The Invisibility of my Ethnicity
When the person who taught you about the world and it’s inequalities turns out to be a tiny bit racist.
My mother is white English. In the mid 1970s she decided to date, and eventually marry, a man who is not. This resulted in a lot of pain and rejection from a majority of her family.
I don’t believe his family were amazingly pleased about the mixture of the cultures either, but we don’t talk about that or them.
My father has never been a big part of my life, he left when I was about 3 and hardly saw me or my sibling on a regular basis. He admits, he didn’t pay a penny to my mother for our upbringing. When I asked him a year or so ago, he said he didn’t realise how bad it was. He didn’t know mum worked two jobs and had to claim benefits when she couldn’t find that extra cleaning job.
Despite the poverty we went through, mum’s missed dinners, the working various multiple jobs to pay off debts, my childhood was a happy one.
I’m told we were spoilt children who got everything we wanted. We got presents at Christmas, we got birthday presents, we had food, a roof, cuddles, stories, trips to the park and holidays at Grandma’s on the coast.
We also had the comments, the denial of mixed ethnicity, the anger at my father’s family for their attitude towards white people, the ‘coconut’ bullying at school, the ‘African’ jokes, the ‘is that your real mum?’ questions by total strangers on the bus, the stares, the praise for adopting black baby orphans by the old ladies on the street, the ‘oh you’re a Nigerian’ disappointment from other pupils when I started secondary school, the looks from my friends parents when mum came to collect me from their houses.
All these things I’ve felt were outside the home. Away from my safe place. Not in the house. Not from the person that says she loves me unconditionally.
Not from my mother. Not from her.
My mother is the strongest woman I know.
She faced all this prejudice. She coped when her family disowned her. She coped when her third baby miscarried and died. She coped when my 4 year old self kept asking her why I didn’t have a brother yet. She coped when my father walked out for the woman he had his last affair with.
She taught me about discrimination. She told me that Ian Dury was a great poet and used his songs to explain about prejudice against people who had disabilities and how the system wanted to shut everyone away in institutions without control over their own lives, not letting them be people in their own right. She said he shouldn’t be silenced by the authorities.
She told me that people talking and shouting at themselves in the street were just like us, only they were ill in their heads and saw things we couldn’t see and that upset them and that was why they shouted. She said we shouldn’t distress them and should leave them alone to live their lives. One was man who shouted in German a lot. Mum said he’d been in the war and seen horrible things. More horrible than we could imagine and we should respect that the war had made him ill and he needed support.
When I didn’t understand why Thatcher’s government was a bad thing, she told me it was because Thatcher wanted to control everyone by spying on them and used ‘1984’ to show me how they would do this.
My mother taught me to read and read everything I could get my hands on. I read Blyton and Christie, Rendell and Grimms Brother, Dahl and Dickens and Wilde and Aesop’s Fables and the Bible. Every single copy of The Beano. She didn’t restrict my reading.
Now as an adult, I still have the comments, the denial of mixed ethnicity, the ‘coconut’ bullying, the ‘African’ jokes, the ‘oh you’re a Nigerian’ disappointment as I did when I was little from strangers.
And by doing this, they validate my invisibility, they deny my experiences, they deny my right to a voice to say what I need to, they don’t understand that I do not want to talk about the BLM movement all the time or that I am not the font of all knowledge when a person of colour is attacked in the press.
And from my mother, well, she doesn’t see colour. She sees everyone the same. She prefers not to talk about it. She wants me to shut up about it. To stop going on about.
She prefers that my queer femme of colour identity remains invisible, just as society likes it.