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Jasmine Elmer: “As a mixed person, you’re an ‘other’ on your own island”
The classicist on shared legacies, the inability to conform and the power of mixedness
Hi, welcome back to Mixed Messages! This week I’m speaking to classicist Jasmine Elmer, who is of mixed Pakistani and white heritage. Jasmine stands out in her field, where people of colour are rare, but uses her mixed heritage to inform her approach to ancient cultures, whether that’s through her writing, teaching or podcast, Legit Classics. Prepare to think about history in a brand new way and read Jasmine’s story below.
I’d love to hear a bit about your background.
My dad’s from Pakistan, and my mum was white. She was actually born in Canada, and my aunty and grandma were South African born. She actually grew up in apartheid South Africa, and there was racism in her family. Her mother disowned her because I was mixed-race.
My parents split up when I was a baby, so I grew up with my mum and the white side of my family in Walthamstow, East London. My dad was a bit of an absent father, but his family lived locally if not in Pakistan. I had a nice relationship with them and my mum was very happy for me to do whatever I wanted with my dad, there was no animosity. But actually my Asian-ness came from living in a multicultural place in London and learning about Pakistani culture through kids at school. My connection to my family on my dad’s side is stronger now that I’m an adult and have more control.
How do you define your racial identity?
I’m happy with mixed-race or biracial. I don’t get tied up in the names that we use, but I understand that others do. I would be happy to use whatever terms someone else needs to hear.
Has your sense of self changed over time?
I’ve always been very happy and proud to be mixed-race. Even if I didn’t grow up in a house with a distinctly Pakistani vibe, I did what I could to learn about the culture because it mattered to me. I felt part of it.
There wasn’t necessarily a pivotal moment where the way I thought about my identity changed, but after university I realised that I was probably going to become a teacher. My cultural and racial identity meant a lot then, because when I left London and started to go into a much more white, elite world, I realised how different I was. But I kind of love that – it is really difficult, but at the same time I saw it as a unique thing about me.
As a mixed person, you’re an ‘other’ on your own island. There’s no-one quite like you, even if you meet another half-Pakistani person. Perhaps being mixed is a certain kind of individual, it just feels like you’re alone in either community. They’ll both have you, potentially, but you don’t quite fit there. I see being able to be in both worlds as a good thing, but I could see how other people might not feel that way.
Is that something you ever spoke to your family about?
I don’t think I ever spoke to my mum about it, but not for any real reason. In London, being white was the minority in my school – everybody was from somewhere. But when I left for university to do classics, I went to good universities that started getting whiter and posher. Culturally and racially speaking, the world just closed off a bit. I might have talked to my mum more about it – I came to this work after she died in 2018.
I do talk a little bit more to my Pakistani family now, and they’re very proud of me representing Pakistani culture and my podcast doing really well in Pakistan. Of all the things I’ve done so far, that was the thing I was most proud of – in my country, a place where they don’t really do classics, that my podcast was reaching through. People were enjoying it and taking ownership of me.
There’s obviously quite a clear way your heritage impacts your work – can you tell me more about that?
I always loved history and archaeology at school and I think my mum had an influence on that. She was really into ancient cultures, which is what I did my undergrad in. I didn’t pick classics, focusing on Greeks and Romans, I picked all cultures. I think that speaks to my mixedness – I see things globally. This is all of our history, a shared legacy that belongs to everyone.
I was mainly teaching in private schools where they taught classics, but people like me don’t usually turn up. Not just me being mixed-race, but my working class background too. Kids are much more open-minded and they responded to my style, and I do think my race feeds into that. It’s about relatability, and by having these different cultural influences, I can approach people without a fixed mindset about things. I do the same in my work – when evaluating or analysing something, I am able to work out the cultural context of it and how others relate to it outside of that context too.
I’ve had to stand up and be different in so many contexts, I can't tell you where I sit or where I should conform. There were times when I was younger that I didn’t have the confidence I have now, but the world is a bit different now.
How do you want the understanding of mixedness to change moving forwards?
I think moving away from labelling things and keeping space for individuality is best. It’s not that I don’t want to say ‘I’m half-Pakistani, half-white,’ it should just be about the individual. The dream is that for you, for example, being half-Indian is what it means to you, and you get to explain that because you're a person and your experience of your race is yours.
I want a world where being mixed-race would be a bit of a superpower. People might find that a bit offensive or difficult to take, and I understand entirely why they feel that way, but that’s my experience of it. I feel really positively about my race. I understand that for other people they might not feel like that.
What’s the best thing about being mixed for you?
Understanding two cultures, especially the cultures that my parents come from. My dad’s family are Muslim, my mother was atheist, these are different worlds. It’s a privilege that I get to have two distinct cultures as part of me, and so powerful in my work because I can draw on them to help my approach to the ancient world.
I’ve noticed that my natural way of thinking can be quite different to other people. If you’ve grown up monoculturally, there’s a tendency to come to something and want to find the definitions and boundaries of it. For me, I see that as quite fluid. That is my mixed-race-ness, I’m sure of it.
Can you sum up your mixed experience in a word?
Powerful. It’s a powerful tool that drives a lot of my passion.
Listen to Jasmine’s podcast, Legit Classics, wherever you get your podcasts. Next week, I’ll be speaking to journalist and Head of Editorial at gal-dem, Suyin Haynes. Subscribe to get Mixed Messages in your inbox on Monday.
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Mixed Messages is a weekly exploration of the mixed-race experience, from me, Isabella Silvers. My mom is Punjabi (by way of East Africa) and my dad is white British, but finding my place between these two cultures hasn’t always been easy. That’s why I started Mixed Messages, where each week I’ll speak to a prominent mixed voice to delve into what it really feels like to be mixed.