I used to be colour-blind. Yes, I was one of those fortunate people who did not see race. My primary school was in a very Asian area, and pretty much all my friends were Indian or Sri Lankan. Which meant that pretty much all my friends had the same skin colour as me. And although I suppose I knew we were different, we embraced our differences, and they were rarely spoken of. I have early memories of celebrating Diwali with my childhood best friend’s family, of inviting my Hindu friends to my church’s Christmas fair or choir performances. We had different religions, and that was cool!
The only time I ever really felt different in a negative way at this early age was when my friends at school asked me why my hair was curly. They all had long, thick, straight hair. They could do the half-up, half-down style that the Olsen twins and Barbie herself rocked. When I asked my mum why this was, why I had to sit for hours while she oiled it and plaited it, why I couldn’t wear my hair long and flowing — she would tell me it’s because I’m mixed race.
I remember how she would say mixed race with so much emphasis. With her Ugandan accent, it always sounded like “mixed rays”, and I remember thinking when I was really little, that maybe she meant that I had mixed rays from the sun. With my childhood logic, then, she as a black woman had more of these rays than I, and my dad — a white man — had less.
I’m not sure when I first realised ‘mixed race’ was nothing to do with the sun. I’m not even sure exactly when I began to think about race. But looking back at how issues of race have pervaded my adolescence and early adulthood, these innocent ‘colour-blind’ early days feel like a lifetime ago. Eventually, I got to secondary school. And suddenly, race mattered.
Now, race wasn’t an explicit issue in my school. We didn’t have race wars and I, at least, was never a victim of direct racial targeting. Over the course of my time there, our year group was called into two special assemblies to address racism. These were a response from our head of year, who’d heard the names that people called one another at break time. See, in my school, race was a rather peculiar thing that hid behind curtains and exposed itself at the most curious of moments.
I used to take the same bus home from school as a number of other students from my school. The majority of them were black students. A couple of them are some of my best friends up to this very day. I loved this bus ride home — we would crowd onto the top deck and be as loud as we could without getting kicked off by the bus driver (which would inevitably still happen at least once every couple of months).
One sunny afternoon, someone had the weirdly tribal idea of separating the group on the top deck of the bus. Jamaicans on one side. Nigerians on the other. There was a big shuffle as everyone got up to take their places. My friends were fine, they clearly identified as one or the other. But some of us were left looking confused. There was one Persian girl who didn’t belong on either side but sat right at the back singing out her praises for her heritage loud and proud. Then there were two Ugandan girls who were on the bus and said they didn’t know what side to sit on, and how unfair it was that this division only included two nations. They were told to sit on the Nigerian side because — Africa. It was suggested that I do the same.
I, at this point, had never thought of myself as Ugandan. Honestly, never. So I sat with the other Ugandan girls in our school uniforms, on the ‘African side of the bus’, joined the debate on the pronunciation of the word ‘plantain’ and descended from the bus that evening with a burning sense of anger in my belly at my mum for never teaching me to be Ugandan.
I knew my mum was from a country in East Africa, she’d told me that. I knew she had a family, a culture and a language that were so far from anything I knew, that she’d left behind when she’d moved to the UK. I’d seen my parents’ wedding photos, my dad the only white man in the pictures, and heard their stories of their time in Uganda shortly after they married. I’d grown up repeatedly putting together and dismantling the same battered jigsaw puzzle which depicted a colourful map of Africa, in which my mum would always point out her little country and its funny flag.
But she had never taught me Swahili, never taken me to visit her country, never told me I was Ugandan. I was mixed race — that was all she had ever said. It was events like this one on the bus that made me start questioning what that even meant, and how exactly I was supposed to identify myself as a mixed race British person with a Ugandan heritage.
In secondary school, I met another mixed race girl (other than my older sister) for the first time. We were sat in our Year 7 French class, and she was one row ahead. I remember her turning around and me catching her eye and somehow knowing that she was like me. Turns out, once I got to know her, that her family background was similar — black African mother, white British father.
She became an incredibly close friend for the remaining years of secondary school, and I fondly recall her being a person, the only person, I could joke with about my parents not understanding one another. See, we had the African parental pressure and wrath, but only from one side. On the other side we had a chilled out white parent, but this parent couldn’t be too chilled, for fear of the wrath coming down on them, too. These were jokes there that neither our white nor our black friends could understand.
It was definitely a comfort to know there were other mixed race students (albeit only a handful) in the school. I can only imagine how much more difficult my experience would have been had I grown up in a much more rural area and had a more homogenous school demographic.
Completely separate from my realisations on race, I was painfully shy and self-conscious for the first two years of secondary school. It wasn’t until I got my braces off and started wearing contact lenses at age 13 that I started — and yes, I am aware of the cliché of all this — to come into my own. From this point, I had real friends, both white and black friends. The different group dynamics forced me again and again to reconsider my racial identity, and who I should, or could be.
My white friends liked to joke about my blackness — mainly my big bum, and occasionally the fact that my mum was not like their mums — chatty and wanting to hang out with one another. My black friends, however, used to tease me about my music taste — l listened to too much ‘white’ music and not enough RnB or hip hop. I remember how often I used to point to Kele Okereke from Bloc Party as a justification for listening to indie bands, and how I would listen to hip hop with them on the bus, unable to sing along.
