Who Am I? - An exploration of identity (and lack thereof)
Updated: Jun 19, 2020
You know those forms where you have to tick the box stating your ethnicity? What do you tick? Do you have to think about it? I’ve spent far too long with a pen hovering over the boxes, before deciding to tick the one that says I refuse to answer. Why? That’s why we’re here.
I’ve been wondering where to start. The beginning is a good place, but the beginning of me? Or the beginning of the problem?
I’ll start with the beginning of the problem.
My mother was born in Birmingham, England on February 29th, 1948. Her father served as a soldier in WWII. It was during that time he met my grandmother. This is not a romantic story. I’m not sure how much of it is true, as both were dead before I turned two, but the story goes as such:
Grandad Cupid (Yep, it’s real) was lodging with my grandmother’s family as a soldier. Apparently, he and my grandmother got caught out in a storm and couldn’t return home until the next day (Hmmm). When they returned, it was assumed that he had sullied her. She was shunned by her community and forced to marry him. December 1937. Fun times.
But I haven’t told you an important fact.
My grandfather was black.
I’m going to step away from this story for a moment, to explain why this is so important. I didn’t discover that my grandfather was black until I was in my late teens. How? Why? Well, let’s go back to where we left my grandparents, in 1937.
The relationship between my grandparents was far from amicable. Together they had three children. Each left home as soon as possible and I believe two were even removed by social services. When my grandmother discovered she was pregnant with her fourth child, my grandfather told her to get rid of it. She didn’t. This child was my mother.
She grew up amidst heated arguments filled with screams of ‘black bastard’ and ‘white witch’. She grew up amidst jump rope rhymes where her father’s name was substituted for ‘black man’ in the line ‘black man’s knee’. She was eighteen during the Bristol Bus Boycott. She was twenty when Martin Luther King Jr was murdered.
My mother rejected her heritage. Her eldest brother and sister inherited the bulk of their father’s Caribbean genetics, but my mother inherited the hair and skin she could pass off as 'olive'. She permed her hair straight as soon as she hit fifteen and never looked back.
Let’s get back to me. I never really saw many photos of my grandparents. Firstly, because there weren’t many. Secondly, because they were not displayed around the house. I think the first time I saw a picture of my grandad was him with my mother on her wedding day. I remember being surprised at his colour. My mother said he spent a lot of time in the garden and had a great ‘tan’.
Just as my aunts and uncles had, I, the eldest, inherited the hair and the colouring. My two younger sisters are both fair skinned with blue eyes. I honestly never noticed. I looked like my mum and they looked like my dad. Then when I was eight, we moved from the south of England to North Wales.
Things were fine until I reached the last years of Primary School. People started to notice I was different. I’d have my hair in plaits, but due to the ‘wiry’ nature of my hair, they could be bent at angles. I got called ‘motorbike head’. I also got called ‘wire wool’ and ‘brillo pad’. I was confused. I’d made it over a decade without any negativity. Why now? I got in fights. I remember digging my nails into a classmate and drawing blood. I’m not sure why. I have a feeling they had me cornered and were calling me names.
Secondary school was much worse. Older kids meant a new onslaught of names: ‘African bum cleaner’ and ‘Paki’ to name just a few. I was thoroughly confused. I looked at my younger sisters with their soft ringlets and freckles and wondered why I was different. In my high school, there was only one other girl who looked anything like me. Her mother was black, and her father was white. He was also the principal. I don't think anyone said the same things to her.
I was miserable. I would get teased on the bus. Harassed at breaks. I’m fairly certain I got spat at, at some point. Boys would grab my coat and spin me around. It was awful. But still, I didn’t understand why. At no point, did my mother sit me down and explain that she was mixed race. That my grandfather didn’t have a tan. That I had a rich and colourful heritage to be proud of. I didn't know what racism was. She told me to ignore the bullies and they’d go away.
They didn’t. But I did. We emigrated to Abu Dhabi.
I was thrilled. A new start away from the people making my life hell. It was the best thing that could have happened to me. When I started my new school, I wasn’t the brownest person in the room anymore. Not by far. In fact, I was probably one of the whitest. I was relieved. I felt at home in the Middle East, where people assumed that I was Egyptian or Lebanese. I finally fitted in.
At some point during my teen years, I discovered the truth. I’m not sure how or why – it was a long time ago. Perhaps a school project. Perhaps speaking to my aunt during a summer holiday. I discovered that my Great Grandad Cupid left St Vincent and the Grenadines, in the Caribbean, to settle in Wales in the late 1800s. I tried to pick at bits of family history, but my mum’s side of the family were not close and most relatives who could have provided information were long gone. This family research was never supported by my mother.
So, I grew up. I learnt to control my hair. My mother, having a reluctant white mother, never learnt how to deal with afro hair, so I had to figure it out myself, including chemically straightening it for years. I enjoyed decades of white privilege with a side of ‘ooh, is it a perm?’ and ‘aren’t you a lovely colour?’.
I’ve never felt White. I’m not Black.
I often question whether I can actually call myself mixed race. When do the genes lose their credibility? If I ever work up the nerve to tell someone that I’m mixed race, I’m often met with frowns. A friend’s partner even went as far as to dispute my claim. I was humiliated.
My mother’s eldest sister has always been very proud of her heritage. She raised her daughter, my cousin, to be proud it too. They both tick the ‘Black/Mixed Ethnicity’ box proudly on any forms. It was never offered as an option for me. My mother would have been appalled. We were white. End of story.
Who am I? Which box do I tick? If I tick 'White', I'm turning my back on a heritage that I'm proud of. Denying a heritage that made me who I am. If I tick 'Black/Mixed Ethnicity', will people question it? Judge me? I know I shouldn't care, but I do. It's always in the back of my head.
A lot of people don’t want a box at all, but as someone who’s moved around countless times, I crave a sense of belonging; community. I’m painfully aware that despite my measly couple of years of racist abuse, I’ve spent the majority of my life blissfully shielded from the level of prejudice and discrimination that my aunt, uncle and grandfather faced. I’m grateful for that. If we hadn’t moved when I was twelve, I don’t know what would have happened to me. I have a feeling I wouldn’t be the person I am today, or if I even would have made it this far.
With the Black Lives Matters movement finally pushing inequality into the spotlight, I find myself lurking meekly in the shadows. I experienced racial prejudice and still managed to hide behind a shield of white privilege nonetheless. I donate, (I would protest, but there are no protests here), I share on social media; I support whenever and however I can. I had just a taste of the hatred that exists in the world and it changed me forever. To endure that daily? For life?
It needs to end. Now.
I’m here. Me. Not Black. Not White. I'm so proud of my heritage. I love my hair, my skin and I'm saddened that I was never given the chance to embrace where I came from. To understand it. My Caribbean heritage is a big part of what makes me, me. I want to celebrate it, but being told for half my life that I'm white and my hair is just 'frizzy', I'm not sure I know how.
I'm not angry with my mother. I understand why she jumped at the chance to escape the prejudices she'd faced as a child. I just wish she'd let me understand.
Now, I refuse to tick a box, because both feel like a lie.