote about in my book as well.
There was a PE teacher who embarrassed me in front of the whole class, who kept saying that I cannot possibly be Austrian with a name like Shakayra and she kept saying ‘where are you from, where are you from’ and I said ‘I’m from Vienna, Austria’, that’s where I was born. Imagine you are ten years old, you don’t understand that what they are really asking is why is there a black girl claiming she is Austrian – that is what she was basically saying.
You know, I only clocked it afterwards, in the moment you don’t really think about it. As a child all you think about is the embarrassment speaking in front of the class for no reason. You feel as if you’d done something wrong but all you did was be a child dealing with an ignorant adult. And because an adult is an authority you feel you’ve done something wrong although all I did was just sit there in the class having to explain the ethnic makeup of my family which is bizarre.
‘It still baffles me that to this day some people in society haven’t come to grips with the fact that people from different ethnicities have created life together.’
(Extract from ‘But where are you really from?’)
There were other blatantly racist incidents when I was called the N-word while waiting for a train. Once I was walking away from my best friend’s house and I had tomatoes thrown at me; well they tried to catch us to throw tomatoes at us. Fortunately, they didn’t catch us.
Or, another time in summer I wore a nice skirt, and someone poured water from their window and when I looked up the window closed really quickly so I couldn’t see who it was. You know, when you tell the story to an ignorant person they could say ‘well, they could be just watering their flowers’. There were no flowers, it was a metropolitan street, there was no garden, it was a first-floor flat and they poured down water, so they were obviously looking to do this to me. It was just vicious.
The challenges are there day in, day out, and you only know about these challenges if you lived there and you’ve lived in the shoes of someone who is multiracial or even a Black, Middle Eastern or Asian person. It’s the only way. Otherwise you’d never notice that.
- How long ago did you leave?
I left when I was 18 which was more than 10 years ago and I think it was a perfect time to leave because you’re at the beginning of adulthood, you’re not a child anymore, you have had the childhood experiences that have shaped you and now it’s time for a new chapter. I think that if I would have left later, I would be more damaged. I mean, you already are, but you can still somewhat start afresh because your 20s also shape you a lot, not just your teenage years.
- What countries have you lived in since?
So, I’ve been in the UK but I also frequently was in the States because my mother’s part of the family lives in New York. For me New York is probably the only place where I feel at home, where I’m never questioned as to where I’m from, why do I speak German, why do I speak English, why do I speak whatever language there is in this world. No one cares and I enjoy this freedom over there, everyone is from somewhere else, so no one cares if you’re not local and it’s such a liberating feeling.
I think that it’s only the people who have emigrated or people who have dealt with prejudice or bullying who can understand this. When you’re somewhere where you’re never questioned about who you are it expands your mind in a positive way. Your thinking becomes clearer, you don’t focus on negativity. Especially the negativity that doesn’t need to be there – we’re all stressed as we are, so we don’t need to deal with extra stress of being judged by our looks. And also, if someone has a problem with you, they will tell you straight away.
The funny thing is, it’s never about the way you look. It’s about things such as when people stare at you for too long – ‘what are you looking at?’. It’s bizarre because when people just stare at you in Austria it’s normal, especially if you look different; it’s a normalized thing. Try that in New York and you’ll get into trouble. It’s going to sound extreme but people do not take to that lightly and there it is kind of a respect thing but it is also about fairness. And it’s that fairness that I miss sometimes, whenever I go back home. I just don’t think it’s fair that you always have to explain yourself, prove yourself, overthinking does this person like me because I am exotic or because it’s the flavour of the month and they want to date a mixed girl?
“Often we as people of colour find ourselves in a dilemma of trying not to be so outspoken as to not jeopardise a social setting or position we are in and wanting to stand up for ourselves, correcting and explaining misconceptions people may have of us.”
(Extract from ‘But where are you really from?’)
In New York it’s just like – either you like me and I like your personality or I don’t and if I don’t then it’s cool. I enjoy that so much, it’s so easy to deal with because everything is right there, out on the table.
- Do you have plans to return to Austria?
[Laughs] I think most people that emigrated from Austria or countries where they were basically bullied or treated in an unfair way tell me that, yeah, maybe one day. I mean, it’s a perfect country to retire to – the quality of life is so good, and Vienna has been voted the best city to live in for several years in a row. However, that is from a point of view of someone who is not a multiracial person.
In a way the living standard there is super high – the food and produce are amazing, living wage is decent and you don’t have to pay an arm and a leg for an apartment like here, so it makes sense. But, if you are not a white Austrian person, from a mental health point of view it’s an absolute no-go. It’s toxic. It starts when you are applying for jobs – my friends told me that to this day, when they read your last name or your first name and it sounds foreign, that’s when it starts and you cannot get the jobs that you want although you have the qualifications, because they judge you by the name. This was actually proven in several case studies.
