Not All Black & White

Caroline Tanner examines the richness of mixed heritage…

‘I would never have known.’ Such an innocent remark, yet it left me feeling ‘not quite’ – not quite White but not Black enough. Teetering on the brink of two identities.

As I’ve gone through life I have transitioned through many different stages relating to my ethnicity and identity. As a very young child the racial abuse I endured led me to almost disassociate from my mixed ethnicity; I didn’t understand why I was treated differently because I didn’t feel ‘different.’ During infant and Junior School I was one of only two ‘non-white’ children in the school (apart from my two siblings). Me and the other boy who fell into this category were always, without fail, every year, chosen as Mary and Joseph for the school nativity. I do laugh to myself when I think back to this as I was completely oblivious at the time, but on deeper reflection it only reinforced the differences.

Cue my teens when it was pretty cool to be Black – think Lauryn Hill, Nina Cherry and Mel B. That was a period in which I really embraced my identity; I felt proud to be different, believed it gave me an ‘edge.’ I was fearless and unapologetically defensive, and those traits protected me.

As I grew out of my teens the more I felt I couldn’t back-up my identity. You see my Dad was adopted as a baby at only 5mths old. His adoptive mother, my Grandma, was White. She was friends with my Dad’s biological parents as they were neighbours; they had come over to England in the 1950’s as part of Windrush. There were many complex factors in them leaving my Dad with my Grandma but poverty was a major one. Poverty affected many Jamaicans who had come over to England with the promise of a better life. So as you can see, growing up we did not have any knowledge of our Black roots, the history of our family or Jamaican culture.

Having my son really fuelled my desire to know our family history and the missing pieces of our identity, for him as much as myself. After lots of research (move over Davina) and thanks to the wonderful DNA testing site ‘My Heritage,’ I located our paternal family. Amazingly my Dad’s biological Mother is still alive and is now known to us as ‘Gran’; we also have an abundance of Cousins, Uncles, and Aunties from London to Jamaica, America, Dubai and beyond who have all welcomed us back into the family with so much love. To see the faces of people who I, my father and siblings look like is a feeling of belonging I can’t describe. What also makes sense is the lighter tone of my Dad’s Black skin as we now know his Great-Grandfather was White. We also know that we are descendants of Slaves and the Waite family name that my Gran and many other family members have is the surname of the masters that owned our ancestors. It’s difficult to consider the possibility that my family lineage ever started as a loving relationship.

Now I am immensely proud of both my Black and White heritage. Whether people know I am mixed race or not just by looking at me, it doesn’t matter so much to me anymore because my heritage, my black roots, are more than just the colour of my skin: they are the blood that runs through my veins, my story, my wounds and my pride. My family history isn’t just an interesting story, it is also a stark reminder of the oppression and disadvantage Black people have faced throughout history, from the slave trade, to the Windrush generation to my father missing out on 60yrs of knowing his biological mother and me growing up with a loss of identity.

I attended the Black Lives Matter protest in Sheffield at the weekend and was able to collectively share my pride and passion with the thousands of people who attended, from all backgrounds. My only hope is that those who don’t yet understand that Black and Minority Ethnic people stand behind White people in so many ways will awaken their minds and hearts to this and take a stand, take action against it and advocate for change so one day we can all stand side by side.

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