A great gulf fixed?

When I embarked on this series of posts on race and culture I mentioned that one of my motivations was that my own son is mixed race. There’s been a lot of writing about the consequences for mixed race children of their racial and cultural background. In the case of white British/black afro-Caribbean children, it’s commonplace to note that their skin colour (although one issue is the vast range within this specific mixed race group from almost “white” skin tone, hair type, and facial features to distinctly “black” skin tone, hair type, and facial features) frequently “obliges” them to identify as “black” as a consequence of the racism that they endure in Britain. They are then often faced with greater or lesser hostility from the black community that they are identifying with, since mixed race is sometimes seen to be a product of racial disloyalty on the part of their black parent. I don’t think it’s very useful for me as a white man to speculate on this and the other interpretations of mixed race experience that are in circulation: perhaps one day my son will reflect on his own experience in this area, and that would be a blog worth reading.

On the other hand, I have seen fewer reflections on the experience of being a parent to a mixed race child, and on that at least I can claim to have an authentic perspective to offer. Well, actually it’s a bit more complex than that: I can’t see things through the eyes of a black father of a mixed race child, nor of course those of a mother of any race. There is no doubt that these different permutations produce fundamentally different experiences, and I for one would be fascinated to hear from people who’ve been through one of the others.

However, back to what I do know. As I write this, my son’s handsome, moody image looks out at me from a photograph I took of him when he was 16. People often say they can see my likeness in him, but I find it very difficult to do so. (Which is lucky for him, I suspect!) But even the most confident of those observers of the father in the son would probably not say that “he looks just like you!” My son is I think fairly well towards the “black” end of the white-black spectrum of mixed race possibility, and no-one would look at him and think, “White boy.” It is simply not possible for him to look like me in the way that sometimes children really do look like younger versions of their fathers. I don’t make this point to illustrate a problem, but rather to illustrate a difference. Whether or not it’s ever a wise thing to do, I cannot think of my son as “li’l me.” There is indeed some sort of a gulf fixed between us.

I’m not attempting to enter into my son’s head, nor to claim any understanding of his journey, but it I think it’s an observable fact that his primary identification is as a young black man. He’s always kept both black and white friends, but as he’s got older his real friendships have always been with black boys. His tastes in music are undilutedly black. Listening to his rap music, and watching him move his head in that rhythmic and distinctively black way as the rapper waxes eloquent about niggers and bitches, is to observe a world in which I have no part whatsoever. Many black parents would also baulk at the imagery and language of rap artists, especially in their frequently blood-curdling attitudes to gays and women, but that’s not the distance that I’m describing. Those black parents might find their son’s musical enthusiasms distasteful, but not alienating. My son, if he so wishes, can refer to himself as a nigger as many black people do in their everyday speech. It’s hardly a linguistic place to which I can accompany him. Here at least, the gulf is both fixed and great.

As is often the case, it’s not the big things that always resonate the loudest; trivial though it might be, my son and I can’t go to the same barber. But there are some big things that do. I can’t get stopped and searched, or pulled over when driving, just because the copper thinks I’m black and probably thus also a criminal. Not that I want to be at the arse-end of the police’s institutional racism (and no, it hasn’t been dealt with or swept away) but it also means that I can’t empathise when it happens to my son. I can’t walk with him. And I know he feels it.

So the dynamics of mixed race life are not neutral or evenly distributed between the opposite poles of the “dual heritage”. To be mixed race may not necessarily mean being black, but it sure as hell means you’re not white. It’s as if the black and the white bits are not on the same plane, so that the fluids of identity cannot flow with equal ease to any place on the continuum. Rather, there’s a relentless gradient that flows inexorably towards the black pole. When my son mixes with his mother’s family, he’s still clearly also in  his own family. But when he mixes with mine, notwithstanding that they love him and cherish him, he’s a visitor from somewhere else.

My head tells me that this is all a part of racism, it’s a consequence of history and of injustice. It is not my fault. It is not my son’s fault. But my heart tells me that it’s aching nonetheless. I so much want that gulf to be removed, rather than to have to reach out across it. I want to be close to my son. But I cannot be. And it hurts.

15 thoughts on “A great gulf fixed?

  1. Wow what a personal and thoughtful post. Thank you for sharing it with us. I come from a multicultural nation of many colours and creeds and I understand some of what you are talking about, though I cannot empathise. It’s funny how the ‘trivial’ as you call it, such as not sharing the same barber, can seem so poignant.

  2. A very heartfelt and thought-provoking piece, S. Loving your work mate.

    It’s never dawned on me before that a father of a disimilar race to his child struggles with empathising with him for the reasons you’ve set out.

    I get the feeling though that you share so much more with your son and that, if he’s anything like you, the feeling is mutual in this respect.

  3. I loved this blog and re-read it again today. One thing that struck me was I wonder if you would be feeling differently if your child was a girl?

