My Story: Liz Jadav & The Person I Am

&ASIAN’s ‘My Story’ series gives writers and contributors the chance to tell us about their lives and personal experiences with honesty and candour. In this week's piece, actor Liz Jadav talks about her life as a mixed-race actor in the UK.
Photo courtesy of Liz Jadav.
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My Story: Liz Jadav & The Person I Am

I’m writing from the generously broad prompt, ‘Anything you have learned from navigating this immensely flawed world as the person you are…’

Writing from my experience, I do not deny or dismiss yours.

Let’s start with the person I am.

Photo courtesy of Liz Jadav
Photo courtesy of Liz Jadav

The person I am

I navigate ‘this immensely flawed world’ as an immensely flawed individual. I have accepted that. I have tried to do better today; I will try to do better tomorrow. We may hope that my knowledge of my own brokenness will help me forgive yours when the two cross paths.

For I suspect that you are a flawed individual too. Most days now, there are only two aspects of ‘identity’ that matter to me and this is the first: I am flawed. Can you identify with that? Then we have a shared identity.

Before I get to my second crucial ‘I am’, let me tell you about some other (though to me– lesser) identifiers. Some you’d work out for yourself if you saw me: I am brown. I am a woman. I am over 40 (I’m 48 years old). Some you’d guess as we spoke: I am English. I am educated. I am economically comfortable. So far, so objective.

From that point, you might be tempted to fill in the gaps. Or ask me – I like a bit of honest curiosity. Knowing the uselessness of ‘where are you from?’ I’ve learned to ask what I mean, usually, ‘Where’s your voice from?’. I might be asking because you sound Northern, and I’m hoping we have a place in common; otherwise, it’s probably that I’m planning to start adding your accent to my toolkit the minute we part. When I taught in primary schools, children of my skin colour would often ask, ‘Where are you from?’ when what they meant was, ‘Why are you brown?’. I know, because I checked with them. They were hoping for something shared, and I told them the truth: ‘My dad’s family is from Gujarat in India.’ Not ‘My dad is…’ – his story is more complicated, taking in Zanzibar and decades in England – and certainly not ‘I am…’.

That, then, is why I am brown. It has never been key to me, though I have been aware of it. Rightly so: surely the visual description of a person is the most obvious. When making a missing person report recently, I started with ‘tall, Black, male’. When I’d exhausted all visual elements I was asked, ‘Is there anything else you can tell us about him?’ His favourite music (roots), his vegetarianism, his passionate interrogation of the Bible – these seemed less useful to the aim of my friend being recognised in the street. [1] So, let us acknowledge the inevitability of my (your) physical appearance being noticed. What then? My own opinion is that the step from noticing to assuming is a short one.

A flawed individual

If I am conscious of my assumptions, is it still ‘unconscious bias’? Surely not. ‘Conscious bias’, then – and if I am aware of it, I can challenge it. I have tried to do better today; I will try to do better tomorrow. What of the assumptions made about me?

Actors (I work as an actor [2]) are often told to control the things we can control and accept those we can’t. Good advice for life. One thing I cannot control is the colour of my skin.

It has been suggested that you might find it useful to hear about my experience as a performer. It has been good. The difficult times have had nothing to do with my skin colour or gender. I cannot say how either of those has affected my career, as I have no control subject with whom to compare myself.

Would a white woman of my background, size, character, skill and age, entering the profession aged 29 with no drama school training, have fared differently from me? Certainly, there have been times when she would not have been considered for a role that I have landed. I still struggle to accept a director saying, ‘I didn’t want to cast another white actress.’ I always end up wondering whether I am good enough for the job. Given that bias of some kind is inevitable, I have learned (I am learning…) to be grateful. If you are that white actress, my missing control subject, who surely has been cast in roles for which I was not considered, I hope you are grateful too. In a braver world, perhaps our ‘advice to self’ would be: control the things you can, be grateful for those you can’t.

