Tuesday, 8 December 2009

Am I Really Black?

by Joshua Surtees @joshuasurtees

“But I’m not black” says my sister. We are in the car with our mother driving home from the airport. “Yes you are” I say, mildly annoyed. Since childhood, our white mother has always told us we are black and should describe ourselves as such, even though we are half white. Right now, however, our mother appears to be supporting my sister’s argument, and beneath my growing angst I realise it may be wrong of me to impose my personal view of our ethnicity on to her. And yet I persist.

“No, I’m mixed race” she says. “Yes,” I say “but you’re also black”. “No, I’m as much white as I am black, but nobody calls me white so why should I call myself black?” “Do you really not know?” I say. “If you mean the one drop rule, then yes of course I know” she says “but why should a theory derived from the civil rights movement in the US decades ago apply to me now?” It’s an interesting point…

Let me back track to the conversation that sparked this discussion. In my kitchen at home one evening I’m talking to my lodger. She is of the same background as my sister and I (her father is black her mother is white). We are talking about her imminent return to Suffolk after a year in London. “I’m going to miss London,” she says. “There aren’t many brown people in Bury St Edmunds”. I’m amused by the comment. “You don’t describe yourself as brown do you?” I ask, slightly bemused as it’s been a while since I’ve heard the term. “Yes, I’m not black and I’m not white, I’m brown”. “Oh that’s interesting,” I say, “what does your dad [a black American] think about that?”, “He’s fine with it” says my lodger.

Over the next 20 minutes or so my lodger and I discuss the merits of the various labels that could be applied to us. I tell her that my own perception of the label ‘brown’ is the derogatory, condescending term ‘brown babies’ used in the British post-war years to describe children of white mother’s and black US soldiers. I also explain my concern that mixed race people often refer to themselves as brown out of some residual sense of lingering shame at the thought of calling themselves black. It must be remembered that in the eyes of most of the world, being black is something that only relatively recently emerged as something to be proud of. This is especially so in England where immigration of black people in large numbers only really began in the 50s and 60s. The generation of the earliest immigrants from the Caribbean still to this day refer to themselves as coloured. Because that is what they were told they were. Because being ‘black’ back then was undesirable. The term coloured today is racist, and yet older generations, including my white grandmother, still use it innocently, as if it is the correct term.

At school in the late 80s/early 90s, the awful term half-caste was commonly used. My siblings and I would come home from school describing ourselves thus, having been described as such in the playground or even by teachers. My mum would tell us never to describe ourselves as such, nor allow others to, explaining that the term comes from the Indian caste system and essentially means you are half a person. Of a lower class. Thank god that term is largely eradicated now along with terms such as mulatto or indeed yellow.

I suppose the term half caste came about from a genuine embarrassment in this country about the new phenomenon of mixed race babies. Until a turning point in the 60s and 70s, it was rare for a white woman and black man to have a baby, or vice versa. It is this embarrassment around issues of race that I have a problem with and may be why I am not a fan of the term brown. To me, it feels like an attempt to sanitise, ‘pretty up’ or get out of simply saying black. It is ‘black’, made more palatable for society. To me there should be no sense of shame or compromise with the word black. It should be something to be proud of. That is what was drummed into me by my mother, and indeed my father, and has stuck with me. “People will see you as black and you should be proud to be black, never deny that you are” was their message. “But Rachel [my sister] is lighter than some Italian people” we would argue. “She’s still black” would be our mother’s response.

For me, the black pride factor runs deep in this debate. Many black people require black success stories and role models to identify with, to motivate and to stimulate personal pride. If a half black person achieves success and calls themselves a black man or woman, this represents a greater fillip to black empowerment, than calling themselves brown or even mixed race. Barack Obama describes himself as African-American. What would it do to the psyches of other African-Americans in the States if he instead described himself as multiracial, bi-racial, mixed race or dual heritage? I feel it would be a disservice.

But am I wrong? Is it me who is living in the past? Is it not the choice of each individual to decide their ethnicity, even when those individuals come from the same background or even the same family, like my sister and I? Surely she has the right to call herself mixed race and my lodger to call herself brown? In the months since my lodger used the term brown, I’ve heard it quite frequently, most often from people of Indian or South Asian origin. So, is it just me that’s still living in a 1980s PC ‘Right On’ world where we march against ‘the bomb’ and acid rain and Thatcher and people calling themselves brown?

