Mixed Up: 'Being white-passing has definitely entitled me to privileges'
Mixed Up is a weekly series that aims to elevate the under-heard narratives of the mixed-race population in the UK.
Mixed-race is the fastest growing ethnic group in the country, but so little is heard of our unique, lived experiences.
Ethnic ambiguity is becoming increasingly popular on social media and in advertising campaigns, but this only offers a skin-deep insight into what it means to be mixed-race.
This series shines a light on the highs, lows, joys and unique contradictions of being mixed-race – from the people who have lived it.
Siobhan Lawless is a writer. She is Jamaican and Irish, with east and south Asian elements thrown in for good measure.
‘I think it’s just as important celebrating these similarities, as well as the differences which makes each side unique.
‘To me, being mixed-race means having a crossover of cultures informing your identity, which might seem completely different, but can co-exist in harmony. I think the hardest part is trying to figure out how this plays out for you.’
The closeness of family life is something that has really helped to define Siobhan’s identity. As a child she benefited from the sharing of cultures – soaking up the influences that pervaded her family home.
‘I was raised in a household where food, music and film from around the world always filtered through,’ explains Siobhan.
‘From an early age, being encouraged to celebrate difference has made me an open-minded and compassionate person, someone who is accepting of other people’s cultures.
‘As a writer, being mixed-race has definitely informed my interest in racial inequality and social injustices, I hope to use my writing to spotlight these issues and write as a vehicle for change.’
For so many mixed-race people, where you fit in the world depends on how other people perceive you. For Siobhan, her lighter skin places her closer to whiteness, but there are complications alongside the privilege.
‘I find it really frustrating when others try pinning a definition on you, which you can’t relate to,’ she explains. ‘Sometimes it’s hard remembering that we don’t need other people to validate our own experiences or beliefs.
‘Being white-passing with an Irish name has definitely entitled me to privileges, although this also comes with its limitations.
‘Being fair with wavy afro hair, people still perceive me as “other”, even if they can’t guess my mix.
‘Growing up, at times I felt like I existed in a grey area, an in-between space where I didn’t belong anywhere, which could be pretty isolating.’
So much of who we become as adults can be informed by the environment in which we grew up. Being surrounded by people who looked like her helped Siobhan feel like she had a place in the world, but that all changed when she moved schools.
‘I went to very ethnically diverse primary and secondary school, which went out of its way to celebrate every different religious holiday and dedicated lots of time to learning about one another’s cultures – diversity was completely normalised,’ she tells us.
‘For sixth form I moved to a school which in many respects was the antithesis of this and I began feeling like I didn’t fit in.
‘My teens were definitely the toughest times I spent trying to trying to navigate around my mixed identity, as I become increasingly aware of the world around me.
‘I think a massive lack of representation in the media played a huge part in my personal struggles.
‘I used to idolise the women on the pages of Vogue, but back then the magazine was nothing like Edward Enninful’s brilliant, new publication. I never saw any models that looked like me or had hair like me. It made me feel seriously inadequate.
‘At one stage I even went as far as bleaching my hair blonde, which on top of the constant straightening completely damaged my hair.
‘I thought I just wanted to look like the blonde models in the magazines – but now I realise I felt like that because not enough other alternatives were being celebrated.
‘I had been tricked into believing there was only one, Westernised definition of beauty.’
Siobhan’s outward ethnic ambiguity allows her a certain amount of fluidity. A simple change of her hairstyle will instantly change assumptions about her. But she doesn’t resent people for asking her where she’s from.
‘Ever since embracing my natural curls I think the majority of people guess I’m a mix of black Caribbean and white – although sometimes they might assume my mum is mixed-race because I’m so fair,’ explains Siobhan.
‘When my hair was dyed black and straightened, I had more people guessing I was part Asian or Spanish. I still get people who can’t tell. Now, I find the guessing games pretty entertaining – Australian was a first the other day.’
While Siobhan champions representation and wants to see different faces reflected in the media, she worries that the motivations behind the recent explosion of ethnically ambiguous models being used in mainstream campaigns are somewhat suspect.
‘The romanticism of being mixed is becoming problematic. It is strange to read articles about why it’s attractive or “cool” to be mixed-race,’ says Siobhan.
‘Growing up, there was barely a handful of mixed-race models working for mainstream fashion brands. Suddenly there are so many, with some brands almost exclusively using mixed-race faces – it starts to feel like commodification or a “trend”. It is uncomfortable.
‘I would have loved this kind of representation growing up, but vacillating between such extremes makes you feel like you’re being exploited as a marketing tool.
‘It’s also still skirting around the greater issue of racial diversity.’
Siobhan is thankful that was never subjected to the overt, horrific racism that her mum’s side of the family faced when they first came to England. What Siobhan has experienced is something subtler, something more insidious.
‘I guess I’ve witnessed more microaggressions,’ says Siobhan.
‘People have asked me in an accusatory way, “why are you so light?” Each time I’m asked it stuns me. It used to make me feel apologetic over something completely out of my hands. I’ve learnt with age I don’t owe anyone an answer to questions like that.
‘I have lost count of the number of people who reach out to touch my hair before asking my name.
‘It was such a powerful moment when Solange said outright what I think so many women with Afro hair were too scared to say in case they caused offense, but ultimately it’s about self-preservation.
‘People have called me “half-caste” without realising how horrible this word is and that it is associated with slave owners’ offspring. I’ve also been called “lightie” on numerous occasions – I think this problematic term only fuels colourism.’
Being mixed-race is only part of who Siobhan is. It informs how she sees the world, but so does the influence of her family and the culture in this country where she and her parents were both brought up.
Siobhan has found her own ways to form connections with the different elements of her heritage. And her grandparents are key to that.
‘While I identify as mixed-race, culturally I identify as British,’ explains Siobhan.
‘Both my grandparents have been here for so long and raised their families here, they all see Britain as home.
‘As I turned twenty, I started reconnecting with my Jamaican heritage and actively learning more about a side of me which didn’t feel as readily accessible, given that my grandparents have been in England for about 60 years.
‘I have always found food one of the most enjoyable ways of experiencing a culture, so I’ve been having cookery lessons with grandma – learning how to make dishes like her mutton curry and oxtail stew.
‘Moving from the suburbs to South London has also made me feel more connected to my heritage – there are so many amazing Caribbean food places around and I no longer have to bust a gut trying to pick up plantain from a shop.
‘Spending more quality time with grandparents and hearing about their past is great.
‘My nana told me of the time when she getting on her bike in the middle of the night as a teenager, beginning her arduous journey from Ireland to England without telling a soul – I have so much respect for her bravery. She simply said that living on a farm really wasn’t for her.
Siobhan believes that sharing experiences is key to unlocking understanding and limiting other people’s ignorance. She understands that society has a tendency to try to pen people into certain boxes, but she wants people to be more open-minded.
‘I believe the mixed-race experience is very fluid and something you can’t quantify as someone being strictly half this and half that.
‘The way everyone identifies with their mixes is going to be different. When I was a teenager, trying to come to terms with my heritage, I would end up focusing on each side in such an isolated way – this separation ultimately made me feeling incomplete.
‘It’s important for people to hear our stories so they realise we’re not one homogeneous mass – we are full of nuances. I think a lot of confusion stems from people not appreciating this. That’s why it’s such an honour to be featured in a series like this.
‘While social media poses its own problems, its advent has given visibility to so many underrepresented mixed-race and minority ethnics which is definitely a massive positive.
‘Although we are becoming a more racially diverse society, racism and ignorant presumptions still persist and the need to keep on telling our stories is stronger than ever.’
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