I’ve been dwelling on a memory of late. It’s etched on my mind like a pattern on frosted glass – defined amid opacity – so while I can’t say with certainty that it happened as I recall it, I believe the incident took place at my old primary school in Jamaica and that I was talking to my mum about apartheid.
Perhaps the memory stands out because I’d just found out what apartheid was (it was the late 1980s and the regime was nearing its end – the adults in my world probably discussed it a lot) and being the child of a white British mother and a black Jamaican father it no doubt captured my imagination.
I explained to Mum (in that way some children have of telling, rather than asking, adults of the things they discover) that if we lived in South Africa I would have to live with her while Oscar, who has darker skin than I, would have to live with Dad. Being only seven or so it was, of course, a naive and misinformed understanding delivered without judgement. But I’ve been dwelling on it lately because it makes me wonder when, exactly, I became aware that skin colour meant different things for Mum, Dad, Oscar and me and what effect this knowledge had on my identity. Hard to say.
In fact, of all the things I’ve tried to write about since I started this blog I’ve found this subject the hardest by far. Attempting (for the umpteenth time) to tackle it feels like wrestling a large, dense fish, panicked and suffocating out of water. It’s also hard because, much like everything about this project, it cuts to the core of who I am, who Oscar is, who my parents are, and were. I often feel like my (like our) guts are laid out on a table and I’m asking the world to look at them and form an opinion. I know I brought this on myself and I really can’t complain. It’s just that sometimes I fear the fish is winning.
But I digress. Because our little family is not only mixed race but – like the families of countless others – straddles two countries that each member has at some point called home, there are complexities which surround my identity that I can barely name to myself, let alone you or anyone else. And then there is of course the entire concept of race and how fraught with complexity that is. So I’m going to stop trying to make sense of the flailing metaphor for a moment and tell you a story instead.
On our last day in Kingston we took a day trip out to Port Antonio, home of the ‘World Famous Blue Lagoon’. It was our first proper day off since we’d arrived in Jamaica over two weeks previously. We decided to catch a route taxi (public bus) and headed down to the Transport Centre in Half Way Tree, the central hub of Jamaica’s capital, an area thick with traffic, crowds and urban heat.
We boarded a bus and waited for the off. Public buses in Jamaica, like in many places, don’t tend to leave until they’re dangerously full of people and the maximum profit has been made (at one point during the journey Oscar remarked with gravity that it was a shame life should be so cheap). Every 10, 20 minutes or so another body would squeeze into another impossibly small space. The moments in between filled with a collective impatience and the intermittent litany of the street vendors. After an hour (some had been waiting more than two) we pulled away, a hot, wheeled tin crammed way too full with elbows, knees, heartbeats, and sweat.
The driver was a lunatic. He took corners at law and neck-breaking speed, overtook wildly on blind spots. At one point the outer wheels came right off the ground and the smell of burning rubber flooded the bus and mingled in an atmosphere already charged with the outraged protestations of too many passengers: Driva! Yuh cyaan ketch back time! Wen it gaan it gaan!
As we approached Port Antonio the coast sidled up to the road and the conductor began to collect his fares, nodding and signalling each turn to pay. When ours came he called out to the, “Nice white people at the back.” Nice, presumably, because we’d been typically British by remaining silent while the rest of the passengers had (quite rightly) been kicking off since Kingston. But of course I’m not telling you all this because he called us nice.
I’ve never been called white before. Black yes, but never white. With the exception of a woman from London we were the only tourists on that bus, the only people privileged enough to experience the luxury of ‘adventure’. Everyone else was just going to work or home or living out their usual lives in some way and, irrespective of my and Oscar’s actual skin colour, privilege of that kind, in that context, is synonymous with white. So, I get it. Or at least this is the conclusion I have come to. In truth I have no way of knowing if he thought any of those things. Oscar and I are, after all, mixed race and Ren and Steph are white. But my point is this: being called white bothered me in a way that being called black never has.
Now don’t get me wrong, I find that equally strange. I am black and white, a product of my parents’ love, and I don’t wish for either of them to be wiped out with a word. But, having lived most of my life in a predominantly white country, I expect my whiteness to be sidelined and my blackness to be a defining curiosity.
In Britain and the USA, Canada, Europe and Australia white is still the ‘norm’, the image reflected in the societal mirror held up by TV, newspapers, films and magazines. Anything outside that norm, then, must be called out and given a name because it is not white and therefore not ‘normal’. Think about (son of white mother) Barack Obama or (son of white father) Bob Marley. Would you ever describe them as white? No, me neither. And yet they are as much that as anything else.
Let me clarify: I like the colour of my skin, especially when it’s tanned. I like the size and curl of my hair. But that wasn’t always the case. I used to want long, straight hair that blew in the wind. I used to wear foundation that was several shades too light for me because, as well as having terrible acne, I couldn’t (or didn’t know where to) find shades that matched my face, shades that fell outside the ‘norm’.
So much of becoming an adult is about self-acceptance and so on that bus when the mixed race identity I now love without complication was flipped on its head and, for a moment, I saw myself through one black person’s eyes, I found it unsettling. And perhaps, having grown up in a household where white British culture was predominant, where our mum was much closer to her family than our dad was to his, it hit a nerve. But when I think of it now all it brings to mind is the archaic absurdity of separating people along racial lines and the shameful impact those lines still have on human lives.
Being a light-skinned woman with a loose curl to her hair I am not in the same bracket as people who don’t get hired, can’t hail taxis or are shot at by the police because of melanin. My experiences of racism have never suffocated or held me back in the same way. Nonetheless, constructions of race have affected my identity because when you are mixed, as well as being both black and white you are also essentially neither. And while such lines are still drawn, that can – as I understood on a basic level as young as seven – skew your view of the world and where you fit within it.