Yasmine Akram: “I don't need to earn my Pakistani badge”
The actress on reckoning with her heritage and achieving her dream of whiteness
Hi, welcome to the first Mixed Messages of 2022! This week, I’m speaking to Yasmine Akram, an Irish actor and comedian of mixed Pakistani and white heritage. Yasmine, who has starred in Sherlock, Unforgotten and Lovesick, hasn’t always embraced her Pakistani heritage – now, she’s tired of waiting for people to wrap their minds around her mixedness. Read her story below.
How do you define your race?
I’m half-Irish and half-Pakistani and I say that I’m mixed-race. I was born in Dubai, then my parents broke up when I was about 18 months old. My mother took my sister and I back to Ireland and then I saw my father very sporadically in my life.
What was it like to be mixed in Ireland?
At the time, Ireland was a predominantly white country and without my father, I fought against being mixed-race. My sister and I were bullied because of our heritage, so being white was safer, but also embracing that Pakistani heritage came with the emotional pain of the separation from my dad.
I was also never allowed to be Irish. I was asked where I was really from and when I was going home by grown adults at seven-years-old. I just wanted to be white, I was uncomfortable being mixed-race in Ireland. I was always the Pakistani girl, then when I moved to London, I was the Irish girl. I felt like my dream had come true, but then I got to a point where I thought, “no, I’m not just Irish.”
It’s hard for people to wrap their head around what I am, so they’ll almost say “pick a side, or we’ll pick it for you. You’re light-skinned, so you’re white.” I was seen as a problem to solve. Now, I’m embracing my Pakistani side and people need to get comfortable with that.
Has that ever affected you in your career?
People struggle to see the correlation between my accent and me being mixed-race. I was once supposed to be writing for an American show, and someone asked if I was Muslim. I said I was raised Irish Catholic and I saw their face change, then I never heard from them again. I felt like I’d been a bit of a tick box, it didn’t matter what my writing talent was.
Do you like to be recognised as Pakistani?
Yeah, I love it! I’m jealous that my sister is darker than me. I’ve always thought that she got Pakistani hair too as it’s long and straight and mine is curly, but once when I met my dad he told me that I had typically Punjabi hair as my ancestors are from the Punjab.
Did you ever speak about being mixed with your family?
No. I think my mum felt it was too tied with my dad, so we didn’t speak about it. Now, my sister and I talk a lot. I’ve said that we should be accepting of our heritage and remove the shame we might have felt when we were younger. We need to take the power back and realise that it’s a beautiful and wonderful thing. Obviously she knows that, but sometimes when you’re younger it’s a subconscious thing.
She’s also just had a baby, and I feel like my niece might have these questions when she grows up. It’s important to me that we can answer those questions for her. It can be hard for parents, who can be totally alone when dealing with racism for their mixed children.
Do you feel a connection to Pakistani culture?
I denied being Pakistani for so long and didn’t know anything about the culture, so I felt like I didn’t have anything to add to the mixed conversation, I felt guilt over that. Now, I’ve learned that I don’t need to earn my Pakistani badge. It’s just what I am.
Did you ever look up to anyone who was mixed growing up?
Phil Lynott from Thin Lizzy is the first person I saw who was mixed-race and Irish. It blew my mind to see other people like me, especially a famous musician. He was a guiding light, because even though I felt like I was having a difficult time, I could only imagine what he went through and how he felt like he didn’t belong.
What’s the best thing about being mixed for you?
When I was around 18, I was suddenly seen as ‘exotic’ and attractive. I rode that wave until it crashed! People thought we were Italian or French, because they had no reference in their minds that we could be mixed-race.
Wherever I am in the world, I also seem to be able to connect to anybody I meet. I think that comes from having a certain amount of trauma when you’re a kid and not being allowed to belong, having this feeling that something about you isn’t right. That gives you this incredible empathy when you get older. When you feel like you’re never allowed to belong to where you’re from, something cracks open inside of you and you go, “well if I can’t belong here, maybe I just belong everywhere.”
Can you sum up being mixed in a word?
Complex. It comes with the add-on of my relationship with my father, the denial of my heritage, then embracing of it - I can’t sum up my life easily.
Next week, I’ll be talking to digital entrepreneur Zoe Amar. 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.