Growing up mixed race in Britain

Jessica Lone Summers

We talk to three mixed-race women about how their identities shaped them and how the world today perceives people of multi-ethnic backgrounds

The variety of mixed experiences in the UK are as diverse as the many combinations of heritages themselves. Yet hardships, privileges, beautiful moments and a complex identity are just some of the shared encounters that all mixed people are familiar with. We spoke to Susan Dale, founder of HaluHalo—a platform that elevates mixed race people and their realities—along with two women she connected with through her work, and their experiences.

 

Reader's Digest: What does HaluHalo do?

Susan: HaluHalo is an online platform that I created back in 2016 to explore the mixed race identity and also celebrate the diversity of our community. It started out as interviewing and photographing mixed race people about their experiences and has evolved into filming group discussions on issues that impact mixed folk (HaluHalo Mixtapes) to in person events with inspiring guest speakers (Curated Conversations).

Susan Dale, HaluHalo founder. Photo by Marcus Hessenberg

 

RD: What was your inspiration for starting HaluHalo?

Susan: I started HaluHalo out of frustration. At the time I was 31 and tired that, up until that point, I had managed to live my whole life without seeing proper representation of the mixed identity in the media and that there was still so little understanding of and much resistance regarding the validity of the mixed identity in and of itself. Around the same time, mixed race people were being propped up and used as a symbol of a post-racial world and brands were falling over themselves to feature mixed race models/families in their ad campaigns (yet always using the same type of look).

"Identifying as mixed race is refuting society's need for binaries, it's a refusal to break one's self down to be more easily digested, it's an acceptance that we are the sum of many parts and there is power in embracing all of those parts"

Searching online for a space about being mixed race led me to accounts that were fetishising mixed race babies and "hot mixed race chicks" which are both hugely problematic notions! I wanted to push past the superficiality and spotlight our experiences and internal struggles. Being mixed can be an incredibly complex and isolating experience and I wanted to show others that they were not alone in how they felt. I also wanted to provide positive reinforcement to counter the constant narrative that mixed folk have to "pick a side" or that we are "confused." Identifying as mixed race is refuting society's need for binaries, it's a refusal to break one's self down to be more easily digested, it's an acceptance that we are the sum of many parts and there is power in embracing all of those parts.

Susan Dale

I also wanted to explore the stories of those who are mixed beyond the visual stereotype we tend to associate with the term mixed race (ie. of black and white mix, lightskinned, light eyes) and highlight that there is no such thing as a single narrative when it comes to the mixed identity or a single way to look, to be mixed race.

 

RD: What line of work were/are you in and has your experience helped with HaluHalo?

Susan: My nine-to-five is working as an executive assistant at a private equity firm but also I'm a self-taught freelance photographer. When I started HaluHalo my photographic work was focused on street photography—I'd never done portraits before so I thought it would be a great way for me to experiment and hone my technique by shooting the people I interview. It's been really fun seeing how my portraiture has developed over the years.

Leslie, one of Susan's portraits

 

RD: What has been the most rewarding experience since you started?

Susan: There are so many it's impossible to just choose one! I receive beautiful messages daily from mixed folk all over the world saying how HaluHalo has helped them feel whole for the first time in their life or more confident in their identity, monoracial people realising they need to unlearn the assumptions they've been socially conditioned to have about mixed people and parents wanting to understand and engage to help prepare their mixed race kids with their identity journey.

Niomi, one of Susan's portraits

I actually had a fifty-something man attend one of my Curated Conversations events and he was so emotional that for the first time in his life he was in a room filled with other mixed folk (we're so used to be the only one) and being able to speak openly with people who just get it without explanation. It was powerful to see and hear how much that meant to him. It also made me sad that he had to wait so long to be able to experience that, but it's another reason that keeps me motivated to keep facilitating these necessary conversations and spaces.

Zander, one of Susan's portraits

 

RD: What are your favourite and least favourites parts of running HaluHalo?

Susan: My absolute favourite part is witnessing the identity journey of those I feature. Often I'm the first person they've spoken to about their experiences so it can be raw and cathartic but I have such deep admiration for their willingness to be vulnerable and to then share it with the internet. That first step of owning the narrative and speaking their truth often empowers them to openly discuss being mixed whether with loved ones or even via creative outlets. Sometimes people don't share their feature on their personal account for fear of upsetting their family and then a few months down the line they do and it opens up so much for them.

My least favourite is the fact that I'm the only person running it all! I have no-one to delegate to so if I don't do something then nothing happens. Running HaluHalo is all-encompassing—then add having a full-time job into the mix, it can be intense. Which is why I'm trying to implement more boundaries and take a break for a few days whenever necessary for my own well-being. I'm always grateful for the patience that the community has for me when I go quiet for a bit.

Koko, one of Susan's portriats

 

RD: What advice would you have for someone wanting to start a similar community?  

