Ticking the box

I have recently finished reading a brilliant book by Afua Hirsch** “Brit(ish): on Race, Identity and Belonging”. There was so much in this that resonated with me as she described the issues of being born a mixed-heritage person in Britain, picked out by people as different, and all that this identity brings with it. There was so much that she said which made me say “yes, yes…it feels exactly like that”, whilst at the same time noticing our differences, with her middle class experiences in London and accessibility to a black culture which was denied to me. I came from a rural white-dominated space with no access to black role-models, and my background had no strong connections to a particular culture (as explained in my post “Picking at the seams”). This wonderful read prompted my squiggling thoughts and questions which have stayed with me: Do I view myself as British? As English? Also what aligns me to a particular label?

Many years ago I wrote a poem (see the post ‘Ethos’ attached in the menu). It is not a wonderful piece of writing, but in re-reading it I realised how much I have struggled with these questions, and in a society which asks me to place myself in a box and assign myself a label. Every form I have filled over the years: jobs applied for; questionnaires completed; membership forms; course evaluations etc etc ETC! ask me to assign myself to a box. The problem is that I don’t often feel I fit a particular box. I am presented with a list from which I am asked to choose a category. In choosing any one, a zillion feelings collide. This image from the Institute of Race Relations demonstrates the range of categories that people may assign themselves to:

Over the years I have looked down such a list and tried to decide which box to tick. I know that family members have had the same angst.

  • White? No, clearly not if this is about the colour of my skin. However, I was born to a white father and, perhaps, somewhere down the line some white slave owner may have had his wicked way with one of my ancestors. Not a nice thought, but realistic given historical accounts of the time. I always feel strange passing so quickly over this box as I must, given the fact that I do not outwardly fulfil the criteria. It feels like in passing over this category I am denying the white part of me, as if I am not proud of all that my dad gave me. I am proud; I am a Sussex woman even though others don’t always make me feel that way.
    Mixed? Well, this is where it gets tricky. White and…mmm *looks down the list*… Black African… I think…but as I have explained in my previous post (Picking at the seams) the island where my mum comes from has a very mixed population, which you can see in the faces of the St Helenian ‘Saints’: Chinese, African, Asian, European…so although my genetic makeup (as proven by my DNA) is African, aren’t we all? (See Hirsch’s book** or her explanation of the language of racial classification in an article here). Sometimes I tick the ‘other mixed’ box. It feels like a strange and derogatory term, like a mongrel who doesn’t know their breed. Heinz 57. However if there is a text box to complete, I dutifully put ‘White and St Helenian’. I am sure that the person or computer which analyses that text has not got a clue what that means, or where it is…so this part probably gets consigned to the file ‘unknown’.
    Black /African/ Caribbean/ Black British? This is often where I want to place my tick in more recent years. I definitely view myself as black after much weaving and soul-searching. However as was pointed out by a Black woman, to one of my sisters on a night out, “You aren’t real black”. Similarly, I am sure like me, some mixed-heritage people have been called the derogatory term ‘Bounty’ (brown on the outside and…). So am I really able to tick that ‘Black’ box with hand on heart? And British? This sadly is the bit I really trip over. Over the years there have been many times when I have been made to feel not-British, and it is the go-to slur from racists “you aren’t even British“. Media likes to attribute a colour or religion to those that do wrong. Too often in being not-white I have been made to feel not-good, not-the-norm and that to be British I must fit in with what is good and what is the norm, and this is white. Failed automatically on that point. I have said in a previous post that my mum was proud of being British, and on her island home she was surrounded by the colonial symbols of Great Britain such as pictures of the Royal Family and the Union Jack. However, the Union Jack fills me with disquiet, mostly because I remember it in my youth adorning the figures of fascist right-wing BNP supporters screaming their hatred of people like me. The same sick feeling rises in my stomach when I see the English flag denoting the Cross of St George, appropriated by those from the far-right who want to send people like me back to where I come from (“Hey. I say to them, 8 miles isn’t too far!”). When I drive down a road and see one of those flags flying, my first thought should be, “There is a patriotic household, proud of their British identity”. Instead I look and wonder whether that place houses people I should avoid. So being ‘British’ to me is something unclear and complex, is not necessarily a part of my identity despite being born here, and is not a comfortable label.

So which box to tick? It is strange to think that in ticking one box, I am also ticking a box for some other purpose, and someone else’s agenda. Don’t get me wrong, I can see why such data is helpful when used in the right way, such as to offer services, or to ensure representation. However, I have seen it used as an offering to ‘prove’ that diversity is happening. Sadly, numbers and data don’t always equate to true commitment. Hearts, hands and minds make the difference. I always remember being successful when applying for a post in a large institution who boasted good figures for ‘ethnic minorities’. I already worked there, and on hearing I had got the job a ‘colleague’ said with a forced smile on her face, “well you got the job because you ticked the box”. I don’t remember challenging that comment – I didn’t very often raise my quiet voice in those days. However, I internalised that micro-aggression, that little voice in my head, that little girl with pig-tails nodding knowingly, “I am not worthy”. That little voice that also whispered to me that I got the job because I ticked the diversity box, rather than on my own merits. Of course I look back now and I know that I was good at my job and I had the skills that were needed at the time. I know that this was evidence of that same old, sad, go-to excuse of ‘Political correctness gone mad.’ Too often sitting underneath this comment are petty-minded jealousies, or feelings of superiority based on nothing more than someone’s difference.

I have read some of the media-coverage of the birth of Meghan and Harry’s baby today. I don’t think Danny Baker’s comments warrant space in my writing, other than that as a person who has been shockingly and upsettingly likened to a monkey many times during my life, I would like to say to him, “What a complete and utter wassock you are” (a much worse word sits in my head to be frank), “Whatever your intentions this was really never going to be ok”.

Anyway, what struck me was the different ways used to describe the couple’s new offspring and to categorise him. Before he was an hour old he was put into the not-white box. What epitomised this for me was Nicholas Witchell’s announcement on the BBC as he tripped over his description of the baby. Now of course, he may well have just lost his words as claimed. However, he seemed to find it necessary to categorise this small being as the first “Anglo-American” birth in the Royal Family, and then trip over himself not to say anything that might offend them. I am afraid in some Waynetta-way I was shouting at the screen “Say it. Say what’s in your head. He’s a brahn baby”. In recent years media has not been so careful or sensitive in its description of ordinary people who are different – it feels like it is open-season to use inflammatory and derogatory language, and to give the stage over to those who freely spout it. Too often in the last 24 hours what I’ve wanted to say to those reporters when describing this new life is: I think that the term you are searching for when describing a small human is just ‘baby’?” The categorisation of his colour or heritage really should not be what defines him, just as mine does not define me.

So after much thought, and returning back to my poem from many years ago, I have decided what box I would like to tick from now…perhaps I may even add this box to those annoying forms…

P.S. Here is a great article which talks of the media coverage of the birth of the Royal baby and issues of his label much more eloquently than me!