“Oh” the hairdresser paused “Your hair is very curly”.
“Yes” I gritted my teeth, water dripping down my neck “I said it was”. The consultation earlier that week, it seemed, had meant nothing. “It’s OK” she went on “I’m sure we’ll be able to manage”. Trapped in the chair, too far in this to go back, I feigned a tight smile. “So where are you from?” She went on “You look…different…” And so it started. Questions about my heritage; questions about Africa, then of course Jamaica; “Can I tell the where people are from by their appearance?” Comments on my hair “It’s actually quite nice”, “Do I ever wear an Afro?” comments on my features “Your lips are black but your nose is more white…” laced with the occasional “how exotic”. It was exhausting. As I left the salon that evening with a more than satisfactory keratin blow dry, I was annoyed. Not just because I had described my hair type before I had arrived; not just because I had been asked personal questions during a long day when I really didn’t feel like answering; but because I had left work excited about the little ‘me time’ I had managed to squeeze in my busy day and was then confronted this. Their ignorance was a slap in the face. I was again ‘The Other’. Reminded that I was different.
With over a million people in the UK now being identified as mixed race, according to the 2011 census, it’s important to ask what impact this is this having on British culture. Are we finally becoming a country that fully embraces different races? I would argue perhaps not. Instead we seem to be celebrating multiculturalism whilst at the same time ignoring the fact that we are still putting people into boxes based on their race. And it’s these boxes which highlight our hidden prejudices.
In 2012, research by British Future hastily claims that ‘The Jessica Ennis generation can stake a strong claim to have won the race against prejudice’. The report ‘The Melting Pot Generation – How Britain Became More Relaxed About Race’ discussed that in the mid 1980s 50% of the public were opposed to mixed race marriages with 40% opposed in the 1990s. British Future’s poll in 2012 showed opposition to mixed race marriages was down to 15%. Yes, this does suggest attitudes to mixed relationship have improved, but it let’s not pretend that it means people don’t hold prejudice views anymore.
Joseph Harker in his Guardian article ‘Beware this new mixed-race love-in’ laughs at the concept that racism has been eradicated just because of the rising number of mixed race relationships. Harking back to slavery and master-slave girl relationships, he claims ‘what people do in the bedroom is completely separate from what they do in the outside world’. It reminds me of a recent trip to Las Vegas when a random man at a bar presented me with the amazing news that he’s ‘into black girls you know’. Thanks. I’ll just jump on you now then. I for one, don’t see progress in the fact I may fulfil your brown girl fetish. While I do agree that society is much more open to mixed relationships now, it doesn’t mean ideas about racial hierarchies have disappeared.
A study carried out by Dr Michael Lewis and colleagues from Cardiff University’s School of Psychology, found that mixed race was now considered the most ‘attractive’ race. While I embrace our acceptance into British culture, and can understand the ‘best of both races’ idea, I question whether these results are to be celebrated. Don’t they suggest we are still obsessed with the idea that when it comes to black people, lighter skin is more desirable?
The sexualisation of mixed race or light skinned black females in the media may have something to do with why the public have chosen these faces as ‘attractive’. As a teenager I became acutely aware when we first got The Box and MTV, that mixed race was considered attractive. The tendency to put mixed race girls as love interests in music videos, and to ‘accessorise’ them next to hip hop artists began to influence ideas about what was ‘cool’, ‘sexy’ and ‘attractive’, both in school and everyday life. Today, things have barely moved on. Most girls shape their identities by the images of people like them that they see most often. While there are many more mixed race women in the media than say, the 1980s or 1990s, the half-dressed, sexual, music video image of us is still over-represented. The message sent out by stereotyping mixed race girls as ‘attractive’, ‘sexy’ and ‘available’ shapes attitudes for both men and women. It suggests inferiority by being passive sexual objects that are there to be enjoyed as ‘exotic’. Why else would a complete stranger think it totally acceptable to mention race as a chat up line?
In the 1980s however, there was a more overt type of prejudice. My mother has told me of the abuse and name calling she received simply walking down the street with myself and my brother. I remember people asking my mum if my brother and I were adopted. I was asked if my mum had coloured me in. There were no adult role models I could identify with. Aged 4, I thought that that when I grew up I was going to be white like my mother and my brother was going to be black like my father. I remember staring at the TV screen seeing the Neneh Cherry’s Buffalo Stance video for the first time thinking: ‘She has lips like me, her hair is like mine and she’s on the TV!’
