Barack Obama Is Not Black

Today, walking through Walthamstow, I heard a mixed race girl say to her friend “He thinks he’s a half-caste though, innit?”

Yet another eavesdropped conversation that’s made me think/ annoyed/ smile. Anyway, it’s had me thinking.

I was born in 1987, to a white (Dutch-Irish) mother and a black (Jamaican parentage) father. They met, aged 5, at primary school. Throughout their relationship, to put it bluntly, they got a lot of shit from a lot of different people on both sides. And I don’t mean little snide comments or gestures. I mean serious racist intolerance, sometimes violence. We are talking about a time at which my Granny witnessed a cigarette stubbed out on the wrist of a woman with a mixed race child. Yet my parents also, let it be said now, got a lot of support- again, from both “sides” (it is sad to be calling black and white “sides”).

For me, being mixed race has almost never been a disadvantage. I grew up in a multi-racial area of London and though I was one of few mixed race children in my school, there were people of various races around me always. There were odd comments- “you’re more on the white side, aren’t you?” but rarely anything hurtful, rarely anything that upset me. I do remember taking that comment to heart, feeling “more white” but not knowing what “more black” would actually entail. I was lucky to grow up with influences from both my mum and dad’s sides of the family: songs and stories, culture and cuisine.

I never felt especially English- I remember trying to draw a “red white and blue” Union Jack and coming up with something unrecognisable, because I didn’t know what it was meant to look like. But Englishness wasn’t a lack, or an aspiration. In Year 4 (age 9) we were told that only one girl in our class was “fully” English and that she probably had some kind of Irish heritage. I still see my nationality as London. I even put that on my (Scottish) census form, so I reckon I’m the only registered “London” and “Catholic (lapsed)” registered in Edinburgh.

I spent a year in Holland as a kid, learned Dutch, was part of a different dynamic. And suddenly I was The English Girl and that felt fine too, despite endless protests that mijn oma is nederlands! Dus ik ben niet eigenlijk engels! (my granny is Dutch- so I am not originally English!)

Secondary was a different kettle of fake tan. Race was something I became aware of and not always in a positive way. I remember it mostly as an issue of defensiveness- “you look exactly like your dad/ nothing like your mum” meant “you are not white” (I actually look quite a lot like my mum.) And friends being called “pakis” was another thing that really enraged me. (“the pakis have blown up America” is still a personal favourite. Ah, 2002…) A friend shouting across a street at a “fucking half-caste” in my presence was also a highlight…

Then there was that brief period where Mixed Race (black and white) =d Cool, on TV etc.  Oh joy!  And oh! the rage of reading “Picture a mixed race child- you probably think of a young white woman pushing a pram…” (Guardian, I swear!)- in an article about the rise of mixed race families and the oh-god-surprise that some of us might be middle class.  (a future post…)

Anyway, through a number of years, I have come to realise that I am actually quite British in a lot of stereotypical ways. Though.. I don’t drink tea, my Granny couldn’t care less about Queen E, weather doesn’t stress me overmuch. And I have yet to eat toad-in-the-hole, veggie or otherwise. I just caught the self-deprecating humour and the awkward manner. And the drinking, of course. I feel enriched, and not only through my own culture but through others’. I don’t think it’s an experience unique to mixed race people, at all. Nor even to Londoners.

Quick point: when Halle Berry accepted her Oscar my mum said “if that was you, calling yourself black, I’d be like… what?!”. I think language needs to embrace more possibilities than it does…

Why am I writing this? As usual, I have little idea. I am just reacting to an old-fashioned term bandied about between young people.

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