Polish/Swiss-German/English | Jamaican
I identify myself as a mixed-race, cis-hetero woman. Areligious, but not an atheist.
My dad is from Jamaica and moved to London when he was around 6. My mum is White, born in London but of mixed-European heritage. She’s half-Polish, ¼ Swiss-German and ¼ English. They met in the mid-1970s, my mum was 14 and my dad was 16. My mum was a bit of a rebel when she was a teen, so used to sneak out to events her parents wouldn’t have allowed her to go to. On the night she met my dad, she was at an under-18s soul and funk ‘disco’, as they were cringingly called in those days. My dad spotted her from across the dance floor. She had been turning down dances from other guys, but he thought he’d try his luck and danced on over. They ended up staying together for over 30 years. They’re happily divorced now and remain good friends. The vast majority of their marriage was pretty tumultuous, so it’s the best possible situation after such a long history together. I do think cultural differences played a significant part in the slow demise of their relationship, especially once children came into the picture. They had very different ideas on how we should be brought up, which caused endless arguments over the years.
I lived in Luton until I was 10, and then lived in a small village in Bedfordshire until I was 18. I have positive memories of living in Luton, although I went to predominantly white schools in neighbouring towns, Luton itself is pretty multicultural. I didn’t feel out of place anywhere. I hated moving to a village. We were the only non-White family and we stuck out like a sore thumb. I found it claustrophobic living in an environment where everyone grew up in the same place, did the same things, looked the same. As a teenager I would avoid going out and about in the village, unless it involved walking to a bus stop to get out of there. I had a real complex about going to pubs for years, because I associated them with being stared at. When we would enter a village pub for Sunday lunch as a family, it sometimes felt akin to a saloon scene in a Wild West movie.
Since I was a baby, I had spent a lot of weekends in London staying with my Jamaican nan. I had always been drawn to London and excited by the diversity of it, so I was itching to move there. I finally got my wish when I went off to University as an 18-year-old, and I haven’t looked back since. I consider myself a Londoner, as it’s the only place I’ve truly felt at home.
Before I realised colour was anything more than a Dulux chart, it used to confuse me when my dad would call himself Black. I’d say, ‘But you’re dark brown, daddy’. When I drew him in my pictures, I would reach for my brown Crayola and capture his complexion. It was the colour of tree bark, or the Nutella mum would spread on my toast in the morning. His eyes were two brown dots, and his hair a small mass of tightly-drawn black circles. Mum was an outline on white paper with bright pink cheeks and lips, two green dots for eyes and her perm captured in a halo of brown squiggles. I would use my brown Crayola to draw me and my baby brother, pressing lightly to capture our tea-with-milk complexion. I remember a conversation in the car with my dad, I must’ve been around 5 and my little brother Stefan was about 3. Stefan had gotten the idea into his head that he was White, like mum. My dad explained why he wasn’t, ‘I’m Black and your mum is White. You’re a bit of me and your mum, so you’re mixed-race. But just know that the world will always see you as Black. You might have it a bit easier, but you’ll still have to work twice as hard to get half as far as them.’
I have an extremely diverse friendship group, we jokingly refer to ourselves at the United Nations! I’ve tended to find it easier to relate to people who are brought up in the UK but come from non-English backgrounds. While their upbringing might be very different to mine, we can all relate to how it feels to be an ‘other’ in a predominantly White society.
Growing up mixed-race, it can feel as though there’s a lot of judgement attached to your choice of romantic partners. Date mostly White guys? You’re a bit of a coconut. Date mostly Black guys? You’re more in touch with your Black heritage. As I once heard it perfectly summed up, ‘When you pick a partner, you pick a side’.
While I don’t have any racial or cultural preference in terms of who I find attractive, I think I’ve subconsciously resisted this pressure to fit into a box. It wasn’t intentional, but I’ve only ended up in relationships with people who come from ethnically/ culturally mixed backgrounds.
I think there are a lot of assumptions. For example, when most people in the UK think of what constitutes mixed-race, they assume a Black/ White combo. That needs to change, which is why the Mixed Race Faces campaign is so important.
Growing up, I remember some people being surprised that my parents were still together - there’s an assumption that a lot of us will have been raised by single White mothers, with absentee Black fathers.
I think there’s also a stereotype that mixed-race people are arrogant or have a superiority complex, particularly in the Black community where colourism is unfortunately still rife. That being said, I have definitely been exoticised and fetishised as a light-skinned woman, something I’ve always felt profoundly uncomfortable with. It’s not a compliment or anything to take pride in, it’s the result of hundreds of years of colonial brainwashing that told us that blackness was only ‘palatable’ in a watered-down form.
Straddling races and cultures means that, while you might never 100% ‘belong’ to either, you get an interesting and unique insight into both. I’m at peace with that fact. I can’t be defined by belonging to any one group or identity, so can only aspire to be the best version of myself.
It hasn’t always been easy. I struggled with insecurity over my appearance growing up, and I’m ashamed to say that I think a lot of those insecurities stemmed from internalized European beauty ideals. I look more like my dad and used to beat myself up for not having more of my mum’s features. I used to hate that my hair wasn’t softer textured and longer, refused to wear bright lipstick until my mid-20s because I thought my lips were too full, had a complex about my nose and facial bone structure. Learning to love myself has involved unlearning a lot of this nonsense.
If I was to be born again I would want to come back exactly the same.
It was only relatively recently (late 90s/ early 2000s) that mixed ethnicities were added as an option on census forms in the UK, which is crazy! I’m hopeful that there will continue to be more platforms to discuss the diversity and complexity of mixed-race identities – that it’ll be increasingly OK to not fit in a neat tick-box. Mixed-race relationships (including mixed-mixed-race relationships) are becoming increasingly common, so the lines will continue to blur. For example, my niece is ¼ Jamaican, ¼ Indian, ¼ English, 1/8 Polish and 1/8 Swiss – what box will she tick on a census form?