When people ask me why I travel, maybe I’ll direct them to this post (which I’ve put off publishing for days) rather than offering up some vague explanation about “finding myself”.
“Finding myself” in relation to my travels make it sound as if I actually left my right leg in Medellin, or something. But “finding myself” is exactly what I’m trying to do.
Because after 23 years of thinking that I knew my ethnic background — of thinking that I knew who I was — I have found out news that changes everything, but at the same time, nothing:
I am (probably) black.
That statement in itself might look ridiculous to anyone who doesn’t know me. To anyone who has stumbled across this post, seen a couple of my photos and thought;
Is this girl crazy? She’s very clearly not white. ~Insert Specsavers joke here.~
But for the longest time I grew up believing that I was. White, that is. And as unbelievable as that sounds, this went on for most of my life. It wasn’t until I lost my Dad last year, that I began to unravel the strange story that I’d grown up believing.
And the story is still very much unravelling — there’s a lot I’m trying to find out. But in order to stop myself from unravelling too, I
want NEED to travel. And move around. And keep things in perspective, whilst widening my own, slightly-warped view of the world.
I want to write about the complex, nuanced concept of identity, to help re-define how I see myself after my life was thrown into a permanent state of flux, recently. And I want to do it on my own terms.
GROWING UP WHITE
Growing up, the word “black” was never used to describe me. I was never properly black, because I didn’t talk black and I had zero cultural ties to anything considered black by the few black people I knew. To some, my features weren’t black enough. To others, my very presence among white people all the time, was enough to negate my blackness.
But with a green-eyed Irish Mother, a white Father and a brother, who only had to step outside for 10 minutes to see his freckles multiply by the dozen, my own default was set as white, too.
Like film-maker Lacey Schwartz (who recently made a film about her experiences and who, can also relate to what it’s like to be raised white when you’re black), I was told by my parents that I inherited my dark skin and curly hair from a distant ancestor on my Mother’s side of the family. And unless I probed my parents for answers (and I did so at the rate of about five times a year) we just didn’t talk about the likelihood of this story being true.
But as most non-white people will tell you, other people ask you justify your existence in a world where the default is set to white, ALL THE TIME. So when my protective bubble of whiteness was popped with probing, persistent questions from strangers, it stung me because I never had an answer for why I was black.
On holiday as a kid, the reminders that I stood out like a sore thumb in a family where Factor 30+ was always a necessity in anything hotter than 18 degrees, always hit me like a freight train.
Was I adopted? How was this boy my brother? Who had my Mum had an affair with? Were those people really my family? How thigh-slappingly hilarious is this?
And I guess it was a bit comical sometimes. Surrounded by white people on both sides of my family, I used to think my appearance in Christmas photos was funny. But I grew up never posting pictures of my family online because I cared too much what people thought.
When we visited my Mum’s tiny town on the West coast of Ireland each year for my summer holidays (where you’d be hard-pushed to find anyone a shade up from milk-bottle-translucent, for miles) and I was told to “go back to Africa” — I wasn’t particularly amused.
When, aged seventeen, a teacher asked me in front of the whole class why I was down on the school system as “white-British” (not the smartest move from my parents, admittedly) I just didn’t know what to say.
Looking back though, racial issues didn’t take up too much of my head-space. But then again, that’s because white people don’t give too much thought to their whiteness unless they absolutely have to. Unless they’re forced to square up to their whiteness in the mirror and address how this sets them apart and above, other groups.
Not to mention, up until around the age of 16, I really believed I was white, too. Not necessarily white in appearance (although there was a time I thought that, aged five) but more in the cultural, ethnic sense. Mainly though, race was something I didn’t think too much about unless other people asked me to explain myself.
If my parents were ticking boxes that said I was “white-British,” then I would tell anyone who asked, that I classed myself as that too.
Luckily, I was surrounded with the kind of love from two parents that was so thick, so unwavering and so real, that sometimes I felt smothered by it. And for the most part, this cancelled out the confusion and upset their refusal to talk about race caused me. I had a fantastic upbringing, I just want to emphasise. I never went without and I never felt like an outsider among the people that loved me.
