Mixed Up is a weekly series that delves into the complexities of mixed-race identity.
What does it mean to be part of the UK’s fastest growing ethnic groups? We talk to the people who know best about their lived experiences of being mixed.
Straddling two or more cultures and backgrounds can be a beautiful thing, but it can also cause conflict and uncertainty.
We’re keen to explore this liminal space and dig beyond the stereotypes to get to the heart of the mixed-race experience.
Chelsea King is a writer and communications professional.
She is estranged from her father – the source of her Caribbean heritage – and she wonders whether she would have a clearer idea about her identity if she had more of a connection to that side of her family.
‘I have a grandfather from Belfast on my mum’s side. On the other side, I have a Jewish grandmother and a great-grandfather from St Kitts in the Caribbean,’ Chelsea tells Metro.co.uk.
‘The Caribbean genes must be strong because they show in my features quite a bit considering how diluted they are.
‘My biological father is where my ethnic heritage comes from. I haven’t seen him since I was very young and it has been his choice not to be a part of my life.
‘My mum met Michael (who I consider my real father) when I was three, and I have been incredibly fortunate in that I grew up with both parents in the truest sense of the phrase.
‘While my dad and I don’t share blood, that doesn’t make him any less my dad. That’s a title you earn, not one you get automatically because you father a child.’
Chelsea doesn’t feel any loss in the sense of family – her family unit provided her with everything she could have needed growing up. But in terms of her heritage, being the only non-white person in an entirely white family was isolating at times.
‘I grew up in a small town on the borders of Nottinghamshire and Derbyshire, called Kimberley. It’s an ex-mining town just a stone’s throw from Ilkeston, an area known for it’s BNP presence, so to say it wasn’t exactly diverse is a bit of an understatement,’ says Chelsea.
‘My entire extended family is white, as were 99% of my peers and teachers and school.
‘I considered myself white growing up because although physically I’m clearly not, it was all I knew.
‘I think of it as being a bit like being born in England, but growing up in Scotland.
‘If you’re surrounded by Scottish people all your life, you’ll have a Scottish accent. That doesn’t make you Scottish, but you’ll probably feel more Scottish than English, and you’ll certainly sound Scottish, especially if you’ve never really been around any English people.’
It’s a sensible analogy, but bringing race into the equation makes things more complicated. Chelsea can see the influence of St Kitts in her features, hair, skin colour – but beyond that the connection isn’t there.
‘I don’t regret not having contact with my biological father for many reasons, but I do regret that I grew up with no connection to my Caribbean heritage,’ she explains.
‘Even though you could say I grew up identifying as white, the reflection in the mirror told a different story – aesthetically, I’m literally the black sheep of my family and friends and I have always felt like an outsider.
‘Whether that’s because of my heritage or not, it’s hard to say, but understanding your place in the world is harder when you don’t fully understand the parts that make you up.’
Currently, Chelsea has no interest in trying to contact or build a relationship with her birth father, the relationship she wants to build is with a place, a culture.
‘I couldn’t ever want for better parents than mine, so I don’t see a time where I’ll pursue contact with my biological father as there’s no gap for him to fill,’ she says.
‘However, I’ll be going to St Kitts for my 30th birthday and I really hope that I’ll feel something when I’m there, or at least get a better understanding of a part of me that feels so shrouded in mystery and what being mixed-raced really means for me.’
The shift in Chelsea’s understanding of her own identity has been significant. Now, her mixed-race identity is a vital part of who she is, and is something she never wants to shy away from.
‘Last Easter I decided I wasn’t going to straighten my hair any more,’ Chelsea tells us.
‘That was always the thing people said made it most obvious that I was mixed-race growing up and I don’t want anyone to be in any doubt about who I am.
‘The thing that I struggled with most as a child has become the proudest symbol of my mixed-race heritage as an adult.
‘When I moved to London, suddenly I wasn’t the black sheep any more.
‘I have also become more accepting of myself as a whole in the past 18 months.
‘Sometimes I’m going to excel at work, make my parents proud and my partner happy. Sometimes I’m going to be late, cock things up or get too drunk and behave like a moron.
‘For me, to be able to accept the rough with the smooth, I need to acknowledge all the parts that make me up – my personality, my experiences, my heritage.’
Growing up in a largely white area, Chelsea had to deal with a myriad of issues that her friends and classmates would never understand.
‘I always struggle with ethnicity boxes on forms, because what can I tick that covers everything?’ she asks.
‘That’s kind of a metaphor for society as a whole really because you’re expected to fit some sort of mould, but that’s just impossible when you’re mixed-race. There are too many contradictions and exceptions.
‘A huge issue for me growing up was the hair, always the hair!
‘My mum made sure she always told me I was beautiful, but there just wasn’t any real representation of darker women, especially with naturally curly hair like mine, either in popular culture or around me.
