Jassa Ahluwalia: #BothNotHalf

Sunetra Senior Wednesday 17th February 2021 08:42 EST

This is a time of not simply questioning, but further reshaping known grand narratives to remedy the deeper autocratic system that at once preserves them. The overlapping hierarchies of race, class and gender are being increasingly deconstructed as the product of one overarching dogma: that of the traditional colonial West. Such fierce intersectional activity shows the explosion of a two-pronged modern movement whereby social dissent is being passionately vocalised to catalyse the fundamental equality desired on an institutional, global scale. Indeed, promisingly, already there has been disruption to the harmful habitual legacy of the establishment. This is evident in the enormity of collaborative support for #BlackLivesMatter which impacted the election of the Democrats in the US recently, and the precedence of the #MeToo movement which brought high-profile perpetrators of misconduct urgently to justice. This reflects the sincere resolve of a new generation in departing from the absolutist norm. However, also emerging is an open attentiveness which truly signals the dissolution of the severe paradigm that characterises an orthodox past. Rising to the fore in 2020, following his playful campaigning post on social media, Jassa emerges as one such trailblazer.

A rising actor and now public influencer, the young talent questioned the default of categorising people simply according to national identity, encouraging society to celebrate mixed subjectivity broadly instead. This he announced in the succinct hashtag: #BothNotHalf. Being both English and Punjabi, Jassa had struggled to be acknowledged as a complete individual, representing the conflict of many trapped in that liminal personal space. “Polarisation is about simplification,” he told us: “while nuance gives us the opportunity to recognise what is universal…” Jassa eloquently unpacks this thought in his TEDx talk which he also recently gave, following the trending of his modern terminology. The presentation is called: ‘Both Not Half: How language shapes identity’. He explains on stage: “I was a ‘white’ baby with a strong Indian regional accent; a bhangra-dancing white man, or, ‘Gora’ at weddings (…) I had this burning desire to find a home but I had no idea where to look. My first breakthrough came when I discovered that national identities were an invention of the 1800s: as cities began to develop, national identities emerged to fill the void left by the breakdown of traditional communities. I realised national identities were not some essential truth, but rather a construct: one I didn’t need.”

Being a “vegan-dabbling millennial,” to aptly use Jassa’s own expression then, he one day “decided to include a meat substitute with dahl,” calmly wondering how a member of the older Indian generation such as his grandad might react. That was it: after uploading the dish in the form of a comedic video, along with the educative motto, #BothNotHalf, the sentiment went viral. “It was the first time I had expressed my Punjabi identity in public”, and also, as an adult. Indeed, Jassa confronts the very core of racial classification in his TEDx talk to rightly identify emotional complexity as the ultimate social reality. “Both not half is a non-binary approach to life. It’s not a label – it’s an idea. One that has always existed. It’s a rejection of easy distinction. No matter our backgrounds, whether it is our gender, sexuality, ethnicity or social class, we are each whole. Our constituent parts cannot be separated.” He importantly adds that even the idea of “mixed-race has a very particular definition: one that excludes me and countless others. When you agree to be half, you are never enough.” Indeed, identifying as British-Asian can still cause an existential feeling of being placeless. One is never considered ‘truly’ Indian or ‘ever really’ British. “The idea of mixed-race is also problematic as a linguistic hangover of scientific racism, carrying fears of race mixing,” Jassa continues. “I prefer to think of myself as mixed-heritage and belonging to the human race.”


As an actor, the articulate performer received his first big break playing the lead role, Rocky, on the BBC’s quirky coming-of-age series, Some Girls (2014). He later starred alongside iconic Irish actor, Cillian Murphy, on the period British crime-drama, Peaky Blinders, which Jassa describes as a highlight of his career: “I was a huge fan long before I stepped on set, and to have scenes with all the Shelby brothers was an awesome day at the office! It was a challenge to remember I had to act when I had my first scene with Cillian Murphy and not just watch him dazzle.” However, the actor emphasised that his “TEDx talk was a real high point. Sharing ‘Both Not Half’ unlocked something in me. It's guiding me in almost everything I do now. This is just the beginning!” Indeed, Jassa is currently writing a tv series with his sister to newly explore diverse identity and drive accurate representation in the media. “The script is about contemporary mixed identity. I'd love to see that get made as soon as possible!” He elaborated: “Beyond that, I think history is full of fascinating narratives that have yet to be unearthed. Particularly in connection to India. Stories about our colonial past that help explain our multicultural present. I'm really encouraged by the fact that William Dalrymple's The Anarchy is in the early stages of being turned into a Netflix series, and that Kim Wagner's Amritsar 1919 has been optioned for film.”

Thus, echoing the zeitgeist, Jassa’s revolution is a perceptual yet powerful one: “sheer understanding can change our sense of self for the better. This is why I promote a language of inclusion. This is at the heart of #BothNotHalf. We should not focus on what makes us different, but rather how multifaceted each person is.” Indeed, this is to reclaim individuality as progressive: a psychological shift that graciously makes people everywhere feel accommodated as opposed to the painful undercutting of some to inflate superiority in others. Jassa concludes in his TEDx talk: “#BothNotHalf is an attempt to push back; to take back control. Power structures love labels; they facilitate division and ultimately control. They allow people to whip up tales of us and them but we can rewrite language, recognising it as fluid. #BothNotHalf is a rewiring of our minds. Instead of seeing divergence, we begin to notice assortment around us. So much is defined by what it isn’t as opposed to what it is.” Speaking to us, he added: “It’s not just about the words either, but also who’s using them”. In this way, Jassa ultimately champions a simple depth which is the paradoxical nature of human evolution. Defined by both our basic physicality and cerebral height, it seems we are destined to expand inwardly out. In terms of the nation state, this means recalibrating the connotation of physical boundaries. This is not to completely reject them, but rather liberatingly mentally revise. Instead of limiting ourselves to the reductive superficiality of material markers that once accompanied a rampant time of growing industry, we should now work to understand each other profoundly, reflecting the more developed state of our technologically interconnected world.

Jassa stated: “the key is in the detail: very specific language in the mainstream can be extremely helpful, like talking about South Asians, instead of lumping everyone together as Asian, or anonymising all ethnic minorities with an acronym like BAME.” In his TEDx talk, he refers to Punjabi as his golden compass, alluding to acclaimed fantasy writer Phillip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy to poetically emphasise his own narrative: “the novels conclude with the protagonist, Lyra, losing her intuitive ability to read a magical compass, but her knowledge will be better because it will henceforth be (a product of similarly significant) conscious understanding. My heritage began to require study. What felt so innate now demanded research. I’d been shown the way beyond nostalgia. I looked at history; music and art, expanding my vocab, finding a meaningful way of spending time with my grandad. He’d correct me and inevitably digress into anecdotes. When he passed away in 2017, I didn’t feel loss. Rather the chance to carry a flame.” Finally, Jassa’s intimate experience is a metaphor for wider social development. We can value the raw predicator of the past while continuing to cultivate consciousness in the present. In doing this, we preserve the colour of culture while organically shedding the militancy of geo-politics. To acknowledge each other as people across generations is to holistically reimagine the world. In focussing on the inner landscape, we assuage the territorialisation persistent outside. Everybody their own architect, we can forge a robustly cosmopolitan infrastructure. Ascending beyond separate struggles - women’s rights, racial oppression and class warfare - the future is in the emancipation of the spirit.

T: @OfficialJassa
W: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v= SP0bAQ8J6C0&ab_channel=TEDx Talks

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