Also, in terms of the international opportunities you are pretty much limited to a German speaking market and that DACH region – Austria, Switzerland, Germany and maybe Luxembourg and Lichtenstein.
I would like to have a holiday home there, in the Alps, not to live there permanently. And a dog [laughs].
- Are you in touch with old friends or family?
Yeah, I am still in touch with my best friends, one of them has started a family and I occasionally speak to some of my cousins and aunts from my dad’s (Austrian) side of the family. Also, I try to visit my grandmother but there were occasions when I went to Austria and I haven’t visited her, just because it’s so mentally strenuous to see her.
There are always these anecdotes…once she was saying that in her time there were no divorces and how dare my mother divorce my father. Her character is challenging to deal with and she also has this deep hatred for – I’m pretty sure it’s not only Black people – everyone who is just foreign. It’s all about façade, the outside.
So, I’m not really in touch with my grandmother regularly but I’m trying to make an effort because I mean, she is still my grandmother and I am a forgiving person. I still love her, but I prefer to love her from afar. I wish her all the best, I’m super grateful that I had a great childhood, on paper, but I’m also grateful for the fact that I am fully aware now how mean she was to my mother all these years so that awareness puts me in a position where I can make an informed decision about how much contact I want to have with her.
Anyone who hasn’t been in this situation doesn’t understand, like when they see me posting pictures of my Austrian grandmother and her having pictures of us. She was never mean to my brother and I and this is what puts you in a weird position because you receive love. But it is a cold love, it was always just about ‘have you got good grades’ and ‘have you done this and that at school’ but it’s very far from appreciation.
Trust me, sometimes when I see kids with their grandparents on the street, I think how cute is that…? I mean, I had the same thing but again, it looked good only on paper. I remember that at Christmas my grandmother always gave my mother a fruit basket with exotic fruit and when I go to see her now, there is no word about her, ever. Literally, her name never comes up.
Life in a new place
- How was it getting used to life in London?
At first, I was super excited, it was all very new and I was still quite naïve. It was a bit challenging to get used to the anonymity here. In Austria people greet you when you come into a store, a restaurant or are just browsing somewhere. There it has more of a village feel – everyone kind of knows you, whereas in a big city…
On the other hand, in London, I was getting used to kind of not being an outsider anymore. It was actually amazing, and I feel I really basked in the excitement for quite some time. I think that’s the one thing that keeps so many of us here – so many ethnicities, cultures and traditions that all come together. I wouldn’t say that we all come together as one and we are all united, that’s a lie, BUT everyone somewhat lives together peacefully and appreciates that there are other cultures that need to be respected regardless of personal status.
That is something I didn’t have back home and what I’m thoroughly enjoying now because, no matter how you dress or how your hair looks, no one cares. When there is some display of ignorance, because that also exists here just like anywhere in the world, people usually get called up on it and that’s also what I love. I never had that in Austria. When someone would be mean to me, for example, when someone called me the N-word, people would just stand there like it was nothing.
Whereas here, when somebody does something or says something that’s out of order, eight times of out ten there will be somebody there who will say ‘hold on a minute, that’s not right, you ought to take that back’. So, there’s more of a consciousness of wanting to do good or at least being a good person. You don’t have to walk on the street wondering if people are going to accept you or not. Just come as you are and that’s beautiful in itself.
- To compare pros and cons, what do you enjoy about the local culture and was there anything that surprised you?
I think the pros are that any culture in the world you can imagine is here and I love learning about new cultures, I love trying new food – I tried cuisines that I never had access to in Austria so that’s a definite pro, but also making friends from all over the world, celebrating each other’s differences. That’s so refreshing. It’s important that we cherish each other’s differences and we embrace the fact that we need to learn from each other.
The cons are a sometimes hidden ignorance and microaggressions. For example, when I had job interviews, I was asked ‘so where did you learn German’ or told ‘that can’t be your first language’. It’s similar to how my teachers back home were.
You are more anonymous here but that is both good and bad. I’m not saying you have to be a confident person but if you are not confident enough to make friends you may end up quite lonely because people just don’t care, and they just go about their day. You’re sitting on a tube and people don’t really make conversation or eye contact, it’s all very fast-paced.
You just don’t have a lot of time to be balanced and just sit down and take it all in because there is always the next thing you’re chasing after, whatever it might be: your next promotion, a cheque… It’s a fast-paced city where you have to make a lot of money to do well and lead a good life, whereas back in Austria you don’t have to do much, you can even work in a local supermarket and you’d always have enough money to have a nice apartment, whereas here it’s more …you have to go hard because if you don’t you can very quickly be at the bottom of the food chain. I noticed that here that’s more extreme. In Austria there is like a middle class, here it’s either the super-rich or people that are just about supporting themselves.
