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.


As Simple as Black & White

Once, when I was 7 or 8, I was having an argument with a ten year old at school.  For reasons long forgotten, she said something about being black and I said “Yeah?  Well?  You’re black because you’re so rude“.

Later, in the Headmaster’s office, I couldn’t explain what I had meant by this.

“Did you say she’s rude because she’s black?”
“No, sir I-”
“Did you say she’s black because she’s rude?”
“Yes sir but I-”
“What did you mean?”
“Sir, my Dad is black, I-”

knew what I meant.  I meant “black” as in “evil”,”black” as in “darkness”, “black” as in the then common saying “nah, that is just dark man!”

Light was always good: white a peaceful and pure colour, yellow the colour of the sun and the Virgin’s hair.  Dark was always the opposite.  I still can’t describe what I meant back then.  What I do know is that what I meant was not what I said.

I try to think very carefully now about how I use colour in my work, and in describing my moods.  I try to be clearly understood, because I know what it’s like not to be.

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.