“What are you?” was the question I was most asked by complete strangers when I was in my teens. I was fairly confident amongst my mates but pretty shy on my own, so to be asked such a direct question by strangers (often surrounded by their mates) was pretty daunting – but take into consideration the use of the word “what” rather than “who” and I found it down-right offensive.
You see, I look mixed race. With my dark brown frizzy hair, tapered olive green eyes that narrow at the inner corners (striking but a devil to apply eye shadow to), short round snub nose (my partner thinks it’s cute) and pouty lips that would give Mick Jagger a run for his money. When people asked me what race or mixture of races I was – wether that be in a polite or more forth right way – I was clueless! My parents look white: My Mum has blue eyes and blond hair. My Dad has hazel green eyes and almost black hair. My Dad’s Mum died when he was very little and his Dad was the strong silent type who never really talked about her. There is only one sepia toned picture of her and I look a lot like her. My Mum never knew her real Dad. People in Europe and many other parts of the world which have been repeatedly invaded and colonised over the centuries are bound to have incredibly varied genes anyway.
I’ve never had a problem with my looks. When I was a little kid people would make a point of commenting on how cute my chubby cheeks were or how pretty my eyes were. It wasn’t until my first day of nursery school that I became very aware of my looks. The first kid I nervously said hello to said stated “You look like a pig with slanty eyes” and then walked away. Silly childish comment I know but after looking in the mirror I concluded she was kind of accurate. Great start! Over the course of primary/junior school I got comments ranging from “You’re obviously adopted and they haven’t told you yet” (my eight year old brain was so convinced this was true I sat my parents down for a serious chat and asked them out right, which they found rather bemusing) to “My Dad says people like you should just go back to where you came from.” This one used to completely bewilder me and when I’d ask what that meant, it was pretty obvious the kids bullying me had no idea what the adults meant either and were just repeating it. Obviously I now realise they had racist parents who wanted any body of any ethnicity other than white to bugger off – regardless of how many generations were born here.
As a teenager I had a large group of friends and one who was amazing. She would defend me by attacking the bully with such witty vitriolic comments, the look on their faces was pretty amusing at times! I also developed quite a mouth on me and learned how to hone in on the bullies weaknesses and verbally beat them around the head with any large chips they had on their shoulder. I know psychologists say bullies have often been abused themselves and they are just taking it out on other people. Honestly though, I think most of them were just gleefully showing off to their mates. When I was in my mid teens I often had people (adults included) make loud monkey noises after me as I walked down the street on my own.
It was pretty evident by then that I was being racially abused. It was the 90’s and where I lived was a fairly white area. Nowadays it’s really multi-cultural and it doesn’t happen any more. I don’t know if it’s because I’m an adult now and not an easy target to intimidate or if things really have changed. I do see teenagers on the way home from school walking down my street with big-ass ‘fro’s and mixed couples proudly holding hands which just wasn’t accepted back then. I do find it astonishing that attitude existed only 10-15 years ago and appalling that it still exists in many more white washed areas around the country.
I have had it in unexpected ways as well like when I’d go to R&B clubs in my 20’s and dance for most of night and attract a fair amount of male attention. There were a few times when guys who’d been practically dry humping me on the dance floor (don’t judge, I was drunk – and they were fit) would run a mile when they found out I wasn’t part Afro-Caribean. I guess they thought ‘black is best’ – or whatever.
About 10 years ago I got myself into a pretty farcical situation. I’d started a job as an office temp for a company for a month when I got into one of those stupid bonding conversations where women compare them selves to each other and put themselves down by comparison. I’d received lot’s of compliments about my thick dark hair, the colour of my eyes, skin tone and pouty lips and I was blushing like a beetroot by this point. Then someone caught me off guard by asking “So where do you get your exotic looks from then?” A few other people said they had been wondering this as well and told me the nationalities and races that they had guessed. I suddenly heard myself say “I’m half Hawaiian.” Liar. A few weeks later my supervisor said she was thinking of going on holiday there and could I suggest which was the best island! I mumbled something about us moving to the UK when I was a toddler. Big fat liar! To make matters worse I was taken on full-time just as my my high school mates brother (who knew me) started working there. He picked up on the whole Hawaiian rubbish and burst out laughing with a loud “Eh, what the hell are you on about?” Fortunately he shut up after I gave him ‘the stare of death’. That taught me how a spur of the moment lie can snowball and come back to bite you in the (white?) arse! Never again.
Funny story: Two years ago I went with my bloke to The Eden Project down in Cornwall which was awesome. It was a really hot summer and I was due to go to a festival so I’d put my hair into tight-to-my-head skinny platts and stuck a wide woven head band on to hold them back as my painted wooden ear stretcher kept getting tangled. I was also proud of the amazing tan that I’d developed in the space of about two weeks. The majority of visitors which The Eden Project attracts are fairly middle-class, well-spoken and white. The amount of stares I got made me feel like a martian that had just stepped off a space ship! However, it was cool as everyone was being really polite and friendly. Then a kid aged about 10 pointed straight at me and said in a loud voice “Look at her Mum!” His Mum turned around then looked absolutely mortified! She dragged him away by his sleeve saying “How many times do I have to tell you, we don’t stare at the ethnic people.” It cracked me up laughing so much!
So to answer the question “What are you?” I s’pose I should say ‘ethnic people’ ;o)