BLACK, WHITE OR WHAT?
Ralph is the son of a white English father and Nigerian mother. He grew up in Nigeria, Ethiopia and Britain. He is twenty-three and currently lives in Reading, which is where we sat down to chat about his experiences.
My father met my mother while he was working for the Foreign Service in Nigeria. She was a TV host. Although I was born in England, I spent my earliest years in Nigeria. I remember Nollywood celebrities coming to our home, which was where my mum recorded her show. I also remember that whenever I’d go to the market with her, there’d be kids running after us shouting oyinbo at me. It was in no way malicious, but of course such things make one conscious of being different from the norm. I don’t remember much else from those early years in Nigeria, though. It would be afterwards when I returned there that I would really get a feel of the place.
We moved to Ethiopia when I was seven, which is when my vivid memories start. The Ethiopian kids at school would ask me whether I was black or white. I would say I was black because that was the safer answer. If I said I was white, it would probably have struck them as a bit odd because I do look more black than white. But aside from that, even as a young boy I instinctively sensed I needed to emphasise I felt black because, if I didn’t, I could be seen as self-hating or trying to distance myself from blackness.
Historically, most mixed black and white kids have felt an affinity with black people, especially in the days when there was more racism and such kids were openly excluded or denigrated by their white family members. I also instinctively felt that affinity, though I wasn’t sure why. However, while most mixed-race kids today would answer that question the same way I did – that they identify black – I think for some it might be an almost forced declaration of affinity. They feel they have to say they identify black rather than white because doing otherwise could open them up to ridicule or hostility.
While I told the Ethiopian kids I was black, I was unsure enough to speak to my mum about it. ‘Mum, what am I really, black, white or what?’ I asked her. I also asked her what it meant to be ‘black’. I understood why some people were described as ‘black’ because of their skin shade, but I was always fascinated by what it really meant to be black. Was there a special way black people behaved that was different from the way white people behaved? ‘You are your own person. You must develop your own sense of self. Don’t just follow others or try to behave like they behave because you think they look authentic. You don’t have to fit into any box,’ my mum told me. She was very relaxed about it and this in turn made me feel less stressed about the whole black or white thing. I took to heart what she said, and it helped with my uncertainties.
Nowadays when people ask what I am, I say I’m a human being first and foremost. An individual as multifaceted as anyone else. I won’t conform to anybody’s idea of what an ‘authentic’ black person is supposed to be like, what kind of music I’m supposed to listen to and what not. We all need to be given the space and freedom to develop our own sense of self. I’m grateful my mum gave me that.
Because my dad worked a lot and my mum was the black parent, I instinctively went to her anytime I had questions about my identity. She knew the black experience and always emphasised I should never let people bring me down because of my skin colour. We moved back to Britain when I was eleven, specifically to Reading, which is where I’ve lived ever since.
My dad’s family is much smaller than my mum’s family. My grandma lives in Chichester while his other close relatives are scattered around London and Surrey. We would often gather in Grandma’s home for Christmas and I would be the only kid there who wasn’t white, so I did sometimes feel like I stuck out in my dad’s family. But apart from the self-conscious feeling, I don’t remember any negative experiences from those family gatherings.
My secondary school reflected the demographics of Reading – predominantly white, but with significant numbers of black and Asian kids. I never felt I was being oppressed by the white kids. White girls were often fascinated by my Afro, but not in any way I would describe as racist or fetishist. People would sometimes say I looked like Jermaine Pennant, the footballer. But I didn’t see that as anything to get offended at either. Most of my friends were black or mixed race. But I also had white friends. I never felt any hard borders between us and the white kids.
Race did sometimes enter the conversation, though. I was fifteen when the 2011 London riots happened, and me and my friends talked about that a lot. The riots made a big impression on me. Even though my middle-class Reading world was far removed from the world of inner-city London, and even though I’d never felt oppressed because of my skin colour, the riots did make me become more interested in race and race relations in Britain.
By the way, I am not saying there was no racism at all in Reading. I am saying I don’t remember ever personally experiencing it and I don’t remember my close friends saying they had either. Sometimes we might try to get into a club, five or six of us at the same time, and the bouncer might say, ‘Sorry, guys, already full tonight.’ Walking away, we’d joke they were afraid of letting six black guys into a club. But we didn’t seriously believe it was because of our skin colour we weren’t let in. These weren’t incidents that traumatised us or affected the way we viewed our status in Britain.
Nevertheless, after the London riots, I started reading books about the history of the British police, its relationship with young black males and British inner-city racial conflicts. I started actively thinking about race and racism. I read books by Frantz Fanon and radical Black Panther thinkers. I became more politically conscious. My teenage years were pretty turbulent times in the world. Around the period of the London riots, the Arab Spring was also going on. In America, the Occupy Wall Street movement was in full swing following the effects of the 2009 financial crisis. Then there were race-based events like the Michael Brown shooting in Ferguson, which I remember discussing a lot with my mum in the context of racism in America.
My conclusion to all that was happening was that racism was alive and well in the West, including at institutional levels. The solution lay in radical left-wing policies. We needed to rid the world of capitalism and revolutionise society. This was the only way to defeat racism and classism. Of course, as you get older, you rethink some of the views you held as a teenager. I am still left-wing, and I still believe racism and class oppression exist, but I don’t think the identity politics that is currently fashionable on the left is the way to deal with it.
I’m against racism and the far right, but that doesn’t mean I’m for identity politics. They both share the same thought patterns. They both seek to essentialise human beings, to put us in racial boxes. Just because racism exists doesn’t mean your analysis of it is correct. People should always be suspicious of tribalist and communalist rhetoric. Some people love invoking a ‘black community’ when in reality a black community does not exist: there are countless black communities all over Britain.