But unfortunately, my family home was not a microcosm for the real world.
I did — and still do — get asked “where I’m from” around five times a month.
I still don’t know what to say.
On the rare occasions I heard ignorant friends or family members speak about blackness as an ill — as a concept that made people more threatening, or less attractive, or less palatable and then turned to me and said something like;
“oh well you’re not black so it doesn’t matter,
or; “yeah but I’m not talking about you, am I?”
…that was alienating. THAT made me feel less than human. And so, I over compensated; I grew louder and more confident than anyone else because I felt I had no other option.
But then two years ago my Father got really sick – and then last year he died. Like so many people who lose a parent from cancer, I found myself unable to function. My life and the life of my family was drained of colour. Things went grey, bleak, desolate.
I also felt extremely disconnected from who I was, or should I say, who I thought I was.
So when I reached rock bottom, I started to dig myself out. I started digging because my Father’s death was the catalyst for change and I felt that I didn’t have anything left to lose. Half of my story had died with him.
And so I did a DNA test in Easter 2016 and discovered that I’d never actually been related to the fantastic, funny, blue-eyed man who raised me — in the biological sense, anyway.
There’s some material online about how to put yourself together after losing a parent. But the manual into how not to implode when you realise that parent was never related to you in the first place? That one’s unchartered territory, unsurprisingly and the news hollowed me out from the inside.
Like, when I found out via email one afternoon at work in London that half my family weren’t actually related to me, that I wasn’t able to call my Dad my own anymore and that I probably had a whole other life waiting for me in a not-so-distant universe, it nearly broke me.
I must have left around 5 dents in the walls in the house I grew up in, whilst screaming at my Mum for an explanation, which came about slowly and painfully when I begged for it.
[ I’ve gone into more detail about this in the December 2016 issue of Marie Claire, and my piece is online and in the magazine. ]
My Mum doesn’t know much about this man (who I’ll never call a Father), other than the fact he was “dark” and spoke with an Irish accent. So I’m also coming to terms with the fact that I may never have that missing piece of my ethnic jigsaw puzzle either. And after 23 years of saying I was British/Irish and something else unknown, I don’t really know what I am.
And more than anything, I would love to know WHERE my blackness comes from.
TRAVEL AND IDENTITY
So to overcome all this; the death, the lies, the awkward conversations, the lack of closure over my heritage and the near-collective family silence that has ensued since I’ve told everyone the truth — I’ve decided to travel.
To some it might look like I’m running away from a series of painful experiences back home. To me, I’m delving head-first, arms wide, legs akimbo into my great unknown (read: non-white spaces) to see how that’s going to help me define my own identity.
Because after 23 years, I’ve decided that my identity is going to be on my terms.
Whilst “blackness” is something I felt I could never really lay claim to, I also know there is no one-size-fits-all approach to being black. And if I don’t want to identify as black, I guess I don’t have to.
There’s still a part of me that feels as if I’m denying my Father, though (the one that raised me) by exploring this unknown part of my heritage. I’ll never want to replace my Dad, but I also feel a bit guilty that all he did for me wasn’t enough to quell this deep-rooted desire within me, to find out where I come from, ethnically.
But then again, doesn’t everyone deserve to know that?
At the moment I guess I still don’t really consider myself any different to the person my parents raised me to be. But after 23 years of not knowing why I look the way I do and finding out all this crazy, weird information I feel…a shift in mindset. And I plan on doing a DNA test to shed some more light into where my ancestors may have come from and I’ll write more about this on my blog (subscribe below for my sporadic posts) and for other news publications, too.
To be raised white when you’re black is to feel like you’re in a permanent state of flux with your identity; it’s chaotic and confusing and so, I’ve chosen to embrace the chaos.
Adapting to white and black company growing up means I can feel at home almost anywhere and at the moment, the journey is my home. Travelling helps me find out more about where my ethnic origins lie. It’s the obvious and only way to facilitate my journey of personal growth, so I’m not going to stop.
Right now, I’m travelling to find out who I am and where I come from.
I’m travelling to shape myself into the person I want to be.
And I’m travelling to find my own identity – whatever that is.
Because I think I’m (probably) black.