I feel like the class also sometimes decides what jobs people get, what universities they go to and that decides what positions they literally inherit. You only understand that once you work in a corporate environment that is very much kind of controlled by a certain small bracket of well-earning people, which is fine because they worked hard for everything but I feel like there should be equal opportunities for everyone. I think it’s getting better now because there are a lot of initiatives and I think what I like here is that there are a lot of grassroot organisations that do tackle that and they get government support which is amazing, which would not get so much support in Austria.
So, there is always two sides to a coin, the good and the bad. Again, I feel the major pro is that London is so multicultural that it should almost be a state in itself because it can’t really compare to the rest of the UK. I do wonder how everything would have gone if I would have moved to Lancashire or Doncaster. I am pretty sure we wouldn’t be having this conversation right now.
- How do you find interactions with the local people? Did you come across any challenges because of your background or race?
I wouldn’t say that there were major challenges but there were assumptions about where I’m from or who I am. In the corporate environment I was asked why I spoke German and no one believed me.
When I was working for a local newspaper one guy asked me whether I travel. I had to explain to him that I come from a country which is literally in the middle of Europe and has borders with eight different countries, so yes, I travelled every weekend most of the time when I was growing up. He was so shocked. It was almost as if he thought that I was this kind of destitute Black girl that just happens to speak German.
Again, it’s ignorance and it’s very common because a lot of people assume that mainland Europe doesn’t have mixed or Black people. When in fact, a lot of people from the African continent who come to Germany, France, Austria or Belgium, settle there and they feel more European than from their home country. A lot of people don’t understand that, they are not even aware of it.
Also, when it came to dating, some people had these assumptions about me, the stereotypes like the ‘angry Black girl’ or that ‘you’ve got attitude’ and they just throw that at you. Or, if a guy talks to you in the street – sometimes I got approached and when I refused to give them my number they’d just say ‘oh, you think that you’re too nice’. I said ‘no, I have free will, I don’t have to give you my number’ and it doesn’t have any connotations with how I think of them.
- Has living in a multicultural environment changed you in some way?
Yeah, 100 thousand per cent. I think it has actually saved me if anything, it really saved my life. I say this because I am so passionate about people from multicultural backgrounds finding a spiritual home for themselves. I had to create that for myself to understand that you can try as much as you want to fit in, but it will never ever give you that peace of mind that every person deserves.
When I hear the argument that ‘I have my friends in this country so it’s fine’, well, it’s not fine, because as soon as you leave that circle of friends or, God forbid, something happens to them, you’re on your own again, still dealing with the same prejudices and the same ignorance.
Also, being here opens a plethora of opportunities for you, whether it is at work, dating or just to literally start opening up your mind – subconscious and conscious. When you are inundated with negativity, you’re just desensitized to it, it can become normal to you, but when you are in a place which is multicultural, you are like ‘wow, I’m being celebrated not just tolerated’. It’s not that people throw confetti at you [laughs] but they want to learn about you, people are excited that you are from somewhere else and you have a mix of cultures and it does something to you.
Your confidence grows and you start to be more of a person of value. The value you bring to the table when you are burdened by prejudices and bad experiences is far less than when you are somewhere multicultural. In a multicultural space you can just be yourself and there are no more walls or no more blocks stopping you from speaking or doing things you’re good at.
Anyone who can make that move, honestly, do that. It changes your whole life.
- Is there anything you miss about your home?
Yeah, the main thing is the food – the bakeries, the choice of natural organic produce and that everything is on your doorstep. I used to visit my relatives in the countryside, and we could just pick apples from a tree and also in my grandmother’s garden there was an apple, walnut and a cherry tree. These also just grew on the street. It was nothing that you couldn’t do here, but in Austria it’s more available in shops and not as expensive as it is here. Everything is artisan, and that word doesn’t even exist there, it’s just a normal food you get.
Also, I miss a part of the mentality. The funny thing is that I still love where I’m from and I love the good part of the mentality such as that we are very loyal. Once you’ve made a friend in Austria you really made a friend for life. In big cities it’s very temporary – you’re talking to them for a while, you work together for a while, you go to the gym together and then you just never see them anymore and the contact goes. And it’s that loyalty that I miss and just that ease of having so many friendships whereas here it has been a lot harder to really have solid friendships and foundations where I don’t have to question twice whether they really got my back. Now I have real friends here, but I still think there is a huge difference between the nature of friendships in mainland Europe and fleeting friendships that you have in places like London or probably even New York, I think there it’s the same.