It’s 2002, and my mother is in the hall downstairs, seething down our white rotary phone to my head teacher. I have returned home from school to tell her that some kids saw us together at last night’s parents’ evening. They have started a rumour that she’s ‘a Paki’ and I’m adopted.
Aged 12, I am as confused as I am mortified. When hauled up in front of the entire school the following week for an ill-advised anti-racism assembly (mortification level now off the scale), the rumour became a part of my identity – even though it was wrong on both parts.
My mum is half black Caribbean, half white British. She married a Caucasian man and had myself and my two elder siblings. We’re mixed race, a quarter black.
The local kids from our predominantly white Northern town probably knew no better. To them, my wide nose, big lips and pale skin made me different. The specificity of my difference didn’t matter to them. But, of course, it did to me. With only two ethnic minority families in my village – mine being one of them – as a child, I grew up with white dolls and white friends in a white world. Whoopi Goldberg in Sister Act 2 and the boys in Cool Runnings were my imaginary siblings, as my real ones had moved away to university by the time I was 10. I was half of my community, and half of these fictional characters, so I attempted to construct a jigsaw puzzle identity of my own choosing.
Today, I am a white-passing woman, and I’ve found that my identity comes with both inbuilt privileges and difficulties. In 2018, mixed race people are the fastest growing demographic in the UK, yet we are under-represented, with just 52 ethnic minority MPs. And only a fraction are mixed race. Compare this to the fact that 1.2 million of us in the UK identify as mixed race. For so few MPs to be representative of the third largest ethnic group in the country is embarrassing.
A discussion of mixed-race identity, and how it functions as a label, has been in the news lately thanks to Love Island, of all things. Female contestants Georgia and Ellie both declared ‘mixed race’ to be their type. Yet if you were to ask them what they actually mean by that, they’d probably struggle, because ‘mixed race’ can’t be a type. It is such a broad term, encapsulating any variety of races and any number of combinations. Do white people or black people all look alike? Of course not. Neither do mixed race people, and so this classification takes away acknowledgement of individualities. It also makes us an other.
Our very own mixed-race duchess Meghan Markle has also been in the news many times for her identity. Sadly, some of the discussion has been reductive at best, downright racist at worst. Meghan has described her experiences of being classified as ‘other’; not knowing which box to tick on a census form, not white ‘enough’ or black ‘enough’ to get work as an actor. She has given girls and boys, young and old, all around the country, a new role model. Of course, it’s not nearly enough. But every new hero takes us one step further from schoolchildren who can’t comprehend that a child and her mother might be different colours.
Last summer, 15 years after that school assembly, I wrote my MA dissertation on the topic of mixed-race identity. It led to more conversations with my mum about her own experiences than ever before. She told me stories about taking my sister to a children’s birthday party and being asked by a six-year-old if she was my sister’s nanny. About trying to rent a property, and having the door slammed in her face by a landlady who said she didn’t want a monkey living in her home. ‘I am “mixed race”, but I identify as black,’ my mum told me. ‘I’ve had the same experiences as a black person, the same prejudice and racism.’
Such blatant discrimination hasn’t been a part of my life – or not when directed at me, anyway. While I have been a bystander to attacks against my mother, brother and friends, my ‘passing’ is a warped blessing in some respects; my name conjures up no suspicion when applying for jobs, my hair is thick but tameable (and rarely touched by strangers).
Instead, what white-passing people such as myself tend to experience is ‘accidental racism’ – incidents where people say something out of ignorance of my race, or a presumption that their audience is entirely white, and therefore not one that might be offended. The bus journeys to school where the word ‘half-caste’ was passed about like a packet of chewing gum. The time when a boyfriend declared to the entire room that he’d only ever had white girlfriends. It took an excruciating long conversation to convince him that he should never call me white again.
After all, when it comes down to it, I have no choice but to identify as mixed race. Nothing else is available to me. I am not black, for I have not lived the life of a black woman, and all that comes with that. Yet I am not white, and I have experienced racism-by-proxy for my whole life.
I see this in my future too. If my British Pakistani husband and I are lucky enough to have children, they will inevitably be mixed race too. I can’t know yet how they will identify themselves, but sadly we foresee struggles there, especially with the added element of Islamophobia in Britain today. But all we can do is be open to their questions and exploration. More than anything, we will tell them that their identity is down to them, and them alone. Ignorant classmates, racist strangers and a skewed society should never be powerful enough to define their identity for them.
Back in 2002, with my headteacher thoroughly scolded, my mum sat me down on her bed and dug out my birth certificate. She is the reason why I would never, ever call myself white, and resent those who should know better doing the same. To do so would be to deny her existence and her eternally positive impact on my life. Thanks to her, I am nothing but proud of my mixed-race identity.