Mixed-Race Identity Has Plurality: On Being Irish, Jamaican, and Black
It wasn’t until I was twenty years old that I found out I come from a very recent Mixed-Race background — when my father told me my great-great-grandfather was a White man from Ireland.
Dad went on to tell me about how my Great-Grandma Jessica was Mixed-Race, and that’s essentially where my grandmother’s fairer skin tone comes from. He then, in-turn, is Mixed-Race, passing on this Multiracial lineage on to my brother and I, his children — who have grown up believing ourselves to be monoracially Black. That’s my paternal grandmother’s family tree going back over 100 years. This has lead me into lots of thoughts, and that my recent family history wasn’t just built on the backs of enslaved Africans. I will never know what African ethnic group my enslaved ancestors came from but knowing I have Irish ancestry means the Potato Famine, the Easter Risings and the Troubles are as much part of my genealogy/family history as the Zong Case and the Windrush Scandal.
My Mixed-Racedness is an invisible story, since my father would not be stereotyped as Mixed-Race. He does not have lighter skin or loose hair. In the national imagination, I am too dark to be Mixed-Race. Yet, when I lay down to sleep, I imagine others like me who do not fit the stereotype — those too dark or too light — from Professor David Olusoga, Ryan Giggs and Stephen Graham to Naomi Campbell and Bob Marley. When I lay down, thinking of my school years, I am now one of the White boys. Not a Black boy with red, gold and green encrusted into his union jack chest — this was still a boy who loved his Caribbean culture but also moved through Whiteness with ease.
Simultaneously finding challenge relating to his Black relatives and family friends. I chewed through White consciousness and frames of references, whilst choking on unapologetically monoracially Black references. They would get stuck in my throat, like a foreign language in my voice box. Sitting there in my grandmother’s house in Lichfield, I remember a culture war going on — between rural Northants, Staffs and the West Midlands.In comparison, growing up in Northamptonshire, I saw racial diversity as a newfound phenomenon. I still do. Now, I am increasingly self-conscious.
Thinking myself as monoracially Black for 20 years, I’m now thinking, “do I have what people may call a white man’s nose?” Looking at pictures of myself as a child, my nose was thin and my features changed as I aged. As a baby, anyone passing would think I was a Mixed-Race child, very much taking the skin complexions of both Grandma Val and Great-Grandma, Jessica — both born into the politics of lighter skin in Caribbean communities. As I grew up, my skin complexion changed, getting darker. At those family parties, I was a Black boy that “talks White”, carrying baggage of class privilege into places that had also been victims of it. For many, my life story is an anomaly.
Mixed-Race in having the experience of both private and state education and the clash of two very different worlds — from class, cricket and colonialism at school, to state college students that didn’t see taking the bus as a punishment. But also very literally Mixed-Race in my White and Black ancestry. To my private school colleagues, I was Other. “You should go back to the trees that you came from” I remember hearing once. To those I met at college when I was sixteen, I can now say I was more The Crown, Sanditon and Doctor Who; someone that seemingly came across as educated and upper class with fancy tastes. They thought I believed I was better than them. Not the case at all, simply I am not a people person. I am also Narnia and Churchill, moving through the Whiteness of my coloniser — speaking with the tongues of Baden-Powell, Lord Kitchener and Cecil Rhodes. That is to say, I don’t speak like my ancestor Mister Street from Ireland, but those that colonised his people and enslaved my ancestors. School hijacked my voice box and turned it into flowers, crossing the ts in the star-cross cloth of the union jack that comes out at press nights at my local theatre and networking soirées. My BBC English is a four-leaf clover causing chaos for those that find out I don’t know how to talk slang. That I studied English in the poems of Wordsworth, Shakespeare and Blake, in the tint of ‘Ozymandias’ and ‘Tintern Abbey’, not in barbershops or at drill concerts.
The English I know comes from Charles Dickens novels, Jane Austen and Mister Darcy; no hint of the dialects of my maternal Grenadian grandparents’ speak. No evidence or any influence of my Brummie-sounding father — a man that spent years of his life in Lichfield, Handsworth and Birmingham.
Mister Street speaks to me now, as does Grandma Jessica. I am Mixed-Race because my ancestry is Multiracial. But I am also Black. British English is stuffed full of text speak, Patois and the blood and toil of enslavement.
Finding out my Mixed-Race ancestry at twenty years old showed me that I am as Black lives matter as I am Big Ben and Delapre Abbey. I am not White but I am not monoracially Black either. Now, I’m starting to think Black is more of a politcal term than a race. If race is constructed, should any of this matter? I do wonder. I am British. I am Northamptonian. I am a writer. I am an educator. I am a student. I am Me. Mister Street leaves me with many questions about a place that has been perpetuated as a very White.