Things have come a long way. Just turn on the television and you’ll see scores of successful mixed race people, from Jessica Ennis, to Lewis Hamilton to Leona Lewis. Yet a recent report: ‘Mixed Experiences – growing up mixed race: mental health and wellbeing’ suggests mixed race people still face identity problems. The study found that mixed race people are more likely to suffer from mental health problems due their identity confusion. Co-author Dinah Morley commented “I was surprised at how much racism, from black and white people, had come their way….A lot of children were seen as black when they might be being raised by a white single parent and had no understanding of the black culture”.
This report is worrying, mainly because it seems to put blame on white parents which I think is misplaced. I can’t speak for all, but my white mother made me very aware of my father’s culture. I knew about his country’s – Zimbabwe’s – fight for independence and the struggles in South Africa. My childhood was spent attending many anti-apartheid rallies and she even took me and my brother on a trip to Botswana, Zimbabwe and Johannesburg. So while a common worry may be that white mothers are unable to teach their mixed race children about their black culture and yes this can be a challenge – especially if the father is absent – it can be and is consciously done by parents all over the UK all the time. The results of this study say to me that it is our society’s obsession with putting people in boxes which is the problem.
Aged 11, when I first arrived at secondary school I quickly realised there was the black girl group and the white girl group. Immediately I was accepted into the black girls group. Until that was, they realised I didn’t quite fit in. I was told I “acted white”, “Why didn’t I relaxed my hair?” and my mum “needed to give me beats”. It was the first time I realised there were these boxes and you were expected to fit in them. I didn’t. That year I spent lunch times alone.
I was reminded of that time recently when I revisited Zimbabwe. Expecting to find some kind of sense of identity and feeling of ‘home’, I was instead met with stares by locals and to my surprise called ‘white’. My own family found it easier to run errands without me because of the attention and fuss the presence of a ‘white’ person would cause. Here I was, having flown thousand of miles away to the Motherland, the place of my roots and culture and was being rejected for being ‘white’.
At least back in London there are no surprises. I have learnt that most white people will consider me black and I’m OK with that. As an actor for example, I often tick the ‘black’ box, regularly getting put up for roles for black characters. But I do wonder: doesn’t grouping mixed race people into the ‘black box’ and celebrating our modern, inclusive culture, allow us to happily ignore the struggles that actual black people face? When in 2002 Halle Berry won Best Actress she was heralded as the first black woman ever to achieve this accolade but many of my black friends at the time noted she wasn’t actually black. Has mixed race just become the acceptable face of ‘black’ for a mainstream audience? Would Obama have won the hearts of white middle America if he was black and not mixed race? While Obama must be commended for his huge achievement – his presidency in a country with a very recent racist history certainly symbolises huge steps forward, but it’s worth noting that his lighter skin colour may have helped make the achievement possible. Joseph Harker explores this further saying ‘white people don’t have to face up to their prejudices against black and Asian people because, look, here’s someone who’s got a bit of European blood in them…a man who doesn’t look quite so threatening’.
Without a doubt our fast growing mixed race population is an indication of our society changing: parents with mixed race children don’t face the type of abuse my mother did; mixed race children get to see more role models that they can identify with and aspire to be like. But the ignorant questions and comments that we as mixed race people still face, tell me we have a way to go before we’ve ‘won the race against prejudice’. People’s eagerness to ask you where you’re from – no – where you’re really from, to touch your hair or call you ‘exotic’ is not always born out of a bad place but they suddenly reveal that they see race first, and as much as they may like you, you are different. And that’s what being mixed race in 2014 is like – Just when you feel secure and comfortable with yourself and identity, you are abruptly reminded: Nobody quite accepts you as their own.
In a nutshell, I’m a lover of popular culture, a feminist, a cultural studies graduate, actor, writer and teacher of Media Studies. I blog on issues of identity, race, culture and lifestyle – drawing on my experiences as a young mixed-race woman growing up in North London. You can find me listening to some 90’s rnb, or in the nearest café offering vegan cupcakes, drinking tea.
TOP PHOTO: SOPHIA