Just last week I was standing at a bus stop when a gentleman; a complete stranger came and joined me. Nothing unusual about that, we then politely nodded at each other and a conversation started up.
Me: “it’s still quite warm isn’t it”
Stranger: “yes it is”; pause; “excuse me mate, but were do you come from?”
Stranger: “no, you know, were do you originate from”
Me: “I originate from Ipswich, my mum is English and my dad is Jamaican”
Stranger, sounding surprised: “Really I wouldn’t have thought you were Black, I’d have thought you were Italian or Spanish or something”
Me, politely smiles: “yeah, I sometimes get that”
Now I wasn’t offended by this and this wasn’t the first time or probably won’t be the last time that I’ll have this conversation. I am a light skinned mixed race person with loose curly hair. I have spent most of my life with people questioning my racial identity and for a while I was left questioning it myself.
My random conversation had me asking myself why is it that people feel the need to question a complete stranger as to where they are from. I would never dream of walking up to a stranger and asking, “excuse me, where are your parents from”. My thought is there is this assumption that brown means foreign. I have a friend whose background is one English parent and one foreign born parent; the same as me but their foreign born parent is Russian, they have never had their status as being British questioned; they have not faced that assumption. A Rorschach test is a psychological test used to test peoples’ perceptions and interpretations and at times I feel that being mixed race, we face that.
So, a little about my background: when I was born my birth father’s family initially rejected me with my light skin and light loose curly hair. They questioned how could I be part of their family since I wasn’t “dark enough”. My mum raised me at first as a single parent living with my Grandparents. Some local people obviously thought I was “dark enough” as they decided to write graffiti on my Grandparents wall calling my mum a ‘n*gger lover’ and a padlock on the gate writing ‘to keep the n*gger boy in’.
My mum met and married my stepdad who adopted me. This caused tension with his own family who despite being
Anglo-Indian disliked the fact that not only was my mum a single mother but that her child was black. While at school it was hard for others to find who or what my identity was, I had received comments from black children as to not being black enough even being called “Casper” at one point because I was deemed so pale; and yet I was getting racial abuse from white kids by being spat on and called a n**ger at school disco and at one time having a group go past my house singing “there’s only one wog in whitehouse, one wog in whitehouse, Glen Chisholm”.
My mum tried to comfort me by telling me, “I had the best of both worlds”. But this didn’t help me when a girl I really liked, told me she could not go out with me because her parents didn’t like blacks.
This feeling of ‘not belonging’ carried on for many years. Always being told, ‘you look like you’re this race or that’, being asked, ‘do you come from this place’, being called a ‘greasy wop’, or asked if ‘I’m a Maori’; going to America and having people just assume I’m Hispanic, going to Belgium and being hassled by police who thought I was North African.
A mixed-race friend and I were assaulted in town and called p*ki. I have scars from where I was attacked by skinheads, and knifed. One of my more disturbing instances was when I was a Special Constable on a training course and I was told to be careful because some officers from another force thought I was an “uppity Ni*ger” who needed to be taught a lesson. Now I’ve grown up, matured and am more comfortable in my own skin.
I accept who I am and were I’ve come from. Do I understand why people question or have trouble accepting me? No.
But, unlike in the past, I won’t let it burden me.
Glen Chisholm is a UK based town Councilor of mixed Jamaican and English descent. He is deputy portfolio holder for communities on his local council also sitting on the Police and Crime Panel and also as Equality and Diversity advisor for a local charity. Glen has previously blogged for a mental health charity trying to raise awareness of the stigma around mental health. Twitter @glenchisholm