Is there any Black Irish history? What about Mixed-Race Irish history? Emma Dabiri has set that ball rolling for me, on a journey that I don’t think will ever be finished.
When I see White supremacists, I now come to realise there is no “your people.” We are part of our ancestors, and our ancestors are part of us. And it just so happens that my ancestors were White as well. I’m by no means saying that Mister Street was a racist but his visible Whiteness was not independent from him. This brings me to think about who the establishment decides to see as Black in Black History Month campaigns. In taking on figures like Walter Tull and Mary Seacole without acknowledging they were also Mixed-Race is doing a disservice. The co-opting of figures like them brings me to consider that society needs to discuss what Black is. What is Black?
For me, Black is a fluid identity and it is constantly moving. As someone that likes to talk in precise terms where possible, I am now preferring to identify as Mixed-Race after years of not. And that is a recent choice, since coming into the knowledge of my recent genealogy, scouting in pedigree and family history. However, many like me will prefer ‘Black’, and that is also okay as well. A monoracial history may not seem an issue to some, but it is doing a disservice to a race that also have a history in its own right (beyond slavery).
Including Multiracial people into a Black history such as Walter Tull, says so much about society and their focus on his seemingly monoracial Blackness. In reading about Tull and discussing him with others, it can often be said his Mixed-Race identity does not come through in those talks.
Born from a Black Bajan father and White English mother, he was a product of a union of not only love but also marriage. Talking about Black History in monoracial terms is problematic, since so many Black histories are not monoracial. The African continent is the most ethnically diverse place on earth and to talk about African history as simply Black history in monoracial definitions of Blackness is wrong — from the métise in eighteenth-century Sénégal to the Mixed-Race children that came out of apartheid South Africa — to WW2 and African-American GIs having children, in particular, in Wales, with local White Welsh women… a story that has a legacy there today.
In “adopting” Multiracial individuals into the Black historical narratives without thinking about other parts of their racial, cultural and / or ethnic identities, we are missing opportunities to have vital discussions about not only Multiracial identity but also class and Whiteness. It pushes me back into thinking about Mister Street, Great-Grandma Jessica and then my Grandma Val, passing on this Multiracial identity to me. We are missing vital conversations with White people that may have Black ancestors but also the number of Black people with White ancestors, pertinently Black Europeans, or as Johny Pitts says in his book “Afropean.” The number of Afropeans with White ancestry. When we begin to unpick this a bit more, we can see that many of us have really interesting genealogies and that nobody can “look Mixed-Race” (stereotypically lighter skin and looser hair). Additionally, light-skinned Black people can be stereotyped as Multiracial tells me the common denominator is that Mixed-Race people must have lighter skin.” Yet, plenty who have monoracially Black parents also have lighter skin tones.
So, there is lots to unpick here, and discuss, in terms of both racial and cultural identity but also unconscious bias against Multiracial people from all ethnic groups.
For the first twenty years of my life, I grew up believing myself to be monoracially Black. I was happy walking through society as a Black British person — comfortable in that. Finding out about my ancestors made my ideas of Black Britishness more complex. Not that I didn’t know I probably had White ancestors but because it was within living memories of my family, in addition to members of my family being Multiracial and I had no clue! Moreover, on my mom’s side of the family, simply looking at my grandmother, it is evident there is probably Indo-Caribbean heritage as well. Has this changed how I think of myself in relation to my race and my cultural identity?
What society has to realise, especially those we consider Black communities, is that the term Black has changed over time and it is not a monolith. Blackness is fluid and it brings me to ask questions about the Multiracial identity of the Caribbean, an identity that goes back to enslavement. That in the Caribbean, there is an African presence; moreover, there is a European presence in the descendants of slaveowners, but also White Creoles that have lived on those islands for generations. It brings me to question the American presence as well. By American I don’t mean white Americans, I mean Indigenous American, including the descendants of Tainos and Arawaks (for example).
What about Jewish, Chinese, Indian and Lebanese people? Jewish and Lebanese communities came to Jamaica (for example) as part of the merchant trading class, and Indian and Chinese people came as indentured labourers after the end of enslavement in 1838 in order to fill the new labour market made in hindsight of abolition. And so, these immigrant settlers had interracial relationships with the locals and created Multiracial communities.
