English/Irish | English/Jamaican
On any of those tick box forms you fill in, I choose ‘Mixed: White & Black Caribbean’. I would probably still class myself as a Christian, although I have fallen out with organised religion! I would class myself as bisexual, but that’s not as big a part of my identity for me as other things, perhaps because I am in a very long-term (12 years!) heterosexual relationship.
My parents were both born in London, my dad has an English mother and an Irish father (although that is all I know about him, nothing else!) and my mum has an English mother and a Jamaican father. My Grandfather came over to the UK in the 1960s, met my Grandmother, got married and settled in London. They had their troubles, especially when they first got together and had children, but they were still together until my grandmother passed away 2 years ago. They would have been married 60 years next year!
I’m not entirely sure where they met. My parents split up when I was about 3. We still saw my father regularly, but we never heard any great romantic tales about their time together. I’ve recently been speaking to my dad a lot about his childhood, and his family. He was a ‘skinhead’ in the 80s, but I think he didn’t really understand what it meant, and just wanted to impress his older friends. He ended up with a dark-skinned woman, so I doubt he really cared that much about it! When my brother was born, who is a lot darker than me, some of his family made comments to my mum like ‘he’s a bit dark isn’t he?’ and things like that, which shows the kind of attitudes they hold (and some of them still hold I believe).
I’ve been very lucky to grow up and go to school in the two most multicultural boroughs in the UK; Brent and Harrow. I now work in a school in Harrow too, with massive diversity. Because of this, my experiences as a mixed-race child were very different to some of my other relatives, and recently I’ve been talking to them a lot about how these have shaped their lives.
I must have been really quite young when I realised I was mixed-race. When my mum moved, we found some drawings and writings that I had done in primary school, probably aged 5 or 6. One was me describing my parents, when I wrote about my mum I wrote things like ‘My mum is lovely. Her hair is curly, and her skin is Brown. And her voice is nice’. With my dad it was “His eyes are blue, and his skin is White. He lets us eat pizza.”. So, all the important things I noticed!! When I was really young, and my mum would be pushing me about in my pram, she would get asked regularly ‘How long have you been looking after her?’. I am really quite pale – probably the palest in my family. But I look exactly like my mum – just a White version, and my brother looks exactly like my dad – just a Brown version! I also remember my youngest brother (different father) crying one day when he was about 3, as he was doing some colouring and wanted a White crayon for his face. My mum told him that he needed a darker crayon, and he cried ‘But I want to be White like Nin!’ (me). It’s a constant source of laughter in my family about how pale I am!
For me, race, sexual orientation and religion don’t matter. In primary school I was in a really mixed friendship group. However, when I went to secondary school, my mum wanted me to go to a single sex school, and the only one in the area was a Catholic school. This meant that my friendship group changed dramatically, it became very White, very middle class, and very Irish. Purely by the nature of the area of the school. I didn’t really fit into any of those groups; I was not well off, I had never been to Ireland or knew anything about it. That was one of the first times I properly saw some of the ‘challenges’ I guess you would call them of being mixed-race? Nothing too big, things like not being able to style my hair in the same way they could, or wear the same clothes as my body shape was different, even though being so pale I could ‘pass’ for White, if that makes sense? I almost had ‘White privilege’ without defining myself as White, and this was one of the first times I saw that for what it was. So being a teenager I noticed some differences.
I have been with my husband since I was a teenager! And the only factor that came into it was the fact that he was a musician! He would class himself as White British, even though I would disagree as he is part British, part Maltese and also part Jewish. We do disagree on this idea of mixed-race, as for me I totally see him as mixed-race, mixed-race is not just White and Black mixed together, and I think some people still don’t see that.
I think there are less and less as the next generations are growing up. The experience of my mum and her siblings sound so awful and terrible, but my generation of the family, me and my cousins, thing do seem to be slightly better. Although we have all had varying experiences. The ‘what are you?’ or ‘where are you from’ question does still come up, and I embrace it as a challenge, but I can see how it can be really hurtful. I am a philosophy and religious studies teacher, and we deal with prejudice and discrimination as part of our lessons, so I always try to encourage debate. I think within some perceptions of what ‘mixed-race’ is (i.e. White and Black) then attitudes are way better, but there are still some real negative stereotypes with other examples of mixed-race in some cultures e.g. in some Asian cultures – I still see these attitudes in some of the next generation. Hopefully these will be unlearnt through their life experiences. Mixed-race is not White and Black, and some of the most beautiful people I have ever met are of mixed heritage, so hopefully attitudes will continue to improve.
I am always asked the question ‘where are you from?’ – the guesses are always so varied – from Italian, Spanish, Jewish, Greek, Iranian, Moroccan. Very rarely do I get the guess of Jamaican. The only people who guess correctly are Jamaicans themselves!
One recent experience that sticks with me however is when my son was born (2 years ago). On the forms, the midwives wrote that he was ‘White British’ – I didn’t really think to query it at the time. But this really, really hurt my mum. I didn’t realise until that point how important it was for me to continuously show my pride for my mixed-race heritage. So now he is also down as ‘Mixed’. I wondered whether or not the ‘percentage’ or ‘ratio’ of his Jamaican heritage played a part, but then I thought why should it? He has Jamaican heritage, in the same way he has British, Maltese, and Jewish heritage. I want him to know and understand all the cultures he comes from. My husband doesn’t always see it the same way, not in a negative way, but almost in quite a laid-back way; for him, why should it matter? For the Olympics, I proudly display the flag of GB, Jamaica and Malta out of our windows. For International day at school, I wear the colours of both the Union Jack and Jamaica, which the students every year remark on, which makes them want to talk about my background more. They can see that their initial perceptions and judgments on people are not always correct, and so hopefully they can learn to find out more about the person, not who or what they look like. I may not have a darker skin colour, but I am mixed-race, and bloody proud of it.
If I was to be born again I would come back exactly the same (maybe slightly slimmer ha!!), but with an earlier acceptance and appreciation of what makes me different and special.
I wonder whether the term ‘mixed-race’ will even exist in the future. Talking to some of my colleagues in the science department about this, we were talking about the biological advantages that come with being mixed-race. Which then lead to the majority of them realising that a) they were in mixed-race relationships (of varying mixes) and b) most of them had had mixed-race children. And this was one of the first times they had realised that collectively, this was the case. Because it wasn’t a big deal to them. I really hope that, by the time our children grow up and get into relationships themselves, that the idea of being mixed is even less of a ‘big deal’ than it is now. When do you stop saying ‘mixed-race’, how mixed does it have to be? I don’t know the answers, but I can’t wait to see what the next generation do!