I am not trying to play the victim here. At no point did I feel victimised by my friends. Looking back, the problem was that I put constant pressure on myself to change my habits and tastes. I was obsessed with Lil Wayne when with my black friends, and a huge Katy Perry fan when around my white friends. And I would thank God for singers like Ne-yo, who bridged that gap.
No, at the time I didn’t take these comments to heart. I internalised them, clearly, but I did not get upset by them. I would tease my friends right back with other, often racially fuelled comments. We were young, we knew no better. It was all light-hearted, I thought. It’s only since leaving school that I’ve realised how uncomfortable those comments made me, and how mine would make others feel. We joked about things that were not OK to joke about. I didn’t understand concepts that I understand today.
In Year 10, aged 15, I wrote a poem, initially as a homework assignment because we were studying poetry in GCSE English, and because it was the school’s ‘Multicultural Week’. The poem was called Zebra Child, and it was about being mixed race. The school milked this poem for all it was worth; asking me to read it in assemblies and at open evenings, and publishing it in the school newsletter. At first, I didn’t mind. It allowed me to tell my story, and I was happy to share. Plus, I secretly loved the important feeling of reading in assembly. But then all at once, it felt a bit too personal.
I don’t remember anyone mocking the sentiment of the poem itself. I do remember being called ‘zebra child’, though. I had given the poem this name ironically; making a joke about the fact that I’m both black and white. The fact that people took it literally and actually started calling me that, was seriously off-putting. I told my teachers I didn’t want to read it anymore, and I didn’t look at it again until quite recently.
I’m still ever so glad that I wrote that poem. It’s stayed with me. It was the first time I had put words to this feeling of conflict that had been bubbling inside me, and it gave me a chance to define myself. It was me saying, I want to be called mixed race, don’t class me as black nor as white because I am both and neither, please and thank you. I’m thankful for my school’s Multicultural Evening and a great GCSE English teacher, for giving me a space to explore my identity.
That was ten years ago now.
Race reared its ugly head more as I began to date guys. My first boyfriend was Indian. Relatively uncontroversial. We were 13, it lasted 4 months. We were both nerdy outsiders and no one paid much attention. But shortly after that I entered into a longer relationship with a black boy. We were as serious as a couple can be at that age. I remember him telling me, a few months in, that his mum was happy he was dating me because I had ‘some black in me’. I was happy to be going out with him too, but I wasn’t thrilled to be viewed as some kind of vessel that could ‘contain’ blackness. Back then, I also felt like comments like that dismissed the white part of my heritage, which in turn dismissed my father, who I loved so much. My ex-boyfriend’s mum’s words sound so trivial, yet comments like this embedded themselves in my mind and made me constantly preoccupied with my identity. I never thought my race would be my most defining feature for other people but it repeatedly proved to be.
Later, I dated a white guy. His mum (what is it with mums!) told him she herself had no problem with our relationship, but that we should be careful when we were out because some people might take issue with our mixed-race relationship. Naïve me had grown in up in a crazily multicultural suburb of London, where the only sturdy relationship I had seen growing up was a mixed race one, of my own parents. The thought that in 2010 people in the UK might look at me and my white boyfriend in a funny way, was mind-blowing. Of course, I was very much in my bubble. I didn’t know that this boy’s mum was right, there are people who would look down at an interracial couple, even in 2010, even today. That not everyone is comfortable with the idea of interracial relationships was very much a shock to me, and a fact that I had to learn.
I noticed too that, when I was out with my friends in the shopping centre, the park, or wherever we used to go as broke, bored teenagers, I would get hit on exclusively by men of colour. It happened often, which I think is firstly a testament to how predatory men can be (now that I look older and more mature, I don’t find random guys saying explicit things to me on the high street like I did when I looked like a child). However, it was also an early indication to me of how racialised dating would turn out to be. White men paid no attention to me, choosing only to focus on my white female friends to prey on.
I’ve since dated men of various ethnicities and noticed a common theme among the white men, although it is expressed to varying degrees. I’m viewed as ‘exotic’, a term which I find disgusting to call a human, or an adventure. I am seen as something new to try. Most of them have never been out with a woman of colour. One suggested that I would bridge the gap for him, and lead him to date black women in the future. And one of them had only dated black women, and was excited that I was something different, being multiracial. The excitement is more uncomfortable than flattering — I have found it hard to come to terms with the fact that, again, my racial identity is the part that they focus on first.
My current boyfriend and I had a nationality barrier to cross when we met, let alone the racial one. He is a white man from Vienna, Austria, so the distinguishing features that stood out to us were the differences in our native languages and cultures. Instead of mentioning how different our skin colours looked, our focus was how differently he pronounced words in English, or how the Austrian university system differs from that in the UK. This was strangely refreshing when getting to know him. Nowadays, we discuss race and he understands my experiences, but it’s never been a defining feature of our relationship. International always feels much more significant than interracial.
