My Label and Me: I'm mixed-race and everyone has an opinion about me

Growing up in the 1990s in inner city Nottingham, my life was full of colour and my community was as equally Jamaican as it was white British.

Jamaican dancehall music blasted out of everyone’s house and no family was exclusively black or white.

I was the second generation of my immigrant Jamaican family. My mum’s family is white with generations working in factories and in the mines. I feel like I have had the best of all worlds.

And I’d like to talk about my experience as black Caribbean/white British – the box I tick when filling out official forms.

Where I grew up the term ‘mixed-race’ usually meant that your dad was black – mostly Jamaican descent – and your mum was white.

In my big Jamaican family, with over 20 first cousins (I’m not exaggerating), at lot of us are mixed-race. Through my school years I grew up with people whose families reflected my own. Feelings of sticking out or isolation were out of the question.

But ‘mixed-race’ isn’t the term I used to describe myself growing up. In fact, I would be referred to and refer to others as ‘half-caste.’ It wasn’t until I was introduced to John Aggard’s poem Half-Caste in year nine at school that me and my class realised what we had been calling each other was derogatory.

Even once we started using ‘mixed-race’ instead, we found that like – with all labels – there are stereotypes and meanings attached. The most prominent in this case have been ‘exotic’, ‘mixed up’ and ‘confused.’

The ‘exotic’ has often meant that as a light skinned mixed-race man I can pass unidentified through the world. When I’m in Spain, I can be seen as Spanish. Turkey – Turkish. And one cab driver would not believe that I was anything other than Arab.

I can be read in many different ways although, no one reads me as white. Despite being ‘light skinned’, which comes from my black family, through generations of colonialism and slavery that gave us our ‘red-skin’.

However my broad Nottingham accent and my council estate education means that my lived reality is that of a working class British ‘brown’ person that, as a teenager, was stopped and searched on a regular basis.

One thing I am not, is ‘mixed up.’ I am aware of the stereotypes and I’ve met people who share the same ethnicity as me but have been raised solely by the white side of their family yet identify as black. The rapper Akala has also talked about his discomfort about his mother’s whiteness.

I guess the reason why other mixed-raced people feel this way might be because the way they’ve been treated by white society. Even if you are half black the majority of white people will subconsciously apply the ‘one-drop’ rule and see you as a black person.

Growing up close to both sides of my family, at a multi-ethic school, and living in an area where my experience was common, I enjoyed the dichotomy of cultures.

I remember my mum banning my dad from watching any film where it was white vs black – particularly the film Zulu – because it filled him with vitriolic rage. He’d be bouncing around the living room and demanding that I pick a side.

Apparently being mixed race is now on trend – it seems like every company uses a mixed-raced-nuclear-family to try to sell me a holiday or a sofa.

Even the royal family have got in on the action, but will little Prince Archie be known as a ‘quarter-caste’ – a term also used in my childhood – or will his high birth position exonerate him of race completely?

My prediction is that he’ll explore his African-American roots, reject his royal blood, join the Hotep movement and be dubbed The Woke Prince.

Nevertheless, there is a serious point here about fetishism of the exotic. White girls would always remark about having children with black guys so that their kids would have lovely freckled brown skin and luscious curly hair – in turn they would also fetishise us for the same reason

It doesn’t matter how I see myself or want to be seen; everyone’s got an opinion of who I am. Whether black, white or a funny tinge (shout out to Angela Smith) I know my roots and will keep pushing for my idea of beige excellence.

You can follow Leon on Twitter at @Leonmckenzeh


Labels is an exclusive series that hears from individuals who have been labelled – whether that be by society, a job title, or a diagnosis. Throughout the project, writers will share how having these words ascribed to them shaped their identity  positively or negatively  and what the label means to them.

If you would like to get involved please email [email protected]

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