I am always suspicious of would-be thought leaders who want to dictate how you should think about race. Ultimately, the most identity politics can offer you is the potential freedom to be a black man. But we need a far more radical freedom than that. We need the freedom that allows you to become the best man you can be, not the best black man you can be. The politics of today complicate the lives of mixed-race people. Some see this as a crunch moment where you have to pick a side, especially since the emergence of Trump and his form of identity politics. Things are often framed in ‘Are you with us or with them?’ tones these days. There is pressure to declare which tribe you are loyal to. These pressures can be very difficult to resist if you are a mixed-race person who wants to belong somewhere.
One thing I do remember from school connected with race was that mixed-race girls often had issues with black girls. The core of these issues revolved around black girls being jealous mixed-race girls got a lot of attention from black guys. The black girls would get angry because they saw the mixed-race girls as stepping on their turf. I think what really drives this is a perception among black women that they are at the bottom of the sexual hierarchy. They feel the only guys they can count on being interested in them are black guys, so when they see mixed-race girls ‘taking’ potential suitors, they worry there’ll be no men left for them.
Black women have historically been misrepresented as either masculine and ugly or as ultra-sexual Jezebel-types you’d best stay away from. They do have problems attracting male attention and there is definitely a perception white and light-skinned women are more beautiful and desirable than dark-skinned women. Hence the us-versus-them feelings in the latter. These feelings are reflected in sayings like ‘he’s gone to the other side’ whenever a black or mixed-race guy starts dating a white girl. I really have no idea how to resolve this for now.
My mum has always been into Nigerian literature and music, and she imbued that in me. I grew up listening to Nigerian Afrobeats, to artistes like P-Square. An increasing number of Brits in my generation now listen to Nigerian music. It’s a cool feeling when someone tells me they’ve just discovered a Nigerian artiste and it’s someone I’ve been listening to for years, back when no one here knew who they were.
Thanks to my mum, I also grew up reading novels by the likes of Nigerian writers Chinua Achebe and Wole Soyinka. I connected to those stories despite their distance from the realities I was living in. I liked their focus on the conflict between tradition and modernity, and between the individual and the group in Nigeria. I’ve never liked the ethnic identity politics that dominate Nigeria and have already led to one civil war.
Tribal loyalties are very strong there. This has never sat well with me. Pressure is applied in various ways to try and keep you loyal to the group. My Nigerian uncle is always joking about how I must marry an Edo woman like my mother, someone from her ethnic group. Though my mum would never say this directly, I know she too would be delighted if I married a woman from her group.
My mum herself is quite liberal, but whenever we visit Nigeria, it always strikes me how conservative the society is. The religiosity of Nigerians is incredible. I am an atheist, but there everyone is either a Christian or a Muslim and regularly attends church or mosque. When we’re in Nigeria, I usually tag along with my family to church on Sunday because that is simply what everybody does. But it’s not just Christianity and Islam Nigerians believe in, there are also all sorts of superstitions about witches and black magic. These are popular not just among uneducated people. I’ve met very well-educated Nigerians, including in my own family, who believe in what I see as pure bullshit.
In my view, superstitious thinking is one of the major things holding back Nigeria. And it’s not harmless superstition either. People offer human sacrifices to perform rituals they believe will make them rich. Children are tortured because it is believed they possess demons which need to be exorcised. People join all sorts of ‘secret societies’ where rituals are performed to appease ancestral gods and all sorts of supernatural entities. The superstitious thinking encourages conspiratorial thinking.
Many Nigerians will tell you the West is trying to ‘export’ homosexuality to Africa. All part of a plan for Western culture to dominate the world. Another thing that gets me is how unabashedly patriarchal Nigeria is. Even if a woman works twelve-hour days, the man is still automatically regarded as the boss of the house. Parents consider sons to be more important than daughters. ‘Tradition’ is used to justify all sorts of conveniences for men. My uncle says tradition is what entitles him to the two wives he has.
The society is also very hierarchical. My mum usually spends most of the plane journey there reminding me to act deferentially towards my uncles and aunties. I must always say, ‘Good morning, sir’ and ‘Good morning, ma.’ If not, they would be very offended. For someone brought up in Britain, things like this make me feel very different in Nigeria, like this is not my world, I don’t belong here.
The things we take for granted here in Britain don’t work there, like non-stop electricity. Most of the time there is no power from the state grid, so people have to use generators for light. In other words, to have light twenty-four hours a day in Nigeria, you have to be quite rich considering all the fuel you’ll have to consume.
As someone whose mum is Nigerian, I’ve always been disturbed by how many issues the country has. I’ve always wanted things to get better there. When I was younger, I’d get outraged at all the corruption in government and things like that. But then I started sensing that the middle- and upper-class people I came into contact with don’t really care about what is going on in the country as a whole. All they care about is making money. They are like parasites sucking the blood out of the country in their own attempt to survive.
What I do like about Nigeria is the way people work hard and party hard. I also like the close attention Nigerians pay to how they dress. Sometimes they can be a bit too flashy and over the top, but I generally like that attitude of always trying to look your best, always dressing to impress.
Even though I spent some of my childhood in Africa, I am very culturally British. I might support the Nigerian football team at the World Cup, but that doesn’t change this fact. Like most people, I went through a period in my youth when I was trying to find myself. Race was an element of this search. Looking back, I realise I became interested in black radical thinkers to try and resolve the contradictions I was feeling inside. But I’ve moved on from my fascination with race. I’m now more interested in developing my individual self, as my mum always encouraged me to do.
Biracial Britain: A Different Way of Looking at Race is published by Little, Brown/Constable.