I am one-quarter black and I grew up in King’s Lynn, a town near Cambridge.
My grandad is from Trinidad and Tobago and my great-grandmother was Venezuelan, but pretty much the rest of my family is white British, so I’m quite light in complexion. I have what would be considered “white” features, so especially when my hair is straightened or shaved as I have it today, I am white-passing. To be white-passing means that if someone’s not made aware of my heritage, they’ll likely assume that I’m just white with a tan. It wasn’t until I met my husband, who is black, that I became more curious about my blackness.
I learned to hide my blackness early on. When my hair would be natural—best case scenario, strangers would constantly touch it; worst case, I would be compared to a toy troll. During my modeling and presenting days, my agents would always encourage me to straighten my hair for castings and jobs, as clients often complained my natural hair looked “uncared for”, despite the expensive hair products I used that were imported from Brazil. The problem was not my hair care: it was that my hair wasn’t white enough. Inspired to wear my hair naturally again, I realised how damaged my hair was from years of straightening it, and if I ever wanted to see my natural hair texture again, I would need to cut it all and grow it out again. I always wanted to have a shaved head—I like the look—but I also like the freedom of not needing to spend large amounts of money, time and energy on my hair.
Following George Floyd’s murder, I remember feeling utterly disheartened by the world I will one day have to raise my black children in; wondering how I’m going to explain racism to them whilst teaching them of their beauty, excellence, and importance.
Looking for answers, I turned to books, starting with Reni Eddo-Lodge’s Why I’m No Longer Talking To White People About Race. It’s during this time of educating myself about racism and privilege that I learned to acknowledge and come to terms with my own. By nature of living in a society that prioritises white contributions to history, white narratives, white beauty standards, and whiteness as the standard on a whole, I learned that I’m not immune to racist thoughts. I’m not immune to buying into the concept that white is superior; more valuable, more beautiful. In other words: white supremacy.
I’ve had black women share with me, laugh with me, create with me, pray with me, inspire me, amaze me, listen to me, care for me—physically and mentally.
My circle of friends is very diverse. Four of my six best friends are black, my general circle is a mixture of Black, White, Asian, Arab, Christian, Muslim, Buddhist, LGBTQ+ and so much more, all of whom I celebrate and value. So think about it: if I, as a mixed-race person with such a diverse circle, have the potential to harbor internalised racism, how much internalised racism do you think there is in other groups? Check your friends regularly.
To the examples of my internalised racism, I’ve been guilty of feeling uncomfortable by a black friend’s unapologetic passion when speaking on a matter that concerned her black experience—I assumed the stereotype of the angry black woman. Even after I knew my black friend well enough to know better, I would still nervously laugh when she’d get passionate in public so that the white people nearby wouldn’t feel threatened or think I was somehow in on it. Prioritising whiteness is so ingrained within us that, during the coronavirus pandemic, when queuing for Sainsbury’s with one of my black friends, after watching lots of white groups of friends be allowed in together—when it was our turn, we were told only one of us was allowed in at a time. Not only did I not challenge the lady on this, I waltzed in first, assuming my white privilege.
Whilst at lunch with a black friend, I remember we were discussing the bad casting choice for a film based on Nina Simone, where they took a fair-skinned Hollywood actress and black-faced her to look darker. I believe they also used prosthetics. I remember adding to the conversation, saying: “Also, she’s not some pretty, fair-skinned lady—she was BLACK!” Now if you don’t know how problematic that statement is, let me break it down for you: the way I emphasised the word “black”, I implied that black was not pretty. The insanity of this statement becomes clearer when we remember I am part black myself, as I am basically saying my heritage is not beautiful. This is the same anti-black thinking that leads people to say you’re pretty for a black girl, which implies that if you’re pretty and black, you’re an exception to the rule.
By these examples, I have assumed black to be less important than white. I assumed black to not be beautiful. I assumed the stereotype of the angry black woman, but have I ever been verbally or physically harmed by a black woman? Threatened in any way? No. I have, however, been uplifted by many black women. I’ve been in awe by the beauty of my black friends. I’ve had black women share with me, laugh with me, create with me, pray with me, inspire me, amaze me, listen to me, care for me—physically and mentally. I have had some of the most wonderful, warm and blessed memories with beautiful and powerful black women, so why do I believe a narrative that directly contradicts my own actual and factual experience?
The short answer is: when you see and hear something often enough, you start to believe it, just like I kept hearing negative comments about my hair—which led me to straighten it for decades. When you turn on the TV, look through the magazines, read the history books, see the advertising—overwhelmingly, white stories are prioritised. Not only does this subconsciously teach us that white is more valuable, desirable, and powerful, but that white is the norm/“normal”. So that makes everyone else what, exactly? Abnormal?
It’s funny how often we learn to love by an absence of love. When we’ve been treated unkindly, this inspires us to grow our empathy and do better. When we’ve been neglected as a child, this motivates us to be more loving, attentive parents. Well, this has been the realisation of my own lack of love for blackness as a whole and the blackness within me—exposing and exploring my own internalised racism—that highlights the road ahead of where I need to do better, by others and by myself.
So how will I do better? I will continue to educate myself and question my own perceptions, as I’ve learnt that my perceptions are not trustworthy. I will continue to fact-check my own actual and factual experience, instead of blindly accepting what I’m fed by society as it’s proven both imbalanced and inaccurate. And I will educate myself—and my children to come—about black people’s immeasurably valuable contributions to society and history because our educational system has failed to do so.