Irish/English | Antiguan
I’m a mixed-race (White British and Black Caribbean) heterosexual woman, brought up as a Catholic but now agnostic. My Dad’s Dad was from Antigua, and my Mum’s family is Irish and English. My parents met in northwest London when they were teenagers.
The first time I considered that mixed-race was even a thing was when my family moved from London to Devon when I was around nine years old. We had to fill out forms for the new school I was moving to, which asked for ethnicity and religion, and I vividly remember my Mum ticking the ‘mixed, White British and Afro Caribbean’ box and I had to ask her what that meant. Of course, I realised my Dad and Granddad had darker skin than the rest of my family, but I was never really told before this point what that meant for me, especially in a social context. My first nine years were spent in North West London, living near all my Grandparents and cousins, so I had a bit more conditioning from all sides of my heritage, plus my class was really diverse so I just took it as a given that people came from different backgrounds and cultures, so I never really had to consider my own.
However, I then moved to Devon, to a tiny village with a very small school and I quickly realised I was different. In fact, my brother and I were the darkest-skinned children in the school for a long time. In town, people would noticeably stare at my Dad and because my younger sister is fair with blonde hair, people would question if he was even her Dad, he is, FYI. I wasn’t necessarily cognisant of the entire racial history of the UK, but this is when I did start to realise that people that looked like my Dad were often treated differently.
When I was 11, my parents split up, and I lived with my Mum, so I spent way less time with my Dad, and as a result, saw my Granddad only a few times a year if that. My Granddad never shared stories of his life in Antigua, and my Dad never really spoke about his Caribbean heritage either, and while I did ask the odd question, I never really got much back. Being mixed-race but learning most of the things you know about the world from a white parent, it feels a bit like you forget about the other side of you, and that’s made me feel really unsettled for a while now. My Dad was mainly brought up by his (White) Mother, and as my Granddad never shared anything about his life in Antigua, or his route to the UK, I don’t think his Antiguan heritage was really felt in his household.
Being White-passing, I’ve experienced so many occasions when ignorant people have said racist or derogatory things about other people around me, as though our shared ‘Whiteness’ means it’s ‘safe’ to do so. When I reveal I’m mixed-race, I’m either met with uncomfortable backtracking or a refusal that their comments could ever apply to me because I don’t ‘look’ mixed-race. Of course, none of that matters, they’ve already revealed their problematic thoughts so I always make a conscious effort to avoid these people. I’ve also experienced people questioning my mixed heritage or waiving my right to identify as mixed-race because I’m fairly light-skinned. As society becomes more and more mixed, I wonder how this will affect future generations, including my own children. My boyfriend (and the person with whom I hope to have children) is White, so our children will likely have even lighter skin than me. Of course, I want them to know of their Antiguan roots but if they can’t see their mixed heritage, will they identify with it?
I guess my biggest challenge has been more of an internal one. Now in my mid-twenties, I find myself reflecting on a youth that has been mainly conditioned by my Mother’s White Irish culture, which of course has had its benefits (a giant family!) but I now feel a massive gap in my sense of identity. I wish I knew more about my Caribbean heritage, and I regret not asking my Granddad more questions before he passed away. I’ve saved up to travel to Antigua this year, in the hope to find a deeper connection to him and the land that made him and subsequently, part of me.
I should hope this is a pretty universal request but I seek out open-minded, progressive and inclusive thinkers that have taken the time to explore and understand their privilege (or, of course, lack thereof) and how that affects wider social structure. I don’t think that’s a very big ask.
Although I don’t have Afro hair, it does have the associated curl and coarseness to some extent. My Mum has heavy, completely straight hair so she just wasn’t equipped to care for my curls, and hair-brushing sessions would always end in tears. People would always describe my hair as frizzy and fluffy, words that felt really cutting back then. I developed a severe hatred for my hair and would spend hours ironing it to death. When I first became a beauty editor, I would have the opportunity to visit hair salons for blow dry treatments, and I would always apologise for my ‘difficult’ hair, which pains me to admit. Nowadays, I only ever wear my hair naturally and I’m really proud of it. This personal experience means that now, in my writing, I refuse to use any term that refers to hair as a battle – ‘frizz-fighting’, ‘taming’, ‘control’, etc – and challenge brands that use these words to sell products.
I think my mixed-race heritage has definitely forced me into a position of self-reflection and to take a brutal look at my own privilege, which I hope has made me a more open-minded and thoughtful person. It has also meant I’ve had more of a vested interest in exploring and understanding race politics in the UK and beyond, although it’s vital that everyone seeks out that information, regardless of ethnicity.
I won’t deny that being White-passing has afforded me a certain kind of privilege and is probably why I was able to assimilate to my predominantly White primary school so easily. Besides a few uncomfortable comments, I’ve always felt I’ve been able to blend in easily although I do wonder what it would be like if my racial make-up was more obvious.
If I were to be born again, I’d want to be exactly the same, although perhaps I’d have a curiosity that kicks it earlier, so I would have the time to ask my Granddad all the questions I have before it’s too late.