British | Ghanaian
How would I identify myself? Most of the time I am simply Me. On a diversity form I would depict myself as mixed-race, White/Black African. On the same form I would also represent myself as female, heterosexual and Christian but in reality, I don’t feel the need to categorise myself and don’t feel particularly comfortable doing so. However, if asked to describe myself I would say that I have brown skin and eyes and tight curly hair (that used to be black and is now going grey). So, I am a person of colour. I am not black. I would be ridiculed if I called myself White (but actually, I often have to remind myself that I am not). My parents, frustrated by their children being inappropriately described as ‘Half-Caste’, brought me up to say that I was Anglo-African.
My mother is English, born in South East London. My father was West African, an Ewe. He was born in Saltpond in what was then the British Colony of the Gold Coast and is now Ghana. They met in London in the 1950s. My mother was an undergraduate at Bedford College, London and my father had come from the Gold Coast to study for a qualification in Social Work at the London School of Economics. They married in 1957, in a registry office because the Church would not condone an African man marrying an English woman. Both of their families also opposed the marriage and only two friends attended their wedding as witnesses.
As a mixed-race couple in the late 1950s in London, my parents had great difficulty finding somewhere to live. No one would let rooms to them and since both Black people and women were discriminated against they could not get a mortgage to buy property. Eventually my mother, a teacher, got financial assistance through her trade union so that they could buy a family home. I grew up in South East London in the 60s and 70s. The Race Relations Act was passed just three years after I was born but race relations in the U.K. were still very strained. We lived in a very monocultural, White, middle class area. For most of my early childhood the only non-White people I knew were my father and my two brothers. I remember being in Brownies on Thinking Day (when we were encouraged to think of other Brownies, Guides, Cubs and Scouts around the world) and thinking that it was strange that there were no non-White Brownies in our pack and then realising that there was only me. Throughout my childhood, indeed throughout my life, I encountered racial abuse and not just from White people. Being mixed-race meant that Black people also called me names, wrongly assuming that I was Asian or Middle Eastern. My parents taught me to ignore it and as a consequence I never felt able to discuss my experiences with them. Looking back this saddens me and I want to reach out and protect my childhood self.
I certainly understood that I was of mixed ethnicity by the age of two and a half. My younger brother is two and a half years younger than me and I did not particularly want a baby brother or sister. I had an older brother to whom I was very close. When my brother was born his skin was pink (as those of you of mixed race will know, skin pigmentation comes in gradually) and I remember thinking ‘That’s all right. He’s not my brother’. So, I knew even at that age that my mother had one skin colour, my father another and my brother and I were somewhere in between. Growing up I was often told that I must have been adopted as I wasn’t the same colour as either my father or my mother. It became very important to me that my brothers and I looked alike. I wanted that for my own children too.
My friendship groups are determined our joint interests and shared experiences. Race, gender, sexual orientation and religion play no part in forming my friendships except that I would find it hard to befriend anyone who was overtly racist or sexist.
I have been married to the same lovely man for 34 years. We met at University. He was born in the Midlands but reserves the right to describe himself as Welsh. (His mother is Welsh and his father English.) Race did not play a part in my choice of partner. Culture did; we have very similar, middle class aspirational backgrounds, similar educational achievements, religious beliefs and outlook on life.
I do think that there are still biased attitudes and stereotypes towards mixed-race people. I still get asked, ‘Where are you from’, ‘No, where are you really from’ ‘But where are you from originally’ and when I explain my racial heritage I often get asked if I’ve been ‘Home’, as if this country is not my home. I am asked this both by White people and by Black people. Funnily enough people from the Asian Sub-continent or the Far East rarely ask. Those who are mixed-race themselves are often curious but generally have more subtle ways of enquiring. Also, although my children are now in their twenties, I do think that there is still an assumption in 21st century Britain, that mixed race children are from ‘broken homes’, i.e. that mixed relationships do not endure. My parents were married for 54 years before my father’s death. I have been married 34.
One downside of being mixed-race is that all my life I have struggled with my hair. I don’t think my straight-haired English mother knew what on earth to do with it! My fairly recent discovery of co-washing has been a revelation. Finding makeup to suit my skin tone has also been a problem. The upside of this is that I learnt not to expend energy or time on hair and makeup. My morning routine is very swift!
If I were to be born again, if forced to choose, in terms of race I should probably choose to be White (I do think life in the U.K. is still easier for White people). But I adored my father and cannot imagine not being his daughter, so I would choose to remain mixed-race, to remain Me.
We will eventually all be mixed-race, and the questions currently asked on diversity forms will become irrelevant because it will become too complicated to find a way to describe any individual’s racial identity. The first time I had to complete a racial identity questionnaire I was 20 and having my first cervical smear test at a clinic in Tooting, very multicultural area in Southwest London. I took the form back to the receptionist at the family planning clinic and asked what I should do as there was no box that described me; ‘Caucasian’ did not fit the bill but neither did the alternatives. I was told, bluntly, to tick ‘Negroid’. I objected, challenging the validity of asking a question that could not be given an accurate answer. This still pertains. Ten years later I was asked to complete a rather more carefully worded form by a museum, where my children and I were joining in an ethno-musicology activity. For the first time in my life, at age 30, there was a finally a box that described me and space to offer additional detail. I ticked ‘Mixed Race’ and proudly added ‘Anglo-African’. Then I tried to do the forms for my children. They too were mixed-race but then I didn’t know what to add by way of explanation. I just wrote ‘more mixed than their mother’. That is how we will all be, one day.