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.