WREN Stories: My experiences growing up mixed race in the UK

This month's WREN (Workforce Race Equality Network) Stories blog comes from Maxine Brook from our Digital Change and Systems Team.

There is a lot of stigma that we “don’t have it as bad as America”, and whilst there may be elements of truth to that bold and rash statement, I would hopefully like to shed some light on this from my personal experience.

I cannot speak for the experiences of all black people in the UK, as I am mixed race/biracial. I have a light/medium complexion, which I understand equates to privilege. This is often referred to as “colourism” – discrimination based on skin colour and a form of prejudice or discrimination usually from members of the same race in which people are treated differently based on the social implications from cultural meanings attached to skin colour. I think in itself, ‘colourism’ is a complex issue that not everyone always understands. People tend to think that racial issues are simpler and more black and white.

Being mixed raced/biracial I have experienced a lot of varied discrimination from both white people and black people. Growing up I didn’t always feel accepted in either race and sometimes this was extremely confusing. In addition to having a mixed race identity, there are many more social and environmental factors that amount to a mixed race experience. For example, I am half white British and half Jamaican. I grew up with both of my parents in a two parent household. I also grew up in Bradford West Yorkshire, so my experience of childhood will be very different to a mixed race woman who grew up in London (for example).

I went to two very different schools. One was a very deprived primary school in which not many children received acceptable SATs scores and were to struggle in secondary school. Then my secondary school was a catholic school with very high standards and extremely strict. These experiences shaped me; I had learnt how to navigate in different social circles.

In primary school I was the only BAME child in my whole school year. In secondary school there were around six other black or biracial boys and girls, around 20 Asian boys and girls and the rest of the school year were white boys and girls. I experienced a lot of racial slurs throughout my time in both schools and just learnt to ‘take it on the chin’.

In secondary school someone actually said to me that “the slave trade was not racist, it was different times back then. People need to get over it and stop moaning as it was just white people thinking they were superior to black people”.

I remember talking to my dad when I got home and he rang the school. He spoke with the head teacher and also the leader of ‘ACAP’. This was the ’African Caribbean Achievement Project’ that used to come in to school and take the BAME students out of our citizenship lesson to teach us a little about black history that we were not learning in the school curriculum. Unfortunately not much changed for the rest of my time in school and it was just the norm to accept this.

Throughout childhood and into my teens I experienced a lot of racism from family and family friends, both white and black people. For example, comments like: ‘You’re not a proper black woman, because you’re only half’, ‘do you even understand how your dad speaks’, nicknames like ‘lightie’ and some even got as disgusting as calling me a ‘half breed’ and many other derogatory names. These comments take me back to learning the ‘Half-Caste Poem’ by John Agard. It rings a lot of truth.

This I have to say has been the hardest and most difficult situation to deal with as this is a lot more personal. I think with outside people you build a wall and you can take so much more but when it comes from your inner circle not accepting you because you are biracial it’s the hardest hit on your self-esteem. For me personally this affected me a lot.

One of my most distinct memories of my childhood is that I had learned to hate my natural hair at a very young age; it was always a struggle every morning. I used to buy clip-ins of colourful or blonde hair for my dolls and put them in my own hair. I would swish it around as if I had long straight hair. I envied my white classmates for their beautiful hair. I cried to my mum many times to relax my curly hair but she refused. Telling me my hair was beautiful. In early adulthood I taught myself how to do hair extensions and weaves. I would do these so much that my mum and dad would moan that they never saw my natural hair anymore. But I felt better and more accepted with straight hair and extensions rather than my natural hair. People would comment and pat your curly hair and it made you feel like a pet. With straight hair you just got complimented on how grown up you looked.

Now I’m writing this as a 31-year-old woman who has over time learnt to embrace and accept not only her natural hair but all that comes with my entire heritage. I have learnt that I don’t need to put up with racism and that I have a voice to help change and educate people where I can. I was the first in my family to graduate with a BA Hons Degree and every little step like this gave me more and more confidence.

I have learnt so much from people around me and my parents about how to deal with situations and issues in appropriate ways. I have grown so much from the situations I’ve faced and I continue to keep learning and teaching. I am so grateful that my parents always had my back; I could not be here without them.

I have used my experiences and knowledge to drive me in my working life and help give me focus to improve working environments via BAME staff networks. I have been involved in writing zero tolerance racism polices and working towards reducing unconscious bias in recruitment processes in previous roles. I will continue to be involved where I can in any projects that improve and breed a more accepting culture for everyone.

It’s not been an easy road and that’s okay because without all these experiences I wouldn’t be who I am today.