Northern Ireland | Sierra Leone
Identifying myself has evolved over time. I used to say I was black, but now I would say mixed race as it feels more accurate and authentic.
I was born in Northern Ireland. I grew up in Belfast, living with my mother, grandparents and great-uncle, as my parents’ relationship did not last. When I was 18 I moved to North Wales to study.
After university I moved to the Netherlands in 1988. Initially, I was planning to stay for 3 months but kept on finding reasons to stay longer. I’ve now been here for 30 years! I’m married to a Dutchman and have one grown-up daughter.
My mother was from Northern Ireland. She lived in the same area in Belfast for her entire life. My father was from Kenema, a town in Sierra Leone.
My father relocated to Northern Ireland in the early 1960s to study law at Queen’s University. My mother lived near the student area and met him at a party.
At the age of five I knew I was mixed race. My father had already left Northern Ireland, never to return. But he did leave his record collection, which included both African highlife and classical music. I remember listening to his records one afternoon – highlife and Tchaikovsky – loving both types of music but suddenly feeling they were quite different and somehow incompatible. As if I had to choose between them. Unfortunately, the other kids in the neighborhood also made it clear to me that I was ‘different’ from an early age. There was a lot of bullying.
Most of my friends are white, maybe because I grew up in such a white environment.
It would have been hard pressed dating someone who was mixed race when I was growing up in Belfast as it was so overwhelmingly white. I did have one boyfriend who was mixed race, but I think that was about the only thing we had in common.
I think that mainstream white society sees anyone who is not white as being black (in the Netherlands, schools with a lot of children from ethnic minorities are called black schools even if the pupils are from Turkey or Morocco). There is certainly a bias against minorities or ‘allochtonen’ and discrimination in the employment and housing markets. But I’m not sure about bias or stereotypes aimed specifically at mixed race people, apart from a sort of positive bias. Once I was told that I had won the genetic lottery as mixed-race people were better looking than everyone else.
I can’t pinpoint one specific profound experience related to being mixed-race, but I would say that my experience of life would have been very different if I had been born white and probably would also have been different if both my parents had been black. The positive aspects of being mixed race are that I feel connected to a lot of different people and I love living in a diverse city like Amsterdam. I also think that being mixed race informs my work in a positive way as it makes me more culturally sensitive. I am a translator, editor, and interpreter. A few of my clients have said that they value my awareness and openness to other cultures. On the negative side, what can I say? When I was growing up in Northern Ireland in the 70s and early 80s, I thought I was doing well if a few weeks went by without someone shouting racist abuse at me on the street.
Any aspect of yourself, your upbringing has an effect on your relationships with others, no matter who you are. I like the fact that more people like Sunny Bergman and Gloria Wekker are exploring ‘whiteness’ as something active that affects people’s behavior and stance in the world, instead of being just a neutral phenomenon. I think that growing up mixed race in an all-white family, going to all-white schools in a virtually all-white country inculcated a certain distance, reticence, and cautiousness into my nature that was not necessarily part of my natural makeup.
I would not choose to be anyone other than myself, but people from ethnic minorities still have to deal with problems that white people are not even aware of, let alone confronted with. Progress has been made. My daughter had a totally different experience of growing up mixed race in Amsterdam in the 1990s. But race still impacts on people’s lives.
On the one hand, things have improved a lot since I was young, and I can’t imagine that they won’t continue to get better. There are so many amazing young mixed-race people, doing all kinds of interesting things. Amsterdam is now a minority-majority city, which means that there is no longer one ethnic majority in the city. I’m struck by how many mixed couples and mixed-race children I see in my neighborhood. There’s so much love between different groups of people. But sometimes, I am surprised by the extent to which different groups still ‘stick together’. I was at a niece’s party earlier this year (husband’s family). They are students and all their friends were white. It’s not out of any ill will, (my nieces are great) but I think on some university courses and jobs, there are very few people from a different ethnic background. I guess it doesn’t help that children from a non-white background are so much more likely to be steered into the lower educational tracks of secondary school in the Netherlands. Also, I am worried by the rise of xenophobic parties in this country. I worry that as the gap between rich and poor widens, even in the Netherlands, that an increasing number of people will be attracted to populists who scapegoat minorities. Amsterdam is not the Netherlands. My husband and I sometimes discuss moving somewhere quieter and more rural, but I think that there are still a lot of places in the Netherlands where I would not feel very comfortable living as a mixed-race woman. But on the whole, I’m cautiously optimistic.