I tell my sister I find the term ‘mixed race’ unsatisfactory. “It’s meaningless. It doesn’t even describe which races one is a mix of. Ethiopian and Italian? Korean and Mexican? Iranian and Jewish?” In an, ideal world I would describe myself as half English half Jamaican. When I ask my half Norwegian half Guyanese friend he concurs. Yet these are our parents’ nationalities, not really our ethnicities. I think dual heritage is a prettier term. For me, ‘mixed race’ is just the latest in a line of flawed terminologies that the government and equalities agencies haven’t really thought through. I think it will be replaced fairly quickly with another generic, unflattering term.

My sister recounts the a time when a chatting with two childhood friends she said to one “please don’t call me half caste it’s incorrect” and the other joined in “yeah, and don’t call me Indian”, to which my sister had to politely point out “but, you are Indian!”. The unfortunate interjection somewhat devalued the original point but it neatly highlights my previous point; that some people actually are embarrassed or confused about who they are.

Then, she makes the final point that another mixed race friend, a well educated young woman, until only recently referred to herself as half caste. I am shocked.

It seems political correctness is not the solution to everything where individuals are concerned. This is the essence of the debate. Is it the right of individuals to call themselves whatever they want? Whether that be black, white, brown, mixed race, coloured or even half caste? Is it unacceptable for others to label people with official, political or ideological terms?

I think it’s fair to say I have mixed feelings on this one.

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  1. I’m Rachel, the sister. In case there’s any confusion I’m not black, I’m not white, I’m mixed race… and very proudly so. What I find sad is that I’m not represented at any level of society or culture. Sure there are lots of beautiful mixed race people popping up on tv and in magazines but 9 out of 10 of those will be flicking their long silky straight “white” hair at you... do you know how long it takes to straighten my hair? About four hours and if I don’t go outside it’ll last for 45 minutes at most.

    I think it’s important not to underestimate the significance of physicality in this issue. When I was a teenager I wouldn’t leave the house without a jumper tied around my waist in an attempt to hide my high-sitting typically African derriere. I used to scrape back the mop of frizz on top of my head not understanding what I was meant to do with these curls that were neither an Afro nor Caucasian.

    Whenever I go to the hairdresser I leave in tears. White hairdressers have no idea what I mean when I say that my hair shrinks so I go in for a trim and come our with a mess around my ears. Black hairdressers don’t understand what I mean when I say that I wear my hair naturally so they hack it off and then ask if I want it braided or relaxed… well neither actually, I thought I'd made that clear.

    I've since learnt how to look after my (natural) corkscrew curls. But, I’ve never quite been sure why (some) friends and strangers alike think that it’s acceptable to tug on my hair to watch my curls spring back into place. I’m not an object of interest or play, I’m a proud mixed race woman with mixed race hair. I wouldn’t pull your hair so get your grubby mits off mine.

    Amongst the bewildering array of money spinning shampoos, conditioners, moisturisers etc etc etc, there is one brand IN THE WHOLE OF THE WORLD that caters for mixed race women – it’s called Mixed Chicks for anyone out there making do with Pantene.

    I used to know someone who on more than one occasion told me: “you look so black when you dance but the irony is you’re the most white middle class person I know”. What on earth does that mean and how on earth can anyone think it’s an acceptable thing to say???

    Why did we get here? Why is there no genuine representation of mixed race people? Because we’re expected to make a choice between being black or white, as though we don’t quite fit in anywhere. What a ridiculous choice.

    As for dual heritage, for me there’s an implication of cultural transfer. I love Africa but the only thing that I feel I inherited from my African father is my waist to hip ratio. I inherited an awful lot from my Yorkshire mother but the only thing specifically Yorkshire is an extended vocabulary to include words like “nowt” and “snicket”.

    It is true that the term mixed-race isn’t specific, but neither is black or white.

    Joshua, I can understand why you refer to yourself as black, and I respect it. But, I also remember how back in the day when “mixed race” wasn’t an option on forms you would patiently explain to me how you would tick “black” “white” “other”. I also remember how proud I was of you for thinking outside the box… literally.

