This is an article I’ve wanted to write for a while now, and I have put off writing it because of the honesty and personal disclosure it requires. My friend and I often discuss being mixed race and the reality that we are rarely ever recognised as this. You might think that you view mixed race people as mixed race, but it’s quite likely you don’t; since coming to Cambridge, I have been called black by not only my friends, but also by renowned BME societies, such as the African and Caribbean Society (ACS). I‘ve witnessed this problem with other ethnicities too – mixed white and Asian students are often considered as categorically white or Asian, not mixed race. Being mixed race obviously refers to a wide range of mixed ethnicities, but this article shall focus on my own mixed race: white British and Black Caribbean. It is important for me to say at the start of this article, to ensure I don’t offend anyone, that my problem with mixed race people being called black or white is that we are simply not those races. My issue does not lie with those skin colours themselves.
The photo attached to this article is a picture of me and my younger sister. I couldn’t tell you the amount of times I have been asked questions such as, “You look nothing alike, how is she your sister?”, or “Why is your sister white?”. If I could, I’d answer by taking us all back to GCSE biology, or perhaps to a basic class in common sense. Two of my cousins, who are sisters and both white, have completely different shades of hair colour. The elder has dark brown hair, the younger has bright blonde hair. Pretty easy to get your head round, right? Because that’s how genes work, sometimes you get a bit more of your dad’s blonde gene, and sometimes you get a bit more of your mum’s brunette gene. Now, why is this so hard for people to get their head round when it comes to skin colour? I have more of my dad’s black skin colour gene, my sister more of my mum’s white skin colour gene. If someone has a black parent and a white parent, it doesn’t mean they’re going to be conceived as a perfectly proportioned half white, half black offspring. That’s simply not how human reproduction works. We all know this – so why can’t people understand that me and my sister can be different shades?
In Easter term last year, I was very proud to be a part of ACS’s photograph of black women in Cambridge. The photo celebrates the increasing numbers of black women, 70 years on from the first black woman, Gloria Claire Carpenter, graduating from Cambridge. I do not criticise this photograph at all, and I was very grateful and humbled to be a part of something so special and so triumphal. My issue lies with the fact the title and description of the photo, along with all the publicity, only ever used the words “black women”, and did not acknowledge the discrimination of mixed race women as well. I was able to be involved in the photo because ultimately the colour of my skin, and my heritage, determine that I too would have been discriminated in the same way as a black woman. In a quote supporting the photo, I felt obliged to label myself as a “black woman”. And yet I am not black. I am mixed race. I have had people say to me in the past, “you’re basically black”, or even worse, “you’re black to me”. This is something which particularly, and understandably, bothers my mum, because it ultimately writes her out of my genes. Is it that people are simply too lazy to say the longer two syllabled, “mixed race”, instead of “black” or “white”? I don’t think so.
It is a shame for me to admit that, in primary school, I wanted to be white. My school was far from being racially diverse, and so all I wanted was to be able to plait my hair or wear pigtails and look like all the other girls in my class. This was something that I inevitably grew out of with maturity, as I learned to accept myself for who I was and what I looked like. Secondary school, however, brought new questions into my life about how I saw myself and what race I identified with. There were more black, or mixed race, people at my secondary school than at my primary school. But a lot of them used to hang out in groups together, due to the fact they had backgrounds which were culturally similar. From the way I’ve been brought up, I identify more with a white British culture than a black Caribbean one, and yet I am ultimately labelled as black. The hardship with being mixed race is that it can be difficult to know where you stand on the line between the different races within you. Are you both, or are you neither? Which way should you lean towards? Which group should you identify with?
But that is where I think the problem lies. I should not have to pick. I should not have to identify with being either black or white. I should be able to identify with being mixed race. It seems that people have a tendency to say “black” or “white” because they want to consider you as a whole race. People choose to see a mixed race person as one race. White races and black races have long histories, with distinct cultures, which a person can be more easily categorised into than the grey area of being mixed race. It seems somehow too difficult, even in this age, to understand that people can be a mix of more than one race. John Agard’s poem Half-Caste encapsulates this sentiment perfectly. Agard explores the term “half-caste’, arguing that a mixed race person is not half of anything, but is a whole person like anybody else. Although the term half-caste is out of use now, due to its offensiveness, I would argue that the connotations behind this term are still as present as ever. People still default to calling me black, and my sister white. It is time to start identifying mixed race people for who we are. I am not black. I am not white. I am mixed race.