‘Dad, which box do I tick?’ asked my brother when he reached the ethnic monitoring section of his first job application.
‘Which category best describes your ethnicity?’
It’s an easy question for many people, but one that’s never sat comfortably with me, because I tick a different box to my twin brother.
Born in 1984 in northern England to a white mother and a mixed-race father, my brother and I grew up knowing little of our Caribbean and Indian ancestry on our father’s side. I have blonde hair, green eyes and white skin. My brother has black hair, brown eyes and brown skin.
It’s not something I ever remember noticing when we were young. My parents don’t recall any instances where we were treated differently. My mum said that if anyone commented on our appearance, it would only be to notice how much I looked like her and how much my brother looked like my dad.
As we got older, we realized the surprise that was evident when people found out we were twins. It made for an interesting introduction when we met someone new. It was fun seeing peoples’ reactions:
‘Twins?! But you look nothing alike!’
There were a few occasions when (to our horror) we were mistaken for boyfriend and girlfriend. The only time things ever got uncomfortable was on a family holiday to Egypt when we were in our late teens.
My brother was so immediately perceived to be Egyptian that children spoke Arabic to him. Some teenage boys joked that we couldn’t be twins, that my mother must have had an affair with a dark-skinned man: my brother has darker skin than our dad, and because our dad’s hair had turned grey, the boys were oblivious to their similarities.
We laughed off the comments as they were made good naturedly, but it was an uncomfortable experience, particularly for my brother. It’s the only time he’s ever been singled out as different from his family. This was an early indicator to me of the problems inherent in ascribing racial categories based on perceived racial traits.
Ethnicity isn’t the same thing as race, is it?
Wikipedia describes ethnicity as:
“a grouping of people who identify with each other on the basis of shared attributes that distinguish them from other groups such as a common set of traditions, ancestry, language, history, society, culture, nation, religion or social treatment within their residing area.”
That seems straightforward enough. No mention of skin colour there. So why, when we look at the individual tick boxes on an ethnic monitoring form, is each category of ethnicity tied to a skin colour?
By the definition of ethnicity, my brother and I would describe ourselves as British, but there’s no box for British without a skin colour attached.
That leaves us with the quandary of whether to pick white British or mixed-race British.
At the moment we just pick what society expects of us according to our appearance, so I tick white British, my brother ticks mixed-race British. This has never made sense to me. Perhaps it’s time we move beyond the narrow categories of identity put forward on these kinds of forms?
Who do you think you are?
My brother and I have encountered curiosity about our heritage.
We were pretty curious, too.
I remember going on holiday to the Dominican Republic with friends when I was nineteen. One of the hotel staff members started guessing where we were from. When he came to me, he said,
‘You look Caribbean.’
I spent the rest of the holiday wondering if he could see my ancestry from my physical appearance or whether he was just making fun of me. I still don’t know.
Our heritage wasn’t something my dad openly talked about when we were children. All we knew was that our grandfather had emigrated from Trinidad as part of serving in the Royal Airforce during the Second World War, and that our dad hadn’t seen him since his parents divorced when he was three years old. He was raised by his white mother and her parents.
My dad once met his grandmother on his father’s side, a matriarch with an iron will who had long since fallen out with her son – my dad’s father. I’ve seen a picture of her presiding over a dinner in Trinidad, her family gathered around her. It’s strange to think that I’m probably related to most of the people in that photo, though I have no idea how, and I’ll likely never meet any of them.
The great grandmother I’ll never meet was born and raised in Trinidad, but her heritage was Indian and white: her mother was Indian and had travelled to Trinidad by boat as a baby with her parents, who tragically did not survive the voyage. She spent her life working in indentured servitude. She had a baby (my dad’s grandmother, my great grandmother), with the master of the household, a white man.
My great-grandmother grew up in Trinidad and married a black Trinidadian man whose own father had emigrated from Barbuda to Trinidad following the abolition of slavery. They had several children, including my dad’s father, my grandfather.
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From ancestry to present day
Our dad made contact with his father ten years ago, after a friend researched our family tree and found him.
He’d remarried and had more children, half siblings to my dad, who we also met. We even had some long-lost cousins.
The reunion was no big drama. There were no tears or recriminations. His response to not seeing Dad for over fifty years was a shrug of the shoulders and a comment of,
‘Well, I left you my telephone number.’
The past didn’t really seem to matter. We were just one family meeting another family, curious to get to know each other.
We got together a few times over the years until he died. It was interesting seeing the traits he shared with my dad; both very charismatic, motivated, and sometimes stubborn men. Unfortunately, Dad hadn’t inherited the ability to keep all his own teeth – at age ninety, an achievement my grandfather was very proud of.
My grandfather also identified very much as British. He was adamant he’d never experienced any racism, a narrative which seems to echo my dad’s experience.
Growing up in the 1950s/60s northern working-class England, my dad has no recollection of ever feeling ‘other’. Much loved by the family round him, his mixed-race heritage was never a marker of identity for him. In his day, there were no ethnic monitoring boxes to tick…he was just British!
Both my dad’s and grandfather’s experiences may seem unbelievable from the outside looking in. The dominant narrative might reason that their perception ignores the micro-aggressions perpetrated against them, or the racism inherent in the systems in which they were raised.
It could be argued my dad benefitted from the white privilege of his white family, or it could be suggested that my brother, our dad and his father before him succeeded in life despite their skin colour.
But if you ask them, they don’t feel that skin colour has played a prominent role in their lives.
The problem with sweeping, macro-level narratives is that they often disregard personal truths and leave little room for lived experiences.