Always remember why you want to start such a community. I created a space I wish had existed for my ten-year-old self, who was trying to make sense of what I was going through and had no-one to turn to or look up to for guidance and support. There will be many frustrations and distractions but as long as that's your lodestar you'll be all good. Always look to see what others are doing in the same area and make sure you have a fresh angle/aren't peddling the same content—what will set you apart is what will keep your community engaged. And community being the keyword. Find creative ways to help them shape the space and facilitate connections, without them it's just not sustainable. 

Mariam, one of Susan's portraits

 

RD: What are you most proud of?

Susan: The incredible community that is the HaluHalo fam without a doubt—it's honestly so beautiful to feel belonging when it has evaded most of us for the whole of our lives. I often wonder how different many of our lives may have been if we'd had the opportunity and access to such safe spaces sooner. I've met so many incredible people through HaluHalo who utterly inspire me! I'm also proud of the fact that HaluHalo has helped to pave a path and push the conversation forward with regards to the mixed identity. When I started out there was so little out there, especially on social media (though it's important to acknowledge there have been spaces before—mainly offline—who have been campaigning for the mixed identity to be added on UK census forms back in 2001).

Now in 2020, there are more Instagram accounts and podcasts cropping up, it's great to see people feeling emboldened and open to embracing their mixed identity. I hope we can continue to build upon that. There's more power in being united than fragmented.

 

Esuantsiwa Jane Goldsmith

Author of The Space Between Black and White published by Jacaranda, £8.99

 

Reader's Digest: What did you realise about your racial identity growing up?

Esuantsiwa: I realised I was an "only-one". Growing up in 1950s Britain as the mixed-race daughter of a single white mother, I spent the first six weeks of life in an unmarried mothers’ home, and then in my grandparents’ home on an all-white working-class estate in Battersea. I had no connection with my African father, not even a photograph. I was the only brown kid on the block, and I stood out like an alien from outer space! 
 
I was part of a loving family and had many close friends. But being loved is very different from feeling you belong. There were no books or stories that reflected my experience or the way I looked, which had a profound effect on my sense of self and identity. When I got called names by the other kids in the street and in school, there was no-one I could talk to about it. It was a real shock to me when, as a child of four, I met another Black girl on Clapham Common for the first time, and realised who I was. Later, as a teenager and young adult, I moved around to different parts of the country and different parts of the world—rural Norfolk, Scandinavia, Italy, Africa, India. As a visible outsider in most groups, I discovered I often processed events and experiences in a very different way from the people around me. I developed a sense of disconnection which will be familiar to anyone who lives in the space between.

 

RD: What do you think are some common troubles that mixed race people are faced with?

Esuantsiwa: That feeling of only-ness is a very common experience for mixed race people. I went to six different schools around the UK in London, Surrey, Stafford and rural Norfok, and I was the only brown kid in every one of them until I reached the sixth form back in London. When I got racist comments from other kids in the street and in school, my teachers and my family told me to ignore it and not to get “a chip on my shoulder” if I complained. It badly affected my self-esteem, and it nurtured a deep sense of justice in me, and a yearning to belong. 

I have heard so many sad stories about how attitudes towards Mixed-Race people have affected our mental health. I was quite depressed in my early teenage years, and branded as a troublemaker, when I was really searching for my sense of self, with no role models to help nurture my identity. You can’t be what you can’t see. 

Back in the 1960s and 70s, the sitcoms on TV ridiculed Black and Brown people, and I saw horrific images of people who looked like me being gunned down in the townships of South Africa and among Civil Rights activists in the US. I needed some positive images to aspire to. Even today, the education curriculum remains very patriarchal and colonial, and only one per cent of all books published in the UK are written by writers of colour or have black characters, whether for adults or kids. 

Esua speaking at BLM Wandsworth July 2020

 

RD: How did you find your stride in a world that loves to categorise people?

Esuantsiwa: I have always found some way of fighting back, either by writing or through my activism. Despite the conflict I was experiencing internally, I was outwardly very energetic, a rebel and an extrovert. I got fed up with people asking me where I came from and calling me names, so when I was only eight-years-old I wrote a play called Why I Am Brown, and myself and my schoolmates performed it in front of the class. It was a good lesson, learned young. Telling your story makes people see you differently; and knowing your own story is a key part of your own identity. It took a lifetime to find mine.

Becoming a feminist at fifteen after reading Simone de Beauvoir’s The Second Sex was a key moment in shaping my journey.  My activist soul was born. I have spent a lifetime’s career in the anti-racist, feminist and international solidarity and development movements, fighting for equality and social justice. Right now the world is turned upside down because of COVID-19 and the death of George Floyd and others in police custody, exposing inequality and institutional racism and sexism across the globe, and the environmental devastation caused by globalisation. Launching my first book during a pandemic felt like disastrous mistiming at first. But the issues my story raises have never been more timely and relevant. We activists have flourished during lockdown, campaigning online for Black Lives Matter alongside those most affected, and raising awareness of the possibilities for change, to build the kind of society that is good for people and good for the planet. 

 

RD: What do non-mixed people need to stop doing/saying?