I have noticed though that when I visit him in Austria, I am 100 times more aware of our ‘interracial’ couple status than ever. Vienna does not have a large black population, Austrians are not used to dark skin, and we get stared at. A lot. When I am in these situations I feel more black than ever. Although, in fact, it was the same at university, and now at work. Law is not the most diverse of subjects to study, nor the most diverse career. I perceive my colour a lot more in these situations.
Yet still, when in a group of all black colleagues (at my last job, that is — there is no group of black colleagues at my current job), I am distinctly aware of my own experiences being less relevant than theirs in certain circumstances. I perceive my whiteness only at these times, or the part of me that holds me back from being fully black. As I’ve gotten older, and since I left school and began my journey of moving around and seeing more of the world, I’ve educated myself on the history of race relations in the UK, on white privilege, on structural racism. I’ve learnt about these things from a strange position.
The racism I have experienced is not the same as the racism that a dark-skinned black woman with thick afro hair may have experienced. I am not perceived in the same way as this woman. My experience as a woman of colour is always going to be caveated by the fact that I am both a woman of colour and a beneficiary of the lighter skin, less tightly curled hair and British accent that my dad’s very English whiteness affords me. I benefit from white privilege. I will likely never experience the same racism that my own mum did and does. Yet I am also counted a BME (Black and Minority Ethnic) statistic. The conflict lies therein.
I would not begrudge any person of mixed heritage who wished to define themselves as black, or as one race or ethnicity from their mix if that was how they felt they identified. That said, I would probably raise my eyebrows if the race that they chose was ‘white’. Why is this? I’ve had to work this out for myself. Throughout my adolescence, it had been implicit that it is OK for me to call myself black but I cannot call myself white. Isn’t that horribly hypocritical? But when white is the norm, then anyone of colour is different. In Britain, white is definitely the norm. I sometimes forget that, because it wasn’t the norm in my small microcosm where I grew up, but it is in the nation as a whole.
That’s why I think it’s OK for me to implicitly deny my whiteness a little, because we’ve got enough of that around anyway. But it’s not OK to do the same with my blackness. That’s why at school when some of the black students counted us up to make a point to the headteacher about the lack of diversity, they counted me (albeit as a ‘half’). That’s why my black ex-boyfriend’s mum wanted to claim me. That’s why I’m counted in my university, and my employer’s data in the BME statistics, that’s why my headteacher in Year 11 was able to enter me for Diane Abbott’s ‘London Schools and the Black Child’ Award (which I’m so unbelievably glad I did not get shortlisted for, because I’m definitely not an underprivileged black student who overcame hardships to achieve my GCSEs, which is what the award was created to celebrate).
I’m aware and OK with all of this. I would never try and deny my black heritage, my mum’s African upbringing and culture and dark skin. I would, however, personally not do that with my father’s British heritage either. I define myself as British because this is where I grew up, and mixed race, and European (but let’s not get into the sad spiral of Brexit, and Theresa May’s depressing comments about citizenship). I was raised by both of my parents and experienced childhood through both of their very different perspectives.
I could have had a terrible time at home and at school in different circumstances. If I’d grown up in another part of London, and definitely elsewhere in the UK, myself and my family could have been subject to much worse racism whilst I was growing up. My understanding of my mixed race identity began as I was pushed and pulled between black and white spaces, through friendships and romantic relationships, through school and work. It’s constantly self-evolving, as I live through new experiences. For example, when I was studying in France, saying I was British among other European students was never enough; they wanted to know the full background, where am I really from. Black or mixed race British is a thing, black or mixed race European is not (yet).
It has been implied that saying I was black would just be easier, and that when it comes to fighting for justice and equality for people of colour, there’s no time for discussion of who’s mixed race, or who is in some way of black heritage. I agree, there is not. Some issues require a united front.
I used to try and remind people that Obama was actually the first mixed race, not the first black President, until I realised that race in America is bigger than that, and it wasn’t mixed race people who needed a president (though they were sure part of it), it was black African Americans. It did annoy me then, when, towards to the end of his second term, Obama referred to himself as a ‘mixed kid’ in an interview and was criticized for trying to appeal more to white people and distance himself from his blackness. To me, it was clear that he of all people was aware of the race divide in America and was not at all attempting to bridge the gap through this turn of phrase. Rather, he’d spent 8+ years being paraded as the US’s first black president, and he was probably just alluding to the fact that his experiences growing up were as much linked to being specifically mixed race as they were about being black or African American.
When I get into conversations about mixed race identities, I sometimes get asked what happens when you have a person who has one parent of one race, let’s say black African, and the other parent is of a multiracial descent, let’s say black African and white. Is the child still mixed race, I’ve been asked. They seem to be implying that my mixed-race-ness is justifiable because it’s 50–50. When it’s not a 50–50 scenario, that person has to redefine themselves. My answer is always that it’s up to the individual to decide if they call themselves mixed race. That person might feel more black than white and, percentage-wise, they are.
But the main lesson I’ve learned over the years is that identity is not an equation, and race isn’t a mathematical problem. As ‘mixed race’ grows in Britain and in the world, there will be more and more need for freedom for people to define their own racial identity for themselves, something which I’ve finally learnt needs to be a very unique, personal journey.