Role Models

I’ve written about my feeling as a young person that gay and lesbian people don’t exist after 30.  I’ve written about how I thought I had nothing to say about race… but was wrong.  What I haven’t talked about is something you could say falls between the two.

I was thinking a couple of days ago that, at least as far as examples from my personal life go, I have no idea what I will look like when I’m old.  This is because the oldest mixed-race person I know is just 41.  The girls and women I saw on TV shows in my early teens seem to have vanished (although, to be fair to the BBC etc., I rarely watch TV).  While there are many examples of what white (and black) people might look like aged, there are not so many images of mixed-race people past the age of about 45.  Will my hair go white or gray?  Will my curls loosen?  Will my skin wrinkle, or will I go dark under the eyes?  These are mysteries I have yet to solve.  Search results for “older mixed race actresses” include such gems as “28 Celebrities You Probably Didn’t Know Were Mixed Race” and “50 Hottest Biracial Celebrities.”  Not quite the information I was after.

I understand that part of this is because mixed-race people were slow to enter the cultural lexicon.  For example, in the USA, black and white “biracial” people are often referred to as “black”.  In the UK, mixed-race people and relationships have been around for hundreds of years (Olaudah Equiano married a white British woman in the 1700s, and here is a more recent example, from WW2).  But these relationships and the resulting children were not always in the public eye, and were simply not as common as white/white, black/black, Asian/Asian relationships.  So it’s not always a matter of erasure or stigmatisation… in a sense, we were just “late to the party.”

When I started primary school in 1992, I was one of very few mixed-race kids.  And I lived in a very multicultural area of London.  There were definitely black kids and definitely white kids, and just the one Asian kid, but barely anyone who shared my heritage.  At the same school now, the number of mixed-race kids is huge.  It makes me feel proud, unnerved, and responsible, that for some of these children, I might be the oldest mixed-race person they have ever met!

As a child, I wasn’t (usually) unhappy about my skin colour and I was proud of my heritage.  But looking back, every time I did feel uncomfortable with my race, it was due in part to not feeling like I had examples of people who looked “like me.”  I can even remember, quite clearly, the first time I noticed that a black woman was beautiful- and it was pretty late in my childhood.  The images I was bombarded with were almost never of non-white, beautiful people, so it didn’t register with me that I could be someone beautiful.  When people said my skin was light, or other things that aligned me with “whiteness”, I often felt proud- not just because “whiteness” seemed the thing to aspire to (even the mixed-race models in teen magazines tended to be as light-skinned as possible) but because white people grew older.  White people seemed to have futures, in terms of appearance, that I could not imagine for myself.

One of the main (and stupid) reasons given to discourage mixed-race romantic relationships, was that “the children will be confused.  It’s not fair on them.”  I was lucky- I wasn’t that confused.  “Mixing races”, like mixing paints, seemed to me to have pretty obvious results (that included more interesting dinner options and a wider selection of songs).  But let’s be honest- confusion is definitely made a lot easier when your image is not repeated, and repeated, and repeated, like everyone else’s.

Times have changed.  CBeebies (BBC for little kids) is full of images of all kinds of people, with all kinds of accents and appearances.  Mixed-race people appear on all kinds of TV shows and usually their race isn’t even mentioned because it isn’t a big deal and doesn’t add anything to the story.  We are one of the UK’s fastest-growing populations… we are everywhere (if the news is to be believed- cheers, Google).

Maybe the older mixed-race people are around after all and I haven’t noticed because they slipped in and became part of the story while no-one was looking.  Maybe if I count the white-haired heads, I’ll find some that are my shade.  But for a long time this seemed impossible, and since we all know now that representation is important, I don’t think I can say that I haven’t been affected by that fact.

It’s cool, though.  I’ll get older and find out for myself.  And I’ll let you know.

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