Of all the things we can control, I imagine our words and our actions do most to chip away at bias. I have no easy way to challenge the assumptions of the man who yells ‘Paki’ from his car; he is there and gone. The first time I heard it, ‘Paki’ felt like just another insult – at school almost everyone was on the receiving end of at least one regular taunt, and if you were one of the select few who were too cool to be teased, I can tell you now that lots of us privately thought you were a prat. When I meet people from those days they generally remember me. Perhaps being the only brown kid in the year made me memorable, but the things that they remember about me have nothing to do with colour. These are the people who were not speeding past, but who witnessed my words and actions (for better or worse) for years. The people that matter do not think of me as ‘that brown kid’.

Nor do they think of me in the ways I wished (back then) to be thought of: a fickle collection of hopefully and vainly adopted identities including, at various times: a hippie, a goth, a poet, a prodigy, a romantic heroine, ‘one of the lads’, a leader, a dancing/singing star, and – on darker days – a tragic figure. I suppose what I really wanted was to be part of a gang. It occurs to me now, belatedly, that even in its most benign incarnation, my hypothetical gang – not the kind with knives that fights over turf with the gang next door, but the kind that those on the inside call ‘best mates’ – would have been what those on the outside call ‘a clique’.

When I identify with a group – when my identity is defined by characteristics that only a certain group shares – the implication can be ‘I am this, you are other’ and ‘I am in, you are out’. All too often it is ‘I am out, you are in’. I see this latter perception in friends who have suffered greatly, who add hurts (real or perceived) in the present and the future to the hurts of their past.

Great hurts inflict deep wounds and teach defensiveness. Yet this need not be a lifelong sentence. How each of us becomes empowered to venture beyond an identity defined by a terrible past is an individual thing. For many who have made or are making the journey it has involved persistent kindness on one side and the courage to receive that kindness on the other.

This brings me to my second crucial ‘I am’.

My second crucial ‘I am’

I am flawed. Yes. I wish I wasn’t but today I did better than yesterday. I hope to do better tomorrow. Though I own my guilt, I no longer waste time in shame, because I am forgiven.

I state that as a fact, but here we may part company. For I believe it to be true and you may not. My belief is based on what I understand of someone called Jesus – he of the Bible, of history, of a global church – and on the basis of what I understand I have found not a gang, but a family. Not a clique, but an open house. If ‘God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life’, [3] then all are welcome. My family now, and my closest friends, include those of many nations, languages and colours; those of various professions and jobs and none; those with plenty to share and those who are glad to share it; those whose appearance screams ‘in crowd’ and those whose appearance whispers ‘outcast’; orphans and refugees and those with families into which to welcome them; and so on and so on and so on. Each with their own desires (sexual or otherwise) and their own sense of who they are, embracing the command that these distinctions (though we can be grateful for them) no longer define or divide, hem in or disempower. Whether you’re with me or not, I hope you can see why I get carried away by this.

Are these empty boasts? Does my open-house family in fact operate a sort of freemasonry, favouring insiders and turning its back (or its swords and placards) on the rest? Oh, it has done. It does – in certain places, at certain times – because it is made up of flawed people like me and you. What a terrible danger there is. Please, hold us accountable. Hold me accountable: if ‘God so loved the world…’ then raise the alarm when I stop loving. Remind me, loudly, even angrily, that we are not so different – both flawed, both capable of grace.

If you will do that, for me or for any of my brothers and sisters, I thank you. Thank you too for spending this time with me. It is more than I deserve, but you are generous and I accept your generosity.


[1] I should say that my friend is found and fine.

[2] In my first year of acting, a landlady’s son introduced himself to me with the awful words, ‘I am an out-of-work actor.’ I say ‘I work as’ rather than ‘I am’ because whether I am working or not does not affect who I am.

[3] John’s gospel, chapter 3, verse 16 (my italics).

Liz Jadav can be found on Twitter.

All opinions expressed in our ‘My Story’ series are that of the author and do not reflect the editorial direction of &ASIAN.