A few days after the tragic death of George Floyd, when Americans took to the streets in righteous anger, my dad condemned the protests, remarking that Black people should be less afraid of the police and more so of “blacks with guns in inner cities”. Unsurprisingly, this unsavoury conversation escalated. My dad, as you might guess, is white, but I am not. Not for the first time, I was left wondering how, as a mixed race Black woman with a socially conservative white father, I reconcile with the fact that my dad might be racist?
The current racial climate has led to many people having difficult conversations about race with their families, often for the first time. Social media has been awash with handy tips and tricks for instigating conversations with uninformed family members. Instagram swipe-through posts with titles like “How to tell someone you love that they’re being racist” and “Nine counter-arguments to use against your conservative parents” ad infinitum have proliferated.
This is all well and good for white people. But what happens when the white parent in question has a Black child? Mixed race families are sometimes heralded as the ultimate antidote to racism, and a signifier of racial progress – but the reality is often far more complex. Family setups like mine are often difficult to navigate and can produce emotionally challenging situations. While the sense of urgency and pressure to educate friends and family generated by the Black Lives Matter movement is incredibly important, it can put mixed race people in an uncomfortable position. How do you balance the obligation to educate a white parent who holds racist views while protecting your own mental health?
Growing up as the daughter of a white father and a Black mother in London, race was rarely discussed in my household. However, now as an assertive 21-year-old armed with a degree in social sciences and fully-fledged opinions, I am often treated by my dad as the token “woke feminist anti-racist killjoy” with whom it’s fun to start provocative conversations. While my dad has made similar comments to the ones above in the past, he has undoubtedly become radicalised in recent years, notably since the Brexit referendum. His views on race, immigration and gender are extreme and he is unashamed of sharing them.
“My mother has called me the N-word several times over the past three or four years, casually or as a ‘joke’”
Unfortunately, I am not alone in experiencing this. In fact, after putting out a request for interviews for this article, I was shocked to receive hundreds of messages from people in similar situations. One of those I spoke to was 26-year-old Pauline Jérémie – the daughter of a Black father and a white mother, who grew up with her mother and white stepfather in France. Her father died when she was young, so she tells me that race was never really discussed in her house. “I grew up thinking that there was nothing racist about my mum. But when I became older and more aware of my own race, I started picking up on things that my mum and stepfather would say – either about Black people, or any other non-white races – but was systematically shut down if I tried to question them.” She tells me that her mother has developed a habit of calling her the N-word in passing or as a “joke”. “She’s done it several times over the past three or four years, and it has led to many arguments, during which she constantly racially gaslights me, victimises herself as a white person and even ends up using arguments that are extremely hurtful, such as Black on Black violence. Each time an argument like this happens, she says that I’m the one who’s being violent with my responses when I call her out”.
“One time, she joked that she had to feed me a different kind of milk as a baby because I’m an N-word and the second time I’m not too sure but think it might have been because I was being bitten a lot by mosquitoes in Martinique, which she jokingly said was because of my “N-word side”. None of the jokes are funny or make any sense.”
Whenever she has arguments with her mother about race, her mother will claim that Pauline’s father “would have sided with her” had he still been alive. “To this day, my mum still uses my dad as leverage for the things she says, stating that he would let her use the terms she uses if he was still around.”
Mixed race people are the UK’s fastest growing ethnic group, but the idealisation of this as evidence of a post-racial society is incredibly misplaced. In fact, interracial relationships and families are often used as a shield against accusations of racism by white family members. Functioning in a similar way as the “Black friend” defense, white people with relatives of colour can flaunt this relative as “proof” of how implicitly non-racist they must be. This misconception is based on a flawed understanding of racism as overt prejudice, which would seem absurd between an interracial couple who have chosen to love each other, or between two best friends.
However, just as it’s possible to have a girlfriend and still be sexist, so it is to have a partner (and child) of colour and still be racist. Racism often functions much more by way of implicit rather than explicit bias, which cannot be eradicated by mere proximity to people of colour, or even, sadly, love. Even the existence of the most harmonious and utopian mixed race family does nothing to address the pernicious existence of structural racist oppression.
Sandhya Trott, 29, is the daughter of an Indian father and a white British mother, and has experienced this within her own family. “White parents often use it as an excuse – ‘I can’t be racist because I have a mixed race child’. I’ve also been in interracial relationships where a partner has said similar things,” she says. “Mixed race families aren’t the epitome of progress that people think they are and white parents need to be better at educating themselves for the sake of their child.”
