In his fourth post to mark Black History Month, Josh McLennon of Kilburn & Strode shares his thoughts about nationality and “Blackness”. They’re based on his own experiences of growing up in the UK, learning about his identity and its effect on how he interacts with the world.
The article can also be found on Josh’s LinkedIn page here. You can read his first article – exploring the meaning of Black History Month – here; his second – which discussed the history of afro-textured hair – here; and his third – about Black Pound Day and the importance of supporting Black-owned businesses – here.
As a member of Kilburn & Strode’s Diversity Forum, I will be writing five articles that will launch throughout October to celebrate Black History Month. The articles form part of the educational sharing series, with the aim of insight and education. This is article number four.
This article is about my experiences growing up in the UK. This is not a universal account of what it is like to grow up “mixed-race”, but it is instead a deeply personal one, and one which could never hope to encapsulate the complexities of any childhood or adolescence. This should be considered as a snapshot of my perspective on my experiences, and someone else, even someone with exactly the same background and experiences as me, may feel entirely differently about the topics I have raised. I might even feel differently, too, given a few years.
Nationality and Blackness
Technically, I’m both British and American. Both of my parents are British, born and raised here, as are all of my siblings. I just happened to be born in California, where my family relocated for a few years in the mid-nineties. I say I am “technically” American as it’s not a label which has any bearing on my identity. It has no practical impact on my day-to-day life, other than the occasional daydreams where I imagine who I would have been had my family stayed.
For the entirety of my childhood, I did not find my “Blackness” to hold any special meaning, either. It was nothing more than a quirk of circumstance. I might have even protested had you called me Black – I was “mixed-race” and I felt it was an accurate description of my heritage: my dad is Black, and my mum is White.
I had a comfortable, middle-class upbringing in a nice, mainly White, village in Surrey. There is nothing I can point to about our home life which marked us out as particularly different to any other families. Half-terms were spent visiting adoring grandparents up in Bradford, where both my parents are from, and summer holidays were spent camping in France or visiting friends and family in the US. My parents absolutely loved cooking (they still do!), and no cuisine was off limits. I always felt safe and was generally insulated from racism throughout my childhood.
One thing to remember about racism is that it will seek you out, irrespective of whether you believe in it or not. I can remember a few times when my race was brought to my attention as a child. I was playing football for my local club, aged 7, when a boy I hadn’t met before shouted “Oi, Blackie – pass the ball!” I resented this at the time as “Blackie” sounded like a dog’s name, and I felt ashamed. In the year or two following this, I remember being one of three boys kept behind by a supply-teacher for “disrupting the class”. I will admit to being a complete chatterbox as a child, but the other two boys, both Black, had barely spoken a word in the classroom all day. I wondered if keeping the only three boys of African ancestry behind was just a coincidence but even at that age I suspected it might not be. I did not have the words to describe how incidents like this made me feel at the time, and I never mentioned them to anyone. I was beginning to understand that my race marked me out as different from other people, but I wasn’t sure exactly what that meant yet.
I remember the first time I had “the talk”. I must have been 12 or 13, and my mum had picked me up from the train station after a fairly typical day of school. When we had pulled into our drive, I remember her turning the key, pulling it out of the ignition, and us sitting for a little bit longer than usual. After a deep breath, she turned to me with words to the effect of “Josh, I hope you understand that racism still exists out there. If you ever experience anything remotely racist you must tell either me or Dad.” As you might expect, I was slightly embarrassed and responded by nodding and offering short words of agreement before jumping out of the car and continuing the day as normal. As a young teenager, racism was something I felt would not, and could not, affect me directly, even though it already had. These were uncomfortable memories, and I was not yet ready to begin wondering what they meant for me or my future. I felt that my negative experiences surrounding my Blackness said something about me as a person.
It must have been later that year, on a school camping trip, when I was called the “n-word” several times by someone I considered to be a close friend. I was understandably heartbroken and remember wondering why there were special words which singled me out. I went straight to the teacher, in tears, and the boy was disciplined in the same way he might have if he was caught swearing. Within an hour or two, the day continued as if this had never happened. No parents were called, no explanation provided as to how damaging the use of such language is, and there was no mention of what had happened ever again.