I feel there needs to be some recognition that the world and the people in it are complicated. There is no one size fits all scenario, there never has been. Not every person of colour will have experienced racism and not every white person is racist, no matter what picture the dominant narrative tries to paint.
“Working toward opposing conclusions, racists and many anti-racists alike eagerly reduce people to abstract colour categories, all the while feeding off of and legitimizing each other, while any of us searching for grey areas and common ground get devoured twice.”
-Thomas Chatterton Williams
Our multi-hued family continues down the generations. My brother’s wife has fair skin and blonde hair and their son resembles her, whilst their daughter takes after my brother, with brown skin and dark hair, though both children share the same beautiful brown eyes.
Our identity has always felt tied to our family culture, rather than our ancestry.
We haven’t paid much attention to our differences in skin colour over the years, other than as an interesting family fact and, on my part, to be frustrated each time I fill in an ethnic monitoring form and fail to locate a box that I feel adequately defines me.
I need a box that says ‘Northern British girl, with Indian, Caribbean, English and Scottish ancestry and strong familial links to South Wales through upbringing and marriage’.
The Black Lives Matter protests last year prompted discussions within my family, which we’d never felt the need to have before.
Most importantly for me, I wanted to know if my twin felt he’d been treated differently to me on the basis of his skin colour.
He doesn’t. This is not to deny or trivialize the existence of racism. I feel very lucky that our family has been able to grow in a place where skin colour hasn’t been at the forefront of our lives.
I know this isn’t the case for many people. Where the current anti-racist rhetoric fails me is in its divisiveness. It seems to insist that we set ourselves apart from each other on the basis of the colour of our skin. For a family like mine, such reductionist narratives don’t fit.
My twin and I are of the same ‘race’. All that differs is the appearance of our skin colour. This is down to the difference in melanin in our skin, not a difference in our heritage.
We live in a supposedly progressive society where it’s clear that many people have a strong desire to eliminate racism, but I wonder whether the definition of distinct racial categories themselves is part of the problem?
People are complex, the world is complex, and I can’t see how dividing ourselves into ever more definitive tribes on the basis of restrictive narratives will help our society reach a place where discrimination doesn’t exist.
If you were here with me now, I would ask you to look at me, then look at my twin. You may notice the differences in our skin colour, but spend enough time with us and you’ll notice how we yawn the same way, stretch the same way, sneeze with the same annoyingly loud abandon (we get that from our dad).
Once you move past the social conditioning that encourages us to focus upon our differences, it’s easy to see the similarities between us and recognize us as brother and sister.
Race is a social construct
How race is defined varies culturally. Identity markers which can seem so set in stone in one country can be transformed into another.
In America, there is a one drop rule, where me, my twin and all our respective children could be considered black on the basis of our ancestry. But in Brazil, anyone with white ancestors can consider themselves white, no matter the colour of their skin. In Paris, my brother would much more likely be mistaken for Algerian, as has been the case for Thomas Chatterton-Williams, an American Cultural Critic and author living in Paris.
His skin tone is similar to my brothers. He has a white mother and a black father and was raised as a black man in America. I became interested in his writing after reading an article where he described how the birth of his children, with white skin and blonde hair, forced him to rethink the binary definitions of race based on black and white with which he had been raised.
Chatterton-Williams suggests that we ‘unlearn’ or ‘transcend’ race and find better ways of identifying ourselves.
He asks that we think about what we want for our future. Is the way we are addressing race and ethnicity solving the problem of discrimination or exacerbating it? Will a continued focus on the differences between us get us to where we want to be?
“One way or another, we are going to have to figure out how to make our multi-ethnic realities work, and one of the great intellectual projects facing us—in America and abroad—will be to develop a vision of ourselves strong and supple enough both to acknowledge the lingering importance of inherited group identities while also attenuating, rather than reinforcing, the extent to which such identities are able to define us.”
– Thomas Chatterton Williams
For my family, whatever way we, or other people, choose to define us,
what matters to us is that we are a close knit, loving family, aware of our rich and varied ancestry, but not defined by it.
Our ancestors’ indentured labour and slavery were barbaric, but it is also an immutable part of our history. Our family would not exist had the past not played out as it did.
Don’t judge a book by its cover
You can never know a person’s story unless you talk to them, but a willingness to talk openly with others is becoming increasingly rare in a society where it’s so easy to offend.
I will teach my children to recognise their privilege in life, but not to feel guilt for the whiteness of their skin.
I don’t think it’s helpful for them to see themselves as different to members of their family on the basis of their skin colour. To put them in a different category to their uncle, their grandad or their cousin won’t help build the kind of world I want for their future: a world where there are no judgements or assumptions based on skin colour at all.
The funny thing is, from my experience of parenting, this world already exists within our youngest children, until we socialise them out of it with definitions of what it means to have a certain skin colour and belong to a certain ‘race’.
I have stood in the energy of fear and anxiety and I have stood in the energy of love and acceptance. The former feels like being stuck in a viscous mud, where struggle leads to resentment and hopelessness. The latter feels like freedom.
It’s my goal to equip my children with an openness and curiosity about the world to introduce them to a wide variety of cultures, people and experiences, so that they don’t feel threatened by differences.
I will encourage them to have respect for their fellow humans and to listen to the stories of those they meet throughout their lives with openness and compassion. It is my hope that this will be a small step towards healing our increasingly fractured society.
I may be criticized for my naivety and optimism, but- somewhat optimistically, I think the world needs more optimists.
Thomas Chatterton Williams, Self Portrait in Black and White: Unlearning Race (2019) V.W. Norton Company
Wife, mother, and writer of ruminations, reflections, short stories and poems.