The other day my husband of 7 years asked me ‘do you identify as black?’ His question was in response to an moment me and my girls had experienced earlier that day. I’d felt defensive and self-conscious while walking through the English countryside and being asked (multiple times) whether we ‘belonged’ there or… “are you lost????” definitely made me feel ‘other’. I knew it was too subtle to call it racism but it definitely felt uncomfortable and something I knew I wouldn’t have experienced if I was on my own.
The topic of racial fluidity has been raised several times in the last couple of years. Recently, Paris Jackson called herself black through her relationship with her tenuously ‘biological’ Dad Michael. And of course the controversial Rachel Dolezal, who has called for black identity to be ‘fluid’ and non-binary in the same way gender is. With more questions being raised about how identity is formed and racial constructs that lie behind it, the question whether it is possible to identify as black through one’s relationships has intrigued me.
I am part of a multiracial family, the majority of whom are black, or who will be viewed as black by society. Apart from my daughters and my husband, I am the only white face you see in my family. So, not to feel any sense of identity by virtue of osmosis or relationship would be impossible. Or, at least for me.
I have heard of other spouses who have non-white partners who become sensitive to the subtle racism that their partners feel on a daily basis. The wake-up to white bias is shocking and infuriating when it comes to the ones you love.
The first time it happened was upon entering a jewellery shop early on in our relationship. Soon enough I noticed a security guard as well as the shop floor assistant following hubby closely while he perused the rings. I, on the other hand, was not even noticed. Or, shall I say, after a few minutes, they did offer to help me but completely ignored hubby-to-be apart from the stares. I felt defensive and angered as though it were happening to me.
The experience rocked my understanding of our world. Yes I knew racism existed. I wasn’t that naive but when you experience it and you become the object of it through your partnership (that was later on), you start to identify with it.
Since then, my children and I have felt the oh-so-subtle effects of middle class racism. The stares, the indignant looks that you may not belong in ‘this’ park- nothing major but enough to waken me up to the some of the realities of being non-white.
So yes, I guess in some ways I do identify as black. I still have white privilege and I’m not naive as to think I know exactly what it is to walk in the shoes of a black person. But by virtue of my relationship. Because my family is black. Because I am part of a black family. And because my identity is multi- layered, my identity as a mother of mixed race kids and as the wife of a Nigerian man is intertwined.