I think this incident and how it was dealt with highlights something important. In particular, the way in which we deal with systemic racism in our society actually perpetuates the problem. By refusing to discuss or be willing to dissect incidents such as these, it makes them more likely to happen again in the future. To confront these difficult things head-on requires a sort of bravery, but I’m not sure that we can sit comfortably anymore in the feeling that “we better not say anything just in case we get it wrong”. Search engines are your best friend in these instances, and even a five-minute search can equip you for dealing with these issues if they appear in your own, your friends’ or your children’s lives.
He was not allowed to say this, but it was never debunked as being untrue. This left me with the feeling that the pointing out of my Blackness was the offensive part, not the way in which this was done. How could I tell my parents this? In a very British way, I followed the school’s lead and swept this incident under the carpet, trying to forget that it had ever happened. I thought that reporting something like this would upset my parents, and, besides, it had already been dealt with.
Explicit confrontations, like the one described above, are just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to discrimination. It was only late on in my teenage years that I could begin to appreciate the more subtle and pernicious ways in which my race began to affect how people related to me.
How many times would you need to be asked if you played basketball before you began to suspect that something was a little off?
How many times would you need to be asked if you sold or knew where to buy marijuana before you began to suspect that something was not quite right?
How many times would you need to be asked if what “they” say about Black men is true before you began to suspect that people are creepy?
These are all questions which have been fielded to me hundreds of times, often in complete earnest. Now, while I understand why someone would ask me if I played basketball (I’m six foot five, which is actually two inches shorter than the average height of an NBA player but I digress, link here), I also think that my Blackness has something to do with it (over 80% of NBA players are Black, link here). The tricky thing is, it is really hard to know whether someone treats you differently on account of your race, or whether they are treating you differently due to one of the million other unique things about you. This leaves you with a feeling akin to a sort of paranoia, requiring you to always be alert lest you are unfairly discriminated against.
To give an example of this, while walking in the woods near my family’s house just yesterday, I passed a middle-aged man walking his dog, and his dog barked at me as any dog might. Would he have chosen the words “Sorry about him, my dog’s ignorant,” had I been White? It’s really hard to know, but I suspect not. I felt like I was being reminded that ignorant people have stereotypes about Black people, and that his dog had these stereotypes about me. Even if the dog walker did not intend it, this was a reminder that people have stereotypes about me.
Far from being abstract ideas with little real-world implications, I think it’s likely that these stereotypes have shaped the person that I am today. For example, I have always made an effort to put people at ease. It’s hard to know if this aspect of my personality is the result of Black men being viewed in our society as intimidating and aggressive. Perhaps being overly welcoming is the result of my attempts, as a child, to ensure that people did not apply this stereotype to me.
Am I Black?
Race works in a slightly different way to nationality. Although it would not be incorrect for me to identify as mixed-race, Black, or even White (these are not mutually exclusive identities), I feel that I cannot be Black and White in the same way I am British and American. Living in Britain, I have found “Whiteness” to be an exclusive label, and “Blackness” to be an inclusive one. I have never been assumed to be White but have often been assumed to be Black. It’s hard to know, but I imagine that a good proportion of people that I meet assume I have two Black parents. If I were to visit a country where Black people make up the majority, I might be viewed as being White.
I dislike the terms “mixed-race” and “mixed-heritage” as I believe that they imply there are special biological differences between my parents which other parents do not have. In fact, Nina Jablonski, an anthropologist and paleobiologist at Penn State University in the US, states in this article here that “the amount of genetic variation within any of [the recognised ‘races’ of modern people] is greater than the average difference between any two [racial] groups…There are no genes that are unique to any particular ‘race'”. This means that, along with there being no biological or genetic basis for separating people into racial categories, my parents are likely to be closer genetically than two parents you know whom you would consider to be of the same race. I am not an order of magnitude more “mixed” than anyone else.
