By Annabelle auf der Mauer
This is often my response to having been asked countless times, "where are you really from?". I know the question that they are trying to ask is, "what ethnicity are you?" or "what is your ethnic heritage?"; but I choose to be facetious at times. I make this choice because, in my experience, more often than not, my answer is deemed somehow 'unsatisfactory'. Identity is a fluid social construct. There is more to who I am as a person, than my ethnic and racial heritage. I am a daughter, a granddaughter, an avid lover of books, an explorer, a life partner, and a hater of cooking. These are all vectors of my being, but it is my ethnic identity that I must always 'qualify' for others. This need for 'qualification' stems from the way I physically present. At face value, I do not read how people would assume I should as someone who has a Black parent, let alone a Jamaican Black parent. I read, "broadly light-skinned person of colour"; whether that be Latinx or South Asian. My hair is the biggest differentiator because I do not have the 'typically Black' hair that I supposedly should have. My hair is completely straight.
Global white supremacy has created and curated a binary in terms of how we think about ethnic and racial identity. This binary has been reproduced among people of colour, framing our thinking, which often unconsciously informs our perceptions of each other. This is why people struggle to reconcile with me being mixed as the way I physically present does not adhere to a perception of what this should look like in my context, e.g., 'Leona Lewis' or 'Zendaya'.
I was sure of the facts of what my reality was growing up. I was born in London. My mother is Jamaican, and my father is of Swiss descent. I have a half-sister over 20 years my senior who shares the same dad and is hence, white. I also have a brother and a younger sister. My maternal grandma lived with us, and my maternal grandpa would fly up every Christmas from Jamaica, always wearing a cerulean blue suit. The Jamaican-ness of my mum, grandma, and grandpa went without question, and they were always sure of their identity. My dad was also very proudly Swiss. I did not have a hard time navigating the intersections of my identities growing up because it was just who I was. There were no discussions of racial identities in our house. The fact that my mother is Black, and my father is white was neither here nor there. By no means do I intend to underplay or glean over how much our conceptions of race- that stems from a framework moulded in white supremacy- can inform the lived experiences of mixed families navigating these conceptions, e.g., being the 'exotic' cousin. In my lived experience, we were simply, us.
"The nursery rhymes my mum sang, stories she would tell, events we would go to, the music and food we consumed at home, and family Christmas gatherings suddenly felt sort-of invalidated."
I grew up in Harrow in North West London for the first 11 years of my life. Harrow was relatively multicultural at the time, and it was not uncommon to see different faces on the street or at school. From North, West, and East Africa to East Asia and everywhere in-between. As such, I was not really confronted with a sense of 'otherness' at a young age, except for, perhaps, when all the girls at school who were considered the pretty ones were white or (now when I think about it) enjoyed greater proximity to whiteness. I can remember being told, "you're not pretty like Kate*."
At home too, we were exposed to different cultures very early on and consumed food and music from around the world. My parents also had a very diverse set of friends from Spain to Japan. On Sundays, grandma would make fried dumplings with ackee and saltfish for breakfast and occasionally tripe with butter beans for dinner.
The years I lived in Jamaica are a large part of who I am today. When I was 11, my mother came to me and asked me, "would you like to go to school and live in Jamaica with grandma and grandpa?". I said, yes. When I was in year 5, I had an Austrian au pair. My siblings and I went to live with her for three months in Austria and went to school there too. So, the idea of moving and going to school in Jamaica did not phase me. I also really missed my grandma since she had retired and moved back to Jamaica. She had always been a constant in my life. I think now on a subconscious level, grandma represented steadiness, and so much in my life had changed since my parents got divorced. I wanted that sense of security grandma had always provided. In July of 2005, off my siblings and I went.
I loved living in Jamaica, and I miss the island very much. I miss the lushness of the trees, driving by the ocean every day, the evening smell – a mixture of gasoline, hot tarmac, a little sweetness and sea salt - and the availability of patties (you have not had a good patty until you physically go to Jamaica and have a Tastee patty). I went to a very small private school; at its largest, it was 72 pupils, and it was here during my formative years that I began to question my identity.
During high school, it was the first time, in a manner of speaking, I was labelled British. It was the first time that the Jamaican-ness I had grown up with came into question. I was British, so what did I know of being Jamaican or about Jamaica? I knew I was British in passport, and yes, I was born there, but I had always identified with my Jamaican heritage. The nursery rhymes my mum sang, stories she would tell, events we would go to, the music and food we consumed at home, and family Christmas gatherings suddenly felt invalidated. I had not been questioned before on my Jamaican-ness because it was a part of who I knew myself to be. But because I was not born there, did this mean it was no longer a part of who I could claim to be? It was also during this time that I was told I was a white woman, so what would I know about struggle since I have all the benefits.
