Someone said to me recently that if you don’t tell your story, then who will? This is a topic I’ve held back on speaking about because of the colourism that is still so prevalent in the UK; but we can’t speak about race without bringing awareness to all issues associated with it. I’m a mixed-race woman, born to a Jamaican father and a white English mother. I understand my light skinned privileges. I understand that I would never have the same lived experiences as dark-skinned women living in the UK, however being mixed-race (in this instance I use the term mixed-race to refer to those who have one black parent and one white parent) presents its own distressing experiences and I think it’s time we start speaking about them.
My whole life I have witnessed the mistreatment of dark-skinned men and women as they were bypassed for opportunities, labelled ‘unsuitable for the workplace culture’ by predominantly white, middle aged authoritative figures who’ve found endless ways of politely saying “they’re too black to work here.” Whether it’s because they’re too dark, their accent is too strong, or their name is too difficult for the rest of the ‘workplace culture’ to pronounce. I thought, who am I to complain about my experiences when I can see my privilege first-hand – In TV shows, on runways, in magazines, on billboards, in offices, behind the reception desk, where a light skinned or mixed-race woman was selected because not only is she competent, but she is black enough to be the ethnicity token that every industry so desperately needs to meet their diversity quota, whilst being palatable enough not to offend her white counterparts. Yes, we are the token hire, yes, we are being sexualised in the media but at least we are visible right? At least we can do something with that opportunity that allows us to exist alongside white women who carefully analyse us for any differences whilst we do our best to blend in and not make a mockery of the black communities we are supposed to represent.
Being light skinned, I was always led to believe by my white family that there were no differences between us. Growing up I believed that I would go off into the world being treated and respected the same way my mother or grandmother was, but I was wrong. When I walk into white spaces, I’m seen as black, different, other; and I’ve always found myself in all white spaces. Even during the years that I tried hiding my blackness by straightening my hair to within an inch of its life, or staying out of the sun, I was never really passing. It breaks my heart to think that a young girl would have to navigate these feelings alone, but the truth is I didn’t really understand these feelings until I grew up and saw the world in all its ugly rawness. It wasn’t me that had an issue with my blackness. It was everyone else who had the problem and in turn I confused other people’s perceptions of me and a need for acceptance with my own feelings, desires, and definition of happiness. At least if I had two black parents, I would have been gently forewarned about the experiences I would inevitably face as I navigated my way through life, being reminded I would have to work twice as hard or go out of my way to avoid run ins with the police. Instead, I dealt with daily inner conflicts regarding my identity, to the point of feeling gaslit. If I was no different, why was I battling the pain that comes with the experience of being treated differently?
I urge anyone who has a mixed-race family member to check in on them. If you are a parent to a mixed-race child, please acknowledge the responsibility you have. Understand the different experiences your child will have due to their intersectional identity. Their experiences will not mirror those of either parent. Just as it is your responsibility to keep them fed, clothed and healthy, it is your responsibility to educate yourselves on how the issues of race embed themselves deep within the history of the either parents’ lives, experiences, and mentalities. If you are the white parent, you must first learn to acknowledge your white privilege and know your child will never have the same experiences as you. Learn to recognise the racist language and beliefs within your own family, and most importantly yourself, because they do exist. It’s not about people uttering racial slurs, it is the misconceptions you and the people around you have about what it means to be black as well as recognising the flaws in the system which disadvantage those who are not white.
It’s disappointing when white people have sexual and romantic relationships with black people and believe this signifies the end of the ingrained racism passed down through generations, like the curse has been broken with them. Some wear it with a sense of pride when they brag about it with their white friends, because they’re getting the biggest cock of their life, or implying what somebody’s daughter can do with those big lips. But I wonder if they have ever stopped to consider that sex and respect don’t necessarily go hand in hand. And let’s be honest, all women will empathise with that statement, regardless of the colour of their skin. As far as we know from the patriarchal teachings thrust upon us since birth, there is a hierarchy within our society. Today, we continue to perceive that hierarchy as: white men, then white women, then black men, then black women. That is what society teaches us.
On the other hand, you have black people who have been shown the lighter your skin colour, that the better your chances in life – In regard to opportunities, and survival. It is understandable why black people would associate lightness with desirability. The media has always implied that light equals pretty, it equals privilege, and the daily encounters black people have, only proceed to confirm this notion. Somewhere along the line, mixed race babies became popular. I have seen groups of white mums showing off their mixed babies as if they were Birkin bags. We now have a growing part of our population who exist between the parallels of these two very different experiences, with white privilege on one side and racial disadvantage on the other. Mixed race people are continuously observing either side of these societal conflicts, like we’re watching a tennis match. We see both sides of the coin simultaneously, and we see them clearly. We experience them both but never in their fullest extent.
Information held by the UK national statistics predicted in 2011 that by 2020 1.24 million people would be of a mixed ethnicity, suggesting that mixed-race people would be the fastest growing ethnic group in the UK. Dinah Morley and Catherine Street, authors of Mixed Experiences: Growing Up Mixed Race – Mental Health and Well-being (2014), speak about the correlation between being bi-racial and mental health issues, offering practitioners insight to the unique experiences and challenges of mixed-race people. There is an awareness around the issue, but we are still not seeing it being put to the forefront of conversations around race. Why not? If mixed-race ethnicities are the fastest growing population in Britain, then why was I only learning that the mental health problems which coincide with these experiences are a commonality by digging deep into the internet? For so long I was unable to explain the conflicting thoughts and feelings I had about myself and my identity, so I had to figure it out on my own. Not a single person working in the mental health services that tried to help me navigate my feelings of depression or anxiety ever connected the dots.
Although I take pride in providing solutions to people, I’m not sure this is something I can achieve in this post alone. The truth is, I’m still figuring things out however I know that realising I wasn’t alone in my experiences and having my feelings validated would have held great significance in my journey of healing, self-acceptance, and self-discovery. Therefore, we must speak about it. It has taken a long time for me to embrace the parts of myself I tried to hide, to understand the beauty and power that is embedded within my blackness whilst navigating the privilege of my almost whiteness. I am accepting that I will continue to encounter ignorance, and that my growing comfortability with my identity (and most importantly learning to own that identity) will make some people uncomfortable, but that’s not my problem. I’ve done the inner work and I cannot be responsible for the feelings of those who have not. My attention is on my own happiness and the validation and mental wellbeing of mixed-race people everywhere.
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