Esuantsiwa: Nowadays there’s a great deal of public discussion of mixed race identity, but it is often very superficial or hostile. The "space between" can be very hard for many people to grasp, and can be perceived as threatening. Non-mixed people often tell me they are "colour-blind", or dismiss being mixed race as mere "identity politics". 

Living with ambiguity can be hard. I have been mistaken for almost every race. I would like non-mixed people to stop claiming the right to define us, or dismiss our identity: “You’re not a real one,” “No, but where are you really from?” “Don’t be a victim,” “I have a mixed race daughter, nephew, cousin, friend, postman/woman, and I can tell you, you don’t have a problem, just a nice suntan.” Having a Mixed-Race friend or family member is not the same as actually being mixed race. As a mono-racial person you may not be aware that there are issues which a mixed race person close to you is genuinely struggling with. 

I hope people will recognise that being mixed is an identity in its own right, full of joys and challenges, it doesn't de-politicise race but sheds light on it. Mixed race people experience structural racism and possible rejection from all other non-mixed communities, our identities constantly shifting and mistaken in different contexts. It can be a very isolating and lonely experience. What we need from non-mixed people is to be listened to, and we need their support to help us find ourselves.

 

RD: What’s the best thing about being mixed race in your opinion?

Esuantsiwa: Mixed race is the fastest-growing ethnic minority in the UK—2.25 million people and growing, according to official figures. After mixed race categories were introduced for the first time in the 2001 census, we have been able to collect data over two decades. It felt so liberating for me personally, after years of campaigning and ticking the box marked "other", to finally have my identity recognised. We are now officially a community. Of course we are as diverse as any other group, but there is a distinct mixed race profile emerging, different from mono-racial groups. Mixed race folks tend to have more diverse friendship groups, suffer mental health issues around identity, isolation, lack of recognition, and develop more phobias than other racial groups; and there are more mixed race children in care than any other group, and we have higher police stop-and search figures than for whites. 
 
Being Mixed-Race can often be complex and confusing, but it takes you to places others may not have access to. There are undoubted privileges inherent in our experience—fluidity of identity, the ability to navigate many different spaces, increased adaptability, and a heightened sensitivity and responsiveness to those around us. We often develop these skills in order to survive and flourish in mono-racial spaces, making the most of multi-ethnic environments, and finding commonalities between us as well as delighting in difference. 
 
I cried when I finally walked into a room full of Mixed-Race activists for the first time only a few years ago. I felt I had finally found my tribe, my family. Finding yourself, your community, and then reaching out to others in solidarity is what life is all about. It’s part of being human. I wouldn’t change it for the world. 

 

Jana Ally, 23 

Instagram: @jana 

Reader's Digest: What did you realise about your racial identity growing up? 

Jana: Racial identity growing up is a strange concept for mixed kids. I grew up in an area that was full of people that looked like me but none whom I felt I actually belonged to, not on the level the other girls on the playground felt when they’d choose their friends with some aspect of cultural relation. I am Indo-Guyanese (Father) and Egyptian with Turkish descent (Mother), I was never considered “mixed”, I was just put into boxes by others whilst I struggled to find the words to describe myself. Guyana is in the Caribbean which is typically seen as wholly Black but my dad was a Brown, Asian-looking man. My mother is a Caucasian-looking woman and on the surface did not present any tells of her Egyptian ethnicity or her Turkish ancestry.  

 

RD: Are you familiar with both/all the cultures that are a part of you, and what would you like to learn more about? 

Jana: I am very familiar with all my heritages except my Turkish ancestry. Culture and ancestry is very important to me, I recognise that all of the people who came before me survived so that I could live and this is deeply connected to cultural history. However, I wasn’t aware of my Turkish heritage until I was a bit older and it was never a part of any homely cultural practises, this is my next line of research though.  

 

RD: Do you ever feel pressure to conform more to one side? 

Jana: When I was younger conforming was a big issue for me, I was always striving to feel whole. I would feel like I had lost the right to call myself X, Y, Z if someone clocked my lack of complete knowledge toward a race of mine. As I’ve gotten older it comes less frequently but I don’t think that feeling will ever completely go. It’s an insecurity of feeling like an outsider in your own home, it’s human nature to want to belong and sadly when we push out the side that doesn’t conform it makes us feel a little more normal.  

 

RD: What’s the best thing about being mixed race in your opinion? 

Jana: It can be lonely for sure, no one will ever fully understand my experience apart from maybe my siblings but I must say being mixed is beautiful. All that heritage in a beautiful blend of unique genes, that is completely unlike any other. I’ve gone through a crazy journey struggling with my identity! When everyone saw me as Asian based on my looks I started to call myself Asian until Asians didn’t accept me based on my culture. Then I steered more towards my Egyptian side until other Arabs sussed that I don’t speak Arabic.

Finally, I’ve come to an understanding that I am an amazing hybrid of Indo-Guyanese and Egyptian without being culturally bound to one place. I have the freedom of being in two separate spaces or blending the two for a unique experience that only a few would understand. I have the power to educate and relate to more than just one group.

 

Click here to attend HaluHalo's upcoming online Curated Conversations event with Esuantsiwa Jane Goldsmith  


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