Being told I was a white woman was a surreal experience. I had an idea that yes, my father was white. Yes, I have his hair. But me, a white woman? Back then, I was not aware of my privilege. How I present means, I navigate society with relative ease, and my name has also afforded me a greater sense of comfortability that others might not enjoy. But I did not understand how this could make me a white woman. I had never thought of myself in this way. One day when my grandma came to pick me up, a school mate turned to me and said, "that's really your grandmother? Wow, you really are Black". I never thought of myself in this way either. I was probably aware that we both had different hair and different skin tones. But that grandma was a dark-skinned Black woman was of no consequence to me, grandma was just grandma. After this, I can remember noticing things. Sometimes I was served more willingly than she was or if I said grandma in the shop, there would be a look of confusion on people's faces. I noticed the same looks of confusion on people's faces when we would come back to London on holiday and, grandma or my mother and I were out at the same time. I knew my dad being white and my mum Grandma being Black were elements of who I am, but it was not something I had put deep thought into because, for me, it was just my existence.
"I do not experience the world as a Black woman, nor claim to do so. Privilege works in my interest wherever I go in the world, because of how I outwardly present and my proximity to whiteness."
As a woman now in her 20s living in London, I am still navigating how people react to what I say I am. Thus, why I get facetious and say, "from a uterus." In my experience, when you say you are Jamaican or have Jamaican parentage, it is one of the only places you can say you are from and have to 'prove it.' I think it is automatically assumed to be Jamaican that you must be 'objectively' Black and darker in skin tone and adhere to stereotypes. Though a large percentage of the population is Black, the national motto of Jamaica is "Out of Many, One People." Post-emancipation, there were patterns of immigration from China, India, Lebanon, Syria, Scotland, Ireland, Germany, and Portugal. The island is often described as a melting pot as the people have mixed together, and all these elements have informed culture. Wherever you go, curry chicken and roti are readily available, and everyone cooks some version of chow mein at home. In my observations, being Jamaican is at the fore of identity. Other components of identity- race, religion, gender, etc.- are secondary to national and cultural identity. However, this does mean these aspects do not inform daily lived experiences. Jamaica is a class-based society in which those who are lighter in skin tone tend to occupy a higher socio-economic bracket. Things are changing, but colourism is still quite evident. Bleaching of the skin is seen by some as a means to advance their social mobility. This is by no means whatsoever unique to Jamaica and is evident across the formerly colonised world, but perhaps manifests differently.
My grandfather is of Levantine descent. Several generations of his family were born in Jamaica. He was born in what we call country or bush, rural and in the mountains and hills. It is quite amusing to see people's reactions outside of Jamaica when he speaks, as they do not expect a thick Jamaican accent to come out. He does not think of himself as anything else but Jamaican. If you were to challenge him when he said he was Jamaican, he would probably say, "can you not understand the English that is coming out of my mouth, you need me to repeat?". There is no one mould of what a Jamaican should really look like, and there is multiplicity in the Jamaican identity.
Even among the socially astute, it does not seem 'understandable' that I could be partly Jamaican and happen to be partly Black. That I am somehow using my Black heritage as a means of profiteering. I do not experience the world as a Black woman, nor claim to do so. Privilege works in my interest wherever I go in the world, because of how I outwardly present and my proximity to whiteness. It is only from the outside that my internal reality has to be substantiated for others to understand. Had I presented more like my younger sister, who has a more 'typical' or common curly hair texture of a partly Black mixed-race child, I would perhaps be more 'comprehensible' to others. That I could be of Jamaican descent, have mixed parents, and; it be 'understandable' that the woman I am calling grandma is my grandma.
I have come to terms with any slight faltering in my identity by knowing that the realities of my lived experience are just that. My realities. This is normal for me, even if it is not for everybody else. Being Jamaican is part of whom I am as well as my mixed ethnic and racial heritage. My positionality is such that I exist in proximity to ideas of Blackness and whiteness, and experience life in adjacent and in juxtaposition to both. I know how I fit into my world. I am secure in my identity. All these facets are the plotted vectors of me.
*Names have been changed to maintain privacy.
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