  2. A good topic. Josh, you need to go to the part of Ireland i'm from if you want to give yourself something to really write about. Here's a true story:

    I was in a pub in 2003, and an old Irish farmer, must have been about 70, came in with turf that he was selling to another chap who'd obviously arranged to meet him there. They exchanges plesentaries, then the farmer said "i gotta shoot now, i have to deliver this turf to that dark chap up the way". The other one asked who he meant, and the farmer replied "you know, the darkie, the african guy. He just came here and he doesn't know anyone, and he'd probably used to the heat, so i thought i'd drop some turf off to him, or else he'll freeze. If he speaks english, I'll try to bring him down here"

    Now on one hand, he called the man a "darkie", and "the dark chap". On the other hand he's going out of his way to ensure the guy has enough turf, and wants to intergrate him into the vllage. Later, i saw the said African chap, and he did indeed speak english, and someone said to him "we've never had a coloured fella in here before." He then proceeded to ask if he could touch his afro!! (Actually, i know it's awful, but that last bit was one of those moments so surreal, i had to laugh at the time..)

    The reason they were so un-PC was that these were men in their 70's, and they had never had an African in their village before. They had had, as one said "a half caste chap, but not a proper coloured fella". They didn't relaise becasue, in short, they hadnt needed to realise. How many people don't understand about eletrcial systems or things like that, simply becasue they'll never be re-wiring the house. You only tend to spend time and effort learnign about things that you'll actually need one day, and these men had probably never envisaged an african guy moving into their neck of the woods.

    So inspite of the terms that were thrown around, it has a nice thing to witness, a nice village mentalility of wanting to include someone in their social circle. Reading your piece, i was just thinking, and imagining, one of the farmers reading it, and what their reaction would be. It's the contrast of us living in London, and being faced with it everyday, so we feel the need to understand the issue, as opposed to people who don't give it a second though, due to them not having to.

    When The March Hares used to do new songs, i used to tell people that we'd written new song, and, for example, Steve had written it. They'd say, "which one is Steve?" (friends who hadn't met you other guys too much this is). I think you know what's coming next..... What's your opnion on that?


  3. one day, after we've made contact with intelligent extra-terrestrial life, people will realise that it doesn't really matter whereabouts on this lump of rock our ancestors may have spent a brief nanosecond of geological time. people will refer to themselves as "human" and hopefully appreciate more the level of humanity within a person, rather than obsess over physical traits such as darker skin etc.

  4. Excellent Ponder. Made me think of Telephone Conversation by Wole Soyinka - Google it if you don't know it.

  5. Couldn't you refer to yourself as "wh-ack", or would whack be too black?
    Love the ponder...enjoy Berlin young buck

  6. In response to why labelling should not constitute our identity I feel in relation to race that it is not done to compliment or lift people up and rather (like for example social class) it is used as a way for one to communicate to another that they are "better" than another person or group of people for being or not being the race they refer to.

    I get this in a different way all the time with name calling from other black people (even some friends/relatives) that i'm a "coconut" and therefore soo out of touch with "my roots" or I get it from everyone else who is not black or does not have any black heritage that i'm a "n" or something else etc - you can probably guess what else they've said.

    I don't think labelling is constructive either as it does not allow us to enjoy the freedom of being who we are. And even if we chose a label to identify ourselves with, we will still be compromising our individuality relying on magazines/self help books and the like, essentially loosing our unique character to become a clone/product of society or even worse something that fits in line with someone else’s idea of who we should be.

    One guy who I think sums up what I mean is Ron Dellums, a US Congressman from 1971 to 1998. He brings it up in a bluntly by saying:
    ‘If you define 'niggers' as someone whose lifestyle is defined by others, whose opportunities are defined by others, whose role in society are defined by others, then Good News! You don't have to be black to be a 'nigger' in this society. Most of the people in America are 'niggers'.”

    What is interesting to me about this is that I think I could insert different words into each part of the quote in answer to the blog:
    ‘If you define ‘mixed raced’ as someone who’s culture/lifestyle is defined by others who’s differences/opportunities are defined by others, who’s role in society is defined by others, then Good news you don’t have to be of duel heritage to be ‘mixed raced’ in this society. Most of the people in the world are ‘mixed raced’

    So whilst I agree with the post that “It seems political correctness is not the solution to everything where individuals are concerned”

    In reply to your questions: (a) Is it the right of individuals to call themselves whatever they want? Whether that be black, white, brown, mixed race, coloured or even half caste? (b) Is it unacceptable for others to label people with official, political or ideological terms?

    My answer is yes and yes. BUT why do we need to label ourselves or ask if it is right for others to label us? I believe that if we individually decide to sign up to or even take notice of the process of labelling, then the individual may have won the battle in being labelled what they want, but overall but lost the war and so just another product of the PC society.