    You’re obviously close to your son and you have a rapport but surely you are comparing your adolescence (that of a white male teenager) lets just say some time back, to that of today’s male mixed race teenager? I have friends who have the same family dynamic as yourself. My friend’s partner is in fact a little older than you so in addition to the race issue there’s also a bigger age divide. I know that he definitely feels the same way as you do and it hurts that he doesn’t seem to be able to cross the divide. My friend has a very enlightened attitude towards her son and is the eternally optimistic go-between. I think she is able to do this because she has no experience of being either a mixed-race or a white male teenager, unlike her partner.

    So the question is how much of what you feel is down to the age difference, the cultural difference or the fact that you are of a different sex? And have you ever considered this aspect of your dilemma?

    • Thank you so much for your thoughtful and stimulating comment. You make two most interesting points, and they deserve to be considered in turn.

      First, you ask if I’m comparing my white male teenage years of your delicately phrased “some time back” (and thank you for that!) with the current teenage experience of a mixed race boy. If I’ve understood you correctly, I think you’re suggesting that the “gap” I’ve described between me and my son is less to do with racial group and more to do with the perennial problem of the generation gap. I don’t think this is so. Of course all fathers have a sense of increased distance from their sons as they grow up: and indeed it’s fortunate that they do as it is an important part of a child’s need to establish a separate and independent identity. But what I’m describing is another layer of distance which I believe is specific to the racial division between us. So any father might sometimes need the go-between services of their female partner when dealing with their adolescent sons, but I’d be surprised if the mixed race dilemmas I’ve talked about are only felt by men.

      Second, you raise the very relevant issue of gender. As I note in my post, there are 4 permutations of parent/son relationship in mixed race families, and of course another 4 parent/daughter possibilities. It’s hard for me to think about this directly as I have no personal experience of any father/daughter relationships. For sure, it would be different. But as in the age question, I think that there would still be a distinct variation on the father/daughter relationship if the relationship also crossed a racial boundary. What I know for sure is that the difficult feelings I’ve described about my relationship with my son are not about the intrinsically problematic clashing of male egos! We have those, too, of course!

  4. A well-written, profound examination of a particular family dynamic. Certainly, food for thought for those of us who haven’t had such an experience. Your story gives me better understanding of friends who live in similar circumstances on a daily basis, yet talk about differences only in terms of other people’s reactions, rather than their own.

  5. A heartfelt (personal & political) insight into an relatively un-explored headspace. I feel I should have something to add as I am of mixed race origin. However, I am significantly older than your son and grew-up in a time/place where such issues were generally ignored/not discussed.

    Both sides of my family often made racist comments; not the obviously cruel kind, but the sort of Freudian slips that betrayed assumptions. Once, when I questioned my father on how he squared his discriminating views with marriage to my mother, he shrugged and said “You don’t chose who you fall in love with”: honest and human if nothing else.

    Great post.

    • Thanks, Alex. This is a difficult area for all parties – but having said that there’s a whole other side to this; the richness and breadth of sensitivity, the privileged insight across racial divisions, the opportunity at least for living beyond the politics and history of race. But such gains have to be paid for, in this as in everything. And the currency is all too often that of personal pain and conflict.

  6. My apologies for taking my time on my reply…a brilliant post and really interesting to hear the ‘white male’ perspective. And just like you regarding your son, I can not speak for my daughter but can only listen to her experiences, which quite frankly have not been negative at all. Mind you this could be because even though she is mixed cultured she is at the other end of the scale to your son and you really have to look to see the black features. To me they are very obvious mainly because she has my ‘face’ as it were but the average observer would pass her as possibly Mediterranean but without the tan…she is really white and I mean pale.

    I have to stop myself sometimes from looking at her skin, I wonder what I have done, not just to my daughter but to my own identity but that goes much deeper and I may blog about it one day. My daughter lives with my parents who are from Guyana, which is obviously where our African slave ancestors found some of their freedom. I am adopted and as much as I know who my mother is I don’t know my father and just as most Windrush parents back in the day we don’t talk about ‘those things’ we just except it. My daughters father is a white English/Irish man born in Germany on English soil!?!? Well you can see from her family history why she is so pale.

    But she sits amongst us and we don’t notice, she has been around for nearly 18 years now so it’s no longer ‘apparent’. Well except occasionally to me. In the beginnings of her life I always told her not to define her self as a colour, to always define herself as the person that she is and not what she looks like. As time has gone on she sees herself as white and leans more to that identity because that’s what stares back at her in the mirror. We sent her to predominately white Catholic schools and now she is at an all girls College in Twickenham.

    I don’t think her leaning towards the ‘white’ identity is just down to her colouring, I also think it is the socialisation we gave her. Don’t get me wrong she knows and embraces the black culture she has but I don’t think she strictly identifies with the issues black people face, how can she? She’s not black. Her friends are browns whites and blacks, her musical taste is Japanese (?) her politics, too early to tell. She composes music, and plays the piano. The Royal College of Music asked her to compete in the young composers of the year 2010. I have never heard her say the word nigger…..she hates chavs and wouldn’t be seen dead in trainers. If the rest of the family didn’t stand next to her you would think she was white middle class.

    In all honesty I think I may have to blog this, just making the comparisons of your sons perspective and my girl has my mind racing and I want to use words like socioeconomic but I have refrained.