“Afro-European” could well be my preferred term to describe my ancestry, but it is yet to hit the mainstream. According to Wikipedia here, Afro-European “refers to people in Europe who trace full, or partial ancestry to Sub Saharan Africa.” I like this term so much as it includes the continents where the majority of my parents’ ancestors were from. While its definition might risk downplaying my European ancestry, I think that the term itself highlights both the African and European sides of my heritage. It is also an inclusive label, and still clearly refers to me even though my dad is also partially Filipino. My dad’s parents are from Jamaica (in the Caribbean) and the Seychelles (a collection of small islands in the Indian Ocean located to the east of Madagascar). This means that neither of the labels “Afro-Caribbean” or “African” describe our ancestry neatly anyway, and inclusive terms provide space for people like us.
These questions of racial identity are not new, and they are, in fact, common. Since I began looking a few years ago, it has been uncanny to see how closely the thoughts of other Afro-European people have mirrored my own. This article here details the way in which author Micha Frazer-Carroll’s self-identity has changed over time. Alongside discussing some of the privileges that having partly European ancestry can bring, she says “At university, I found myself part of a tiny minority and felt more marked out by my blackness. Suddenly, blackness actually felt hugely important, partly as a means of gaining solidarity…The common ground [I had with Black people] was more significant.”
I completely agree. When you are a minority, the common ground is more significant. Like Frazer-Carroll, I have been racialised as a Black person, here in the UK, and have found tremendous solidarity in the Black community with respect to issues of racism and identity. It is because I am viewed as Black, and that Blackness has many negative associations in our society, that we have many of the same experiences.
Ultimately, any categorisation of people based on the pseudo-scientific and outdated ideas of race will be problematic. The issue is that race still plays an important role in how we view people, and I feel I must choose how to identify in view of this. I implore you not to say “I do not see colour” when confronted with issues of race, but to see instead how colour is just one single aspect of racial identity, and also that the colour of our skin or even our perceived race are not the problems. The problem is what we think that these physical attributes and labels tell us about the person who has them, distorting the way in which we interact with one another as human beings.
Being of both African and European descent is interesting given the history of how these two groups of people have interacted. I often think about the different lives that my ancestors led, and the ways in which invisible threads connected their existences. On one side, my ancestors were picking cotton and cutting sugar cane destined for Britain while enslaved in British colonies and toiling in the Caribbean heat. On the other side, my ancestors were spinning cotton in Northern mills and eating sweet, baked delights here in the UK. Perhaps they handled the same cotton, or maybe they set eyes upon the same sugar. What would they have thought of me, and my family? I will never know.
When I look in the mirror, I see a Black man and I am proud. I see my dark skin and feel that it connects me to ancestors I will never meet. I see in it the strength and resilience required to endure centuries of enslavement. They have suffered untold horrors for me to be here in Britain today, and with that comes a sense of responsibility and determination. I see my European features and think of my grandparents, the kindest and sweetest couple to ever grace the north Yorkshire coast, and I think of my family. We are all a combination of those who came before us, regardless of who they were or where they are from. Being Afro-European can be difficult at times, but it can also be fascinating.
What’s in a name?
My surname has been passed down from my Jamaican side, and I do not know why we have this name, with its Scottish roots. From a little bit of research, it appears I have the name McLennon as it was either:
- Chosen by one of my enslaved ancestors upon baptism;
- Chosen by one of my formerly enslaved ancestors upon emancipation in the 1830s; or
- The surname of a Scottish ancestor who worked as a bookkeeper or overseer on a Jamaican plantation and had a relationship with one of my enslaved ancestors resulting in the birth of a child. [Side-note: This could well be the case, given my dad is also of some Scottish ancestry, according to a DNA test]
I think about the ambiguity of this name every time I write it down, and sometimes I chuckle. This is who I am, whether I understand exactly why or not.
Page published on 2nd November 2020
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Thanks so much for sharing, Josh.