Mixed Up: 'I worry that people will judge me before I have even said a word'

Being mixed-race is increasingly common, in fact, it is the fastest growing ethnic group in the UK.

Straddling two or more ethnic backgrounds can be brilliant and can provide a unique perspective on families, culture and the wider world.

But there are also conflicts that come with being mixed-race, harmful stereotypes to overcome, prejudicial attitudes to avoid.

Mixed Up is a weekly series that aims to get to the heart of what it means to be mixed-race today – beyond the clichés and the stigma, to the lived experiences beneath.

Marie Farmer is a mother and founder of a family nutrition app. She has Jamaican and Scottish heritage, but she doesn’t identify as either black or white. In fact, she hates being asked to choose.

‘There were only a handful of non-white children in my primary school, which did lead to certain issues in the playground,’ Marie tells Metro.co.uk.

‘Whenever we pretended to be the Spice Girls, I always had to be Scary because I was “brown” – even though I was clearly the best Posh.

‘When I was a bit older I remember reading the poem “Half-caste” by John Agard in a class.

‘I clearly didn’t understand the message as I was really pleased I had a name to identify myself with. I told my mum and she explained why it was a racist term, so I quickly switched to saying I was mixed.

‘That was the first time it occurred to me that being mixed could be controversial. I don’t remember anyone before that pointing out that I was different and that it was a bad thing.’

Marie’s experience of being mixed-race was drastically different depending on where she was. A move across the Atlantic changed everything.

‘I moved to New York with my mother, sisters and brother in 1999, which was a complete culture shock,’ she says.

‘For the first time in my life, I was at a school where there were no white children – I no longer stuck out in the crowd due to my skin colour.

‘I did still manage to be different though, my English accent meant I was immediately labelled a snob who wanted to be white. Most of my class called me an “Oreo” and bullied me mercilessly for years.

‘Americans just didn’t accept “mixed” as a form of identification and just saw it as my way of pretending I wasn’t black.’

Marie’s parental heritage is complicated, and not entirely clear. A DNA test showed up a couple of surprising results, but it is the personal relationships that are important to Marie, not the ethnic lineage.

‘My mother’s side of the family is black Caribbean. Her parents moved to Birmingham from Jamaica in the 1950s. There was a family rumour for years that we had Chinese heritage somewhere, but 23andme disagreed.

‘When I got the results they were surprising. Apparently, I’m 2% Native American.

‘My Jamaican grandparents were hugely influential in raising me – especially my grandma. Even though so many things have changed about her family over the years, she’s so incredibly caring, I’m not sure what I would do without her.

‘My father’s mother is white, from Scotland – the only thing he knows about his dad is that he was black. His white grandmother raised him alone, he’s not sure what happened to his mum or dad, and no one ever talks about it.

‘So I guess that makes me three-quarters black and a quarter white, but I’ve just always considered myself mixed.’

Marie has always been clear on how she identifies and who she is – but she has often come up against people who have confused or problematic ideas about race. She says it took her a long time to disassociate herself from these negative influences.

‘I have always been fiercely proud of being mixed and wear it like a badge of honour, it makes me feel special. But then, I’ve always liked being the odd one out – it’s a comfortable default position for me,’ explains Marie.

‘The most problematic comments have been from people who I considered friends.

‘I’ve heard; “you know some drug dealers right?”

‘”You don’t sound black.”

‘”You’re not really black, you’re too smart.”

‘”You act so white, but it’s nice to know I can say I have a black friend.”

“Can I touch your hair?” Then after touching it, “wow it’s so soft I assumed it would feel like a sheep’s wool but it feels just like normal hair.”

‘At the time I didn’t register how offensive these things were. I’m ashamed to say I never once told anyone I didn’t like what they were saying.

‘Looking back, I’m shocked by what I let people say. I don’t allow myself to be surrounded by those kinds of people anymore.’

But there is only so much Marie can do to protect herself from hostility and prejudicial attitudes. They are pervasive and often unconscious. Marie says that these days, she is hyper aware of how she is perceived.

‘I wonder a lot about unspoken discrimination, it’s something I constantly worry about when meeting new people – have they judged me on the colour of my skin before I’ve even said a word?’ asks Marie.

‘I remember meeting an ex-boyfriend’s family for the first time. They hadn’t been told I was mixed and were visibly shocked when they saw me.

‘I was dumped the next day – which I assume was not because I accidentally broke their shower curtain.’

One of Marie’s biggest bugbears is society’s need to place people in a singular box. It’s something she actively fights against and she is more than happy to sit comfortably in the inbetween space between categories.

‘I have never identified as either black or white. I refuse to do so and get very annoyed if someone tries to push me to choose,’ Marie tells us.

‘My connection to my Jamaican side comes from my family, rather than the place itself.

‘I visited once when I was eight and it was a very unpleasant experience. It was unbearably hot – I was chased by goats, feasted on by mosquitoes, jumped on by a lizard and told not to speak in public in case anyone heard my accent.

‘It’s safe to say I feel a lot more comfortable sipping whiskey on a wind-swept moor – which I must get from my Scottish side.’

Marie is well aware of the simplistic and enduring concept that mixed-race people are some kind of hope for a utopian future. While she values being mixed-race, she worries that this belief undermines the reality of being a minority, mixed or otherwise.

‘I have heard a lot of compliments in my life about how being mixed is so cool, interesting and sexy – like we’re this magical exotic race of the future,’ says Marie.

‘In reality, being mixed has historically been incredibly difficult and isolating, and although I don’t feel that is the case as much now, I do think society has to be careful not to reduce or fetishise us.

‘I think the image that pops up when people think of mixed people is of a person who is evenly split between black and white, with wavy light brown hair, honey-coloured skin and green or blue eyes, but people of mixed heritage have such a spectrum of looks and experiences.

‘I think it’s important to be clear that we are not just a trendy look – but a group of diverse and complex people.

‘We certainly see a lot more mixed people in advertising, film and TV than when I was a child, so that is positive.

‘Unfortunately, I feel sometimes we’re used as a way of achieving diversity without making the audience feel too uncomfortable.

‘There is not enough depth or investigation of our personal perspectives  – which is why this series of articles is so important, it’s actually getting to know the human beings behind the categorisation.’

Marie’s husband is white and their young son August is visibly racially ambiguous.

August is too young to form strong opinions on his own racial identity, but Marie’s focus is to ensure that he feels happy and secure with who he is.

‘Both my husband and I want to make sure he is comfortable with being mixed,’ she explains.

‘A stranger once told my husband that August had a “lovely tan” – so he may come across issues of misidentification or incorrect assumptions being made about him.

‘I think living in London is a huge benefit as he is around people from all backgrounds, so he is bound to find people in a similar situation to him.

‘At the moment, if you ask him what colour mummy is, he says “brown”, for daddy he says “pink” and for himself, he says “brown”, “green”, “blue” or sometimes “bottom”.’

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