Words by Jasmine Martin-Lord Artwork by Balraj Bains
Individuals who are observed as belonging, or not belonging to one cultural group; can disturb someone’s identification and thus cause an identity crisis. Organisations may classify a multiracial individual a certain way for diversity quotas, but that individual does not identify with that minority, and the category may make them feel pigeonholed or constrained to one race. The vast majority of people who are from a mixed heritage could be familiar with the term, “too Black for the whites and too white for the Black”. When you feel like you don’t belong to one race or another, and you’re obligated to view things through multiple perspectives.
As a girl from a mixed background — my father being from Caribbean descent and my mother is English — I’ve taken on more of my mother’s European features this being her straight hair and fair skin. When stereotypical the ‘traditional’ mixed race girl would have kinkier hair and a darker skin tone, I seem to fall short in this category as I have very straight hair and a very light skin tone. Further to this, it is important to acknowledge as a person from a mixed heritage who has taken on more of the European descent I unquestionably benefit from some privileges in this society. Take the beauty industry, for example, it’s much easier for me to find products for my European hair and my lighter skin tone, thus compared to someone who has a darker skin tone and afro hair.
The vast majority of people from a mixed heritage reading this, can relate to how easy it is for society to pigeonhole you or label you as one race or another. Mixed people are often branded this way, take Barack Obama, for example, everyone stated he was the ‘first Black president,’ when in fact he was ‘half and half.’ He was identified as only one race; this type of ‘labelling’ has been described as “Hypodescent,” and it fell in line with the judgment, that was seen during slavery, “When you’re of mixed heritage from an ethnic minority, the minority heritage often dictates which is more socially prominent, and thus what people identify you with”. It’s very ironic that the thing that you makes you different and stand out makes you more noticeable rather than the part of you that is the same as everyone else.
Being female from a mixed background has stirred up some identity issues, especially when it comes down too not knowing how and where to fit in. I’ve found when I’ve been in certain environments, I’ll have to be very aware of how I’m presenting myself depending on the crowd I’m with. I’ve never had the experience of people looking at me as mixed race and instantly identifying me as Black as I’m very fair skinned with very straight hair. Growing up I never honestly acknowledged that I didn’t look typically mixed race. While I was in primary both my families had an active role in my upbringing and both my black and white grandparents would collect me from school, and no one questioned me being from mixed heritage. It wasn’t until I hit secondary that I noticed that I maybe didn’t look like the “stereotypical mixed-race girl,” and when my mother would attend parents evening, they would see this woman with blond hair and white skin and that would be it.
Personally, I’ve experienced times where people made comments such as “Well you don’t look Black. You just look white.” It would bother me because I felt like maybe I wasn’t really Black enough and the way I looked wasn’t enough for me to be Black. I was prominently told ‘you are not Black’ ‘why are you lying’ and I feel over the years this has to lead me to have underlying identity issues of understanding where I fit in culturally, in a way I’ve felt like I’ve over-compensated for it in my adult years.
As I’ve grown older and entered university, I’ve exposed myself to more environments where the ethnic groups were very minimal, and even though I’ve previously stated I do not look typically ‘mixed race’ I started to look ethnic in these more non-diverse settings. The university I attended was more predominantly Caucasian, and I remember there were only four including myself ethnically diverse people on my course, and I remember receiving a few ‘ignorant’ comments about our culture from our peers. All of a sudden as a juxtaposition to my school life I found myself part of a tiny minority and I was more out-lined by my Blackness. Suddenly my Blackness felt hugely significant in achieving solidarity.
As I reached my final year of university I became more in tune with my Black culture, my dissertation was on ‘the extent the fashion industry has appropriated Black culture,’ and I really began to investigate and learn more about the history. I also went to Trinidad where my grandparents are from, and I explored and discovered more about my culture and heritage, so in a way, I became more in tune with more of my heritage.
Moreover, I feel many people from a mixed heritage can relate to the term of being pigeonholed and being labelled with one culture or another, even though this has come from a literal “Black and white” perspective, I’m sure people from biracial backgrounds can understand the outlook I’m speaking from. Negative ideas surrounding race can be consumed, and as a society, we’re not exempt from absorbing them. And they have affected me too, in how I carry myself and present myself on a day-to-day basis. Furthermore, It’s has taken me a few years to accept that I didn’t need to prove myself to anyone and now I know who I am and where I belong.