It’s a funny thing being brown. It’s a word that isn’t completely accepted as a descriptor of an individual’s colour. If I shouted “I’M A STRONG, BROWN, INDEPENDENT WOMAN!”; it certainly doesn’t feel convincing. Saying ‘I’m brown’ in the past has often received some laughs. Even I find it a bit comical, because I’m also not ready to take ‘brown’ as seriously as I would white or black, or give it the narrative and story it deserves.
“This is what it’s like to be brown…” doesn’t feel like the start of a compelling tale about race. Why? Well, for me, pre-today’s society where we can self-define and own what we are, it had always really been three things growing up; white, black and mixed race. If you grew up mixed race, you often felt colourless. You felt colourless, while also being taught to be flexible to colour, both when it helped you fit in, and when dictated by others.
“You’re basically white Roxy”
“Roxy, as a black woman…”
But simultaneously, if someone asked “Is Roxy black?”, I know people would respond with “No, she’s mixed race”. And like that my colour is taken away, because ‘No she’s brown’ was not a valid response. And that’s the thing about being brown and mixed race, people tell you what you are, while everyone else gets to just be what they are, no questions asked.
After years of confusion, today I’m more accepting that brown is the most accurate way to describe my colour. But after growing in confidence to say it, it can also feel like society can swing towards telling me I’m black. It now feels like it’s acceptable to say I’m black because I’m a ‘person of colour’. We see society labelling people as black when it suits our goal of becoming a more inclusive society. Meghan Markle, Barack Obama. Neither black, both making headlines as ‘our first black…’, both mixed race. Or are they brown? Starting to empathise with the dilemma?
As well as facing an ethnicity crisis, I am in a colour crisis. Take forms, for instance. Here’s what they look like:
White British | Black British
*multiple other options*
Mixed Race – Black African/White | Mixed Race – Black Caribbean/White
Mixed Race – Other (any other background)
Note, mixed race is also rarely followed by ‘British’. Forms throw me, a weird combination of colour, ethnicity and nationality, and then there I am, meeting none; an ‘other’.
If we were to add me up, what am I? I only have a quarter of white in me; does that make me black by majority? Am I what I present externally or what I am made up of internally? How brown do you have to be before you’re black? I’ve seen lighter skinned black people the same colour as me, but they’re black because both their parents are black. That’s not the case for me, so I’m mixed race, an ‘other’.
I want a colour, and in the same way ‘mixed race’ holds so much ambiguity, not having a colour does too. I have to connect with others on the ‘mixed race experience’, while many get to connect on their black or white identity. It is rare that brown people sit down and talk about being brown people. Being expected to connect on being ‘mixed race’ can also be hard, because it’s very unlikely I will ever meet a fellow half Mauritian, quarter Iraqi, quarter English person to connect with, as say a Nigerian person may connect with a Nigerian person.
White was not previously seen as a colour or race because white people deemed themselves the norm, the default, therefore black people were ‘coloured’. But now white identity gets more prominence in discussion, partly through fear of loss, partly through acceptance of wrongs. As the far right try to ‘reclaim’ Britishness and fight for white rights, and the left start owning up to their white privilege; both are further up the agenda in conversations society wants to have (the second being ironic), and we recognise white as a colour and identity. ‘Brown’ remains allusive and uncertain, I remain confused.
I don’t believe all black and white people connect because they have the same experience, that’s not true, every experience is individual, like mine. But there is common ground to be shared, and part of that comes from being under the banner of a colour, that colour being recognised, and that colour influential in how others see you.
The problem is, brown mixed race people’s time is spent shifting between colours in response to how others want us. When white mixed race people can still join the identity of white, who am I connecting with? As a brown person, I don’t feel like I meet either end. But here’s the thing, people are mixing. Mixed race people are the FASTEST growing ethnic group in the UK. At some point, we will all be mixed race, that will span across colours, and ‘mixed race’ may be even more unclear than it is now.
So as much as I love talking about my mixed race experience, given society is not yet colour-blind, I think I’d quite like to be seen as brown too, if that’s okay? Is it? Someone tell me, let’s face it, you always have.
(View more of my blogs on mixed race identity here)