    The great gulf will never be fixed, which I am pleased about it, avoids the ‘beiging’ out theory and the intergration of different cultures is surely a brilliant indication of just how well we are all growing together. Too idealistic?

    • Thanks for your open and honest contribution to a difficult issue. Your daughter’s position in all this is, as you point out very clearly, very different from my son’s. But in one sense they are both in the same place. Each of them has effectively been faced with a choice of cultural identity – not necessarily a free or even a conscious one – between the two poles of their heritage. Notwithstanding that your daughter “knows and embraces the black culture she has”, it seems from what you say that she operates as a “white middle class” girl, just as my son operates as a young black man although he knows that there is white in him, too.

      Throughout my original piece I tried to refrain from talking about what this is like for my son – since I don’t and cannot entirely know – but rather to express what some of the consequences are for me. And in this there is an extraordinary symmetry between our two situations. I’m a white man on the same gender side as my child, but separated from him by cultural identity. You are a black woman, likewise on the same gender side as your daughter, but perhaps also separated from her in terms of cultural identity. I think that latter aspect is one that wasn’t developed in your comment. Do you experience any of the sensation of cultural “alienation” from your daughter that I sense in my relationship with my son? For example, I noticed with interest and some discomfort that you wrote that your daughter does not identify “with the issues black people face”: yet as a black woman I imagine that this is central to your experience of life in Britain. How does that make you feel, and does it deny one aspect of identity with your daughter?

      And finally, returning to this question of “choice” between the poles of a mixed race child’s cultural origins, it seems that even now is there is no separate “mixed race culture” that binds together those that share that heritage. Instead there are mixed race children who in identifying as black must to some degree or another deny their whiteness, and others who in identifying as white must forgo their blackness. A minefield, from whichever direction – parent’s or child’s – one chooses to view it.

  7. I am in the same boat as your son Steve (half-cast / Mulatto they used to call it). Caucasian father, African mother.
    First of all, i’m glad that you are aware of the identiy struggle that your son faces and will face. I have so much to say but don’t know where to start. It is such a loaded topic with so many variations and possibilities depending on the individual “halfbreed” and how they adapt/handle/endure/embrace.
    Blacks will probably accept us more willingly because black has many shades, whereas white is only white. HOWEVER, we all know that lightskinned blacks have had their fair share of abuse from both sides. I’m not sure it’s about racism however. acknowledging difference is not constitute racism – there is however an overlap.
    I think the secret is in giving you son the confidence that his “difference” is a thing to embrace. He is both yet niether. He will feel a traitor if he choses the ‘white’ side, he might feel inferior if he choses the “black” side (only becuase of society’s till ailing perception of blacks and not because black is inferior.
    I have struggled a lifetime with this identity crisis and will never find my place in society in terms of colour as a “halfbreed.”
    In response to his likeness to you. IT IS VERY POSSIBLE. I look like my father (caucasian), yet I look like my half brothers (black). the resemblance comes in more subtle ways; mannerisms, facial expressions, angle of cheekbones, distance between the eyes, shape of ears/eyebrows, lip, chin, teeth.
    I don’t actually see that much resemblance between you and him but then again, not all white fathers have white offspring that look like them either!!! all i can wish you both is courage and an open mind to embrace the difference and rise above the color issue. As long as races cross breed there is more hope for the human race to understand each other. everybody will be a bi-racial by the next millenium (i hope). good luck steve (and Jamal) and all other children, adults that fall into this very challenging catagory.
    I have so much more to say… hopefully we’ll meet some time and can discuss this in person for hours. Much love :)

  8. “When my son mixes with his mother’s family, he’s still clearly also in his own family. But when he mixes with mine, notwithstanding that they love him and cherish him, he’s a visitor from somewhere else.”

    Heartbreaking. This is a product of western countries in general – the “one drop” rule, where if you’re a bit black – you’re black. When logic is used this notion is ridiculous – you’re 50% white and 50% black, thus should equally share the feeling of belonginess to each side of the family. But western countries are brutally exclusive and have a superiority complex – if you are not pure, you are not us.

  9. Pingback: Goodbye, bitter-sweet month of June « The At-Long-Last-I've-Got-a-Job Blog

  10. Thanks for writing this. Your experiences aren’t all exaclty the same as mine, but there are certain resonances. My son is 6 and I am a white mother. I have had a struggle to discuss some of these issues with friends and family. It’s as if I’m considered a bit mad and over anxious.

    I think racism got brought home to me in a much more direct way after having my son, from the nurse at the maternity ward telling me he was exactly the right colour, onward. Maybe us white parents are in a good position to begin to comment on the levels of racism we see that we never knew about before. It is a real education.

    I get sad though when parents of mixed heritage children talk about the things they would like to share with their children that they can’t. There may be some practical issues, but perhaps there are confidence ones, too? Maybe us parents need a bit of support sometimes.

    • Thanks for your comment. You’re right about the struggle to find people with whom you can discuss these issues.

      I’m not sure about this being about confidence though. I think it’s more about the cultural barriers that racism creates. They are harder to overcome than most people think. Hence the fatuity of the clichéd “some of my best friends are black!”

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