‘I hated my hair growing up. I wanted long, straight hair (preferably blond) because that was what all the beautiful women I knew had.
‘I used to brush my hair out in an attempt to make it look less “ethnic” – all this resulted in was a hideous bushy mess.
‘When I got a bit older I straightened my hair a fair bit, but when I wore my curls as they were meant to be, I noticed how hard it was to find decent products for hair like mine.
‘I certainly couldn’t just go to the nearest shop and buy a conditioner or shampoo, like everyone else could, It would mean a trip to specific shops where I knew they stocked the right products. That’s something that is only just changing now.’
As well as the practical issue of not being catered to by shops and beauty suppliers, there was the issue of hostility and racism – overt and covert. Chelsea says it took her a while to figure out what some of these comments really signified.
‘My parents were always incredibly protective of me, and I think a lot of things went over my head, as I just didn’t recognise them as applying to me when I was younger,’ she explains.
‘But looking back now, the odd comment or instance will spring to mind – nothing very serious in isolation, but just the sort of thing that wouldn’t have happened if I was white.
‘For instance, I remember going to the cinema with two friends as a teenager, and every time someone of colour would come on screen, one of them would laugh and point, saying “look Chelsea, it’s you!”
‘At the time, it was mildly irritating, but now it makes me angry, and I’m angry at myself that I laughed it off and didn’t call it out.
‘For me though, the worse stuff is things that were innocent in intent – like people assuming my boyfriend is black or mixed-race, purely because I am.
‘Or when I was a waitress, customers would ask me; “where are you from then?” and then when I replied (sometimes bluntly) “Nottingham”, continuing with, “yes but where are you really from? Where is your family from?”
‘They wouldn’t ask that to someone who looked white.
‘Even though I know there’s no malicious intent behind that sort of stuff, it really grates on me because people are making assumptions and are acting like they have a right to know personal details about me, even if I clearly don’t want to give them.’
Chelsea thinks it’s natural that there is curiosity around mixed-race individuals – purely because of the diversity of our experiences – but she worries about the consequences of fetishisation.
‘Whilst I’m happy there’s more representation in terms of fashion, beauty and media, I do also think there’s an element of it being “on trend”,’ she says.
‘I knew of girls when I was younger wanting mixed-race babies because they were “cute” and they’d talk about it like they were selecting a breed of puppy to buy.
‘I hope that the brands using mixed-race faces in campaigns understand the complexities of what it means to be mixed-race; we are beautiful, but we each also have a beautiful history and rich experience that is totally unique to each of us and should be respected and honoured.’
Chelsea wants people to understand that words have power and should be used carefully. She doesn’t think ignorance is an excuse when it comes to using offensive or racist language.
‘The first thing I would like people to understand is the semantics,’ explains Chelsea.
‘I find the phrase “half-caste” incredibly offensive and I find it more offensive when people want to argue with and tell me it’s not, or complain that they can’t keep up with what terms they are supposed to use these days.
‘If you don’t understand why “half-caste” is offensive, do a quick Google search on the etymology. And if you don’t know what term to use, ask.
‘It’s not hard, it’s like asking someone with a really long name what they’d like to be addressed as.
‘Secondly, you can ask questions, just don’t demand information. I’m more than happy to talk about my heritage if I’m asked properly, without entitlement.
‘If someone is interested in me and my heritage, that’s flattering, but demanding information without so much as a, “what’s your name?” will get my back up every time.
‘I want people to understand that I’m not one thing. I’m not black. I’m not white. I’m both and neither. I’m proud of every piece of the jigsaw that makes up my whole and I’m not going to pick between them.’
What Chelsea cares about is her legacy. What will she leave behind, how can she help to unify and enrich the lives of the people around her?
‘When all is said and done, I would like for my life to have meant something,’ she says.
‘Too often in today’s climate, we stand on two separate sides and call names and shout louder until nobody can hear what the other is saying, because we’re all too eager to be right and prove the other side wrong.
‘But that’s not how we make change happen.
‘We have to listen to each other – really listen, and not just listen in order to dismantle the other side’s argument – and be prepared to move towards a better long-term future bit by bit.
‘My unconventional mixed-race background has put me in a position where I can see both sides of the fence, and I hope that I can use that in a really positive way, even if my contribution is tiny.’
Chelsea wants more stories like hers to be heard. She plans on using her writing to raise awareness about what it means to be mixed-race and to reach the people who may still feel alone in the world.
‘We are so little understood and so little heard about, despite the fact that the number of people who identify as mixed-race is getting bigger and bigger,’ says Chelsea.
‘I can think of only one or two lead characters in books, films or TV series who are mixed-race and even then, the plot-line revolves around race.
‘I’m writing a novel at the moment and my lead character is mixed-race, but that isn’t all they are.
‘That’s why we need to hear more stories from mixed-race people, so our stories can evolve from being mixed-race to just being. But we need representation first.’
Source: Read Full Article