Of late, I have been witnessing numerous conversations about who is / isn’t Black. Like most identities, Black isn’t one a person gets to choose. I have met Multiracial people that look like me who would identify as Black, and others that call themselves Mixed-Race. Many of my Mixed-Race friends and colleagues identify as Multiracial, especially those that grew up in split families. Some have been made to feel othered by both society and White and Black relatives. But some are also quite proudly Mixed-Race. In these spaces, more could be done to talk about fluidity of Blackness, especially historically. Blackness is a constant and as society becomes more diverse, definitions of Blackness will shift again. However, one of the issues I have, is not that Multiracial Black-racialised figures are included in Black History Month campaigns, but by including these individuals, there is no gesture or want to discuss Blackness as fluid, which would also mean that Black History has multiple identities. These figures’ Mixed identities are rarely discussed. In Britain, there has been lots of focus on both Walter Tull and Mary Seacole, who I’d argue have become establishment, representative of ‘good Black history.’ They had jobs that are considered respectable — one in the military and the other in the healthcare system— and both of them had Anglicised names that are easy to say.
Black History Month in Britain only really celebrates people that are not too angry or political — which makes talking about the history of this country within these isles and its former-colonies so difficult, as much of it is angry and very political. And even in discussing Walter Tull, there is a lot of focus on the “good history” (his achievements in football/breaking the British Army’s colour bar), but not much thought or discussion goes into actively interrogating the institutional racism at the time in the British Army, nor narratives of class or the history of the care system — a history he was part of.
“Mixed-Racedness” by its nature is political, especially historically where interracial relationships were met with challenge — from Jim Crow America (Virginia vs Loving, 1966) to the Nazi regime and its anti-miscegenation laws.
Though Britain didn’t practice laws that forbade interracial relationships within Britain, there was not a consensus in society during the early to mid-20th century that racial mixing was a good thing. Much alike Great-Grandma Jessica and my Grandma Val, Mary Jane Grant Seacole was also a Mixed-Race Jamaican woman. My family history is also a story that shows that Mixed-Race isn’t just half this half that; it tells a story of pluralities. There is diversity in my melanin and that while my father and grandmother both identify as Black, the diversity inside this Blackness is worthy of discussion.
Whilst it is vital to show how Black people have contributed to the world, we also have to discuss the complexities of some Black identities and how fluid Black can be (i.e US’ one drop rule). Seeing how Barack Obama is lauded as the first Black POTUS despite being raised by his White mother makes me ask more questions about pluralities. This is not by any means me questioning his Kenyan heritage but seldom do we talk about Whiteness in relation to that story. Would Barack Obama have been president if he was raised in a Black family in the United States, with all the challenges that can bring? Even when we see how polished Obama had to become to be POTUS? How long until a Black person from a working-class background sits in the White House?
Black History Month can also be used to discuss the Mixed-Race histories that stand alongside Black historical narratives. Mixed-Race has its own history, and my own family story is indicative of that, as it crosses both Multiracial and multi-ethnic lines. In knowing about Mister Street and my Mixed-Race Jamaican-Irish ancestry, I am led to believe that more can be done to discuss the intersectionalities across ethnic lines both now and in history.
Currently, Black History Month is used to discuss the positives those racialised as Black have given to the world. I argue not all Black history has to be positive and not all of it has to empower. What about the Afro-Germans murdered in the Nazi Holocaust? What about the institutionally racist practices used during World War One that prevented capable Black soldiers from leading White European soldiers into battle? What about the anti-racist struggles of the 1970s? I don’t see my history in the Race Relations Act or the Macpherson Report; it’s in those parties of the Windrush in my grandparents’ front room, and West Indian clubs. It’s in the choices my ancestors chose and didn’t choose, the colonisers and the colonised. It is in the Black lives matter movement but it is also in the lives of my Mixed-Race and Black grandmothers. Uncovering the social history of Black people requires speaking to those that lived it or know about it. Black history is intimate and I would not know about Mister Street without speaking to my father. I would never have known about my Multiracial multi-ethnic diverse history had I not talked to my relatives.
During a pandemic where we are physical distancing, this makes unity even more vital in the history Coronavirus has created. Understanding who I am as someone that is Mixed-Race and Black is not only in the policy changes or big events like the London Riots or Black Lives Matter protests. Mixed-Race is not about half and half; it’s not about White and other, nor is it about Black and White. There is pluraty in Mixed-Race identity and it is this narrative I am interested in seeing more of in conversations about race and identity.
Here, I have only talked about Ireland and the Caribbean but there are so many more stories to tell. Dad tells me there is also Chinese in the family and I’m sure that raises more questions. Do these pluralities interrupt Blackness? That’s an open question and the answers will vary from person to person.