I have reached the point in my life where I’m broadly content within myself, with who I am and who I am in society. Yet, there are times when I feel that I don’t quite fit in, that I do not quite belong. In those moments, where do I go?
I’m mixed race. To put it simply, half white and half black. Yet I am never eligible for either group. “Too white” for my black friends, and “too black” for my white friends. It is probably fair at this point to give you some background, and to be clear that the only people I have an identity crisis with are those who expect me to conform to a certain stereotype of race.
I was bought up entirely by my white family, yet I’m not expected to fully commit to the traits of the white people who brought me up.
At school I recall being stuck staring at an ethnicity form, confused and wondering which pigeon hole I should bend myself into. White and black African? No, not really. White and black Caribbean? Maybe, but how far back do I need to go? White and other? Meh. Mixed other?
I’ve ended up drawing a new box I am almost happy to be in: white and black British next to a question mark, so whoever read it would understand the ridiculousness of the choice they were asking me to make (or so I hope)!
Where did my ‘category’ problem begin? I attended a predominantly white, middle class school in a leafy village set on the edge of a green belt. I was one of only four ethnic minority students in my year. I found a friendship group and soon became their ‘black friend’. The usual racial banter ensued as I grew up, and I learnt that there are certain things that childhood protects you from, and these things become more apparent as you hurtle toward adulthood. From facing apparent prejudice to random checks and profiling, growing up has led to a long list of questions and thoughts about what is ‘normal’.
One clear memory is of the Reading Festival 2011. Picture this: I had just passed my GCSEs, and to celebrate, my friends and I decided to head down to the festival grounds to set up camp. Sounds easy and stress-free, right? What I experienced was the complete opposite! My white friends glided in through security, untroubled and unruffled; but when it came to me, I was stopped for a ‘random’ bag check in a separate tent. I began to question the ‘randomness’ of the search after noticing that only one out of the 10 of us in the tent was white!
Maybe it’s the stark contrast with the middle-class Berkshire that I grew up in, but moving to East London has made me notice how people react to me as a mixed-race man. Either that, or 22 years of not quite fitting in has finally pushed my patience to the limit!
Thankfully in Newham I have met people of all races, ethnicities and backgrounds, more so then ever before. Yet it’s not all straightforward. You would think that being in such a metropolitan melting pot like London would help to make you feel like you fit in, but I’m not so sure it has. Cultures are less diluted here then they are in ‘quintessentially English’ Berkshire. Ethnic groups have stronger identities and cultures of their own, and often make less effort to blend into a mainstream environment that is associated with white privilege. Also, despite the diversity of London, the unfortunate habit of being wary of my race seems unshakeable. Women clutch their bags tighter and on the tube security guards follow me.
More than two decades of questions about my race are making me more stubborn. Currently, my least favourite question is: ‘where are you from?’
While I have no doubt that the people who ask are genuinely interested, the problem I have is the idea of race being synonymous with nationality. Though my usual response to the question is ‘Britain’, I find that my answer is always met with some disappointment, as if they were expecting me to say some far flung exotic African or Caribbean country.
The idea that a black man can’t be British is something I cannot fathom. It leaves me in an awkward position between who I am, and what people assume I should be. This is not helped by the question which often follows: ‘Why are you are so white?’
I am never sure whether to take this as a compliment or to be disappointed that I haven’t lived up to the questioner’s idea of what constitutes black? Are the two colours so well characterised and categorized that there is nothing in between? If so, where do I fit? Black, white or brown? Is it the way I speak? The way I carry myself? Why am I expected to be black? But not expected to be white?
In the end, what’s normal anyway? The world has become globalised: it is fluid, diverse and beautiful. As the human race we have achieved monumental feats, and still we can’t see past a colour and what we expect of it.