“The Kardashian-Jenner family’s steady parade of mixed race children has not prevented them from racially insensitive actions in the past”
There is something specifically traumatic about listening to your own parent expressing prejudiced views against people who look like you, and denying or trivialising your existence. Unlike arguing with a stranger, it’s almost impossible to completely disregard their opinion. Often, we can’t help but care what they think. No matter how old we get, there exists in most of us a small child that still longs for validation from our parents. Accordingly, their words can shatter whatever anti-racism defences we have spent years carefully constructing. This isn’t simply a matter of overlooking political differences, it is deeply personal. As Pauline tells me, her mother’s “complete lack of empathy and eagerness to learn from her own child” is what she finds most hurtful.
Michaela, 29, the daughter of a white father and a Black Jamaican mother, has also experienced similar difficulties. She recalls a time where she was discussing the Brexit referendum with her father, who voted Leave on account of his views on immigration. “Everything I said he would shoot down, dismissing my evidence and calling it ‘fake news’ whilst claiming his beliefs were the truth, even without any data or sources backing it.”
If this were a colleague, a friend or perhaps even a more distant family member, this is not behaviour Michaela would have tolerated. Rather than subjecting yourself to constant racial gaslighting, for many people an easier solution would be to distance themselves from the perpetrator. But with your parents, not only is there a deeper bond, there is a power dynamic, especially for younger children who are still dependent. There is an unspoken line you cannot cross that doesn’t often exist when interacting with others – it means that, nine times out of ten, you end up standing down and bottling it up.
“If anything confrontational with my dad comes up I just shut the conversation down. I’ll say I’m not discussing it, or answer in short sentences and not engage,” Michaela tells me. Sandhya has developed a similar coping strategy. Her mother often trivialises her experiences of racism, so they have come to an unspoken agreement not to have discussions about race anymore. “I’m not very good at handling these conversations, I will often get frustrated, so it’s easier just not to have them,” she says.
It is exhausting to constantly be vulnerable with your white relatives and share your experiences with racism, just to have them deny your reality. Often in these scenarios, the only way to preserve your sanity is to avoid any and all talk of race. In my own life, I usually steer clear of talking about politics and race with my dad. While it goes against my better judgement, the few that we have had ended up being traumatic. The damage that these conversations cause to our self-perception, self-esteem and confidence, so much of which we unwittingly derive from our parents’ opinions of us, can be catastrophic.
Our relationship has undoubtedly been damaged. A tacit but profound disconnect now exists between us and our conversations are only ever superficial. Michaela and Pauline have also experienced this, but to an even greater degree. “I can’t imagine my relationship with my dad ever being a close one. There’s a lot of reasons for that, but it’s also his unwillingness to listen. As I’ve grown up, I’ve lost a lot of respect for him, which is upsetting,” Michaela says. Pauline avoids going home altogether. “It’s become an unsafe, toxic place and I tend to dread all interactions with my parents in case the topic of race ever comes up”.
“A tacit but profound disconnect exists between me and my father, and our conversations are only ever superficial”
Prioritising your parent’s feelings over your own, coupled with experiencing racism from the one person who is supposed to love you unconditionally, and whose opinion you base your self-worth on, can have devastating effects. Although research into the psychological well-being of mixed race people is limited, there is a significant amount of literature which attests to the emotional risk problems of mixed-race adolescents. The most common explanation for this high-risk status is struggle with identity formation and difficult family dynamics in mixed-race households, which can lead to a lack of self-esteem and social isolation. A 2014 report backed by the National Children’s Bureau, found that mixed race children in Britain are at higher risk of developing mental health issues for this very reason.
The impact on Pauline was so severe that she sought therapy. “The gaslighting really got to me – to the point where I was questioning myself, and ended up thinking I was overreacting. Thanks to a lot of introspection and therapy, I can now silently stand my ground, and know my emotions and reactions are valid.”
Recent events have brought an increased awareness to the specific mental health issues experienced by people of colour, and the need for specialised services to address these problems. In the UK, only 6% of psychologists are from Black and minority ethnic backgrounds, which can make it difficult for people of colour to meaningfully communicate their specific problems. Fortunately, there are some organisations which provide a variety of mental health services specifically for Black people, such as The Black, African and Asian Therapy Network. There is a very real comfort and solidarity that comes from confiding in someone who can understand your experiences – someone who “gets it”. For Pauline, this has been crucial to preserving her mental health. “I’ve sought a community of other mixed race people because I felt incredibly isolated, and launched a magazine called Middleground, which aims at amplifying the voices of the mixed community… [It] has taught me to rely way less on familial acceptance and more on finding like-minded people.”
One of the unexpected consequences of writing this has been discovering a support network of people who can relate to my experience, many of whom had also never confided in anyone about what they had been through.
Mixed race families can be wonderful. They have enormous potential to facilitate a cross-cultural understanding, and create unbreakable bonds of familial love between races. But in order for them to work, white partners especially need to do their homework, listen, and be willing to learn.