Some imply you’re too black. Others imply not enough. Musings on being mixed-race and how it shapes identity.
It starts for all of us when we are young. We don’t necessarily understand why we are different, but we recognise that we aredifferent. Children don’t see colour, that much is true. I didn’t think of myself as being of a different race to other Polish children when I would run around the house with a pair of tights on my head to imitate long flowy strands of hair. I didn’t think there was anything different about me when women would stop my mum on the street to tell her she had “beautiful children”, referring to our skin colour. I didn’t even linger on the casually thrown playground insults – “monkey” and “blackie” being the most common. Or, as my mum reminds me, when one man felt it necessary to come up to her in the middle of a family outing to call my siblings and I charnuchy, which means niggers.
They all thought of me as black. Had I continued living in predominantly-white Poland I would have most likely thought of myself as black too. But a key thing I have learnt: your surroundings shape your perception.
Shannon is a mixed-race friend of mine. Her father is Irish and her mother is Guyanese. We are discussing the issue of race, as we often do, when she starts to muse over an episode from early in her life. She was eight years old, swimming at the pool with her black cousin when a squabble broke out with a little boy who was white. She remembers him saying to her cousin, “You’re black, I’m white and… I don’t even know what she is! She’s, like, orange or something.”
Childish remarks like this may seem throwaway; but for us, they plant the seeds of our identity crises. Shannon spent her teenage years in High Wycombe, Buckinghamshire. Her friends outside of school were black, the school she went to was largely white. It was when she started to spend more time with black people that she began to act differently.
“They used to call me a bounty” – meaning a person who is black on the outside and white on the inside. “They were just joking around, but it really got to me.” She started to dress like her black friends. “I’d dress more hood, I’d be in like my Air Forces, big gold hoops, stuff like that.” She would imitate the way her black friends talked too, picking up on the slang they used. She visibly cringes and bursts out laughing when I ask her to repeat some of the slang; I suppose it embarrasses her to think about how hard she tried to be something she’s not.
She groans, again with embarrassment, when asked about the certain stereotypes associated with her paler skin in a black community. Black and Asian guys would shout at her on the street, “piff lighty” – labelling her as physically attractive because she they saw her as lighter-skinned black. On the contrary, white boys from her school would mock her “black talk” and pick at her curly hair.
Aged seventeen, she was close friends with a boy from her college who was white. As the typical high-school narrative goes, rumours started flying around about them fancying each other. However, the boy was quick to deny this stating, “I don’t go for black girls”. This is the first point at which Shannon’s voice begins to shake with irritation. Everyone has a type, but she sees it as stupid to rule out an entire race. The issue is deeper than this: “When you know me, shouldn’t you be able to know me as a person rather than just the black thing; how could that be the only thing you can think of when you actually know me?”
Despite her struggle early on, Shannon now seems to feel comfortable with her identity as a mixed-race person. She is in a totally different place to my other mixed-race friend Lisa. Born to an English father and Zambian mother, Lisa has lived in Halesworth, Suffolk all her life, a predominantly white, conservative area.
Having been brought up in a white community she identifies more with her “white side”, mainly by way of culture. She notes that there’s a feeling of never being fully able to fit in. She goes on to describe a phenomenon I’ve heard from many and experienced myself as a mixed-race person: to identify yourself as black is a lot easier. You may get the occasional comment that you’re a “bounty”, but as Shannon states, black people and white people will still treat you as black. To identify yourself as white is difficult. You need only to look in the mirror to see that your skin is in fact not white.
Although Shannon claims to have come to terms with her identity, and Lisa claims to identify more with her “white side”, throughout the course of our conversations they both frequently refer to themselves as black. This is proof to me that we still view ourselves how society views us. But why should we have to identify as either black or white?
My five-year-old brother comes home from school calling himself a “little black boy”. My eight-year-old brother recites comments said to him from other children such as, “My dad says he likes black children, but not black adults.” Little has changed since my days as the ‘black Polish girl’ in the early 2000s, and it seems that little will, until we start teaching children from an early age that it’s not all black and white. In a world where people are quick to identify by race, your not fitting in a neatly defined box can be confusing, but can also lead to clarity on the futility of categorising at all.