& mixing

New perspectives on mixed-race Britons

A CRE eConference · 4-6 September 2007

A white woman’s experience of “mixing” (Gill Lawrence, writer)
22 August 2007

A white woman’s experience of “mixing”

Posted on: Wednesday 22 August 2007

Gill Lawrence

Gill Lawrence

If you have grown up in a predominantly white community, suddenly experiencing racism when you have Black friends or lovers can be quite a shock.

I would like to share a few experiences I have had.

Back in the early 70's, walking along with four Black women friends, a policeman said "Niggerlover!" as I walked by. I swung round. There were a row of policemen standing there, smirking. They knew I couldn't identify which one had said it.

I still find, though, that if I go into a shop with a Black woman friend, the shopkeeper will be very friendly and smiley to me, until they realise I am with this Black friend. Then their body language changes completely. The light goes out of their eyes, the smile disappears, and they deal with me in a terse, almost rude way. And generally I do find that a lot of white people, when realising that I have Black friends, do seem to automatically think I am somehow "not very nice". And if they see that I have a Black boyfriend or husband ... well there are some delightful names that they like to call a woman who "goes with" black men. I won't mention them here. But she is definitely immoral and dirty, for a start.

My husband is Black, and, when my daughter was a baby, although we were graduates, we were both unemployed and broke. He had applied for various jobs. Out of the blue one of the employers rang when he was out. He had a very warm, kind voice and told me "We were delighted to receive your husband's CV; he is exactly what we were looking for - in fact he's overqualified. Please tell him he's definitely got the job if he wants it. He can start on Monday. Please ask him to just come in tomorrow morning at 11 to meet us. It will purely be a formality because as I say he's just the person we need and he's got the job!"

I was over the moon! Jumping for joy! And when he came in and I told him, so was he! It was a well-paid job and all our financial troubles were over. We would soon pay off our debts and then be able to think about buying our first flat.

We then realised that he didn't have clothes suitable for an interview or indeed an office job, so he rushed around visiting friends and managed to borrow a white shirt, tie, suit and smart cashmere coat. By the time he left for that meeting the next morning he looked the business; very smart and professional. What a wonderful day!

So imagine my surprise when he returned after about an hour, face like thunder and unable to speak at first. What could possibly have gone wrong? Apparently the employer had nearly fallen off his chair when he saw him, looking from him to his application form and back again, as if thinking it couldn't be the same person. He had gone a reddish purplish colour and my husband feared he would have a heart attack. He said "Oh! I didn't realise you were from overseas!" "I'm not from overseas - I'm from London!" "Yes but I'm so sorry but our clients wouldn't like it. They wouldn't trust someone from overseas dealing with their accounts." Well normally, my husband, especially when younger, would either have punched the guy on the nose or walked out. But he was so eager to have this job he controlled his temper and tried to reason with the man, but to no avail. The colour of his skin was a total barrier; they would not employ him.

That, too, was back in the seventies. Have things changed?

My father in law, an elderly Jamaican, was a Seventh Day Adventist. This meant he would not even touch tea or coffee as to him they were drugs. He was waiting for his brother (older than him and quite frail) on a corner in Bethnal Green, and when the brother arrived they were both bundled into a police car. They were put in a police cell and called all manner of racist names. My father in law knew his wife would be worried and asked the police to ring her. They wouldn't. Meanwhile his wife was ringing round all the police stations, including that one, and all the hospitals, she was so worried. She was told there was no person of that name anywhere. However, later on she found out where he was. When it got to the early hours of the next morning she rang us. Fortunately my husband knew the number of an organisation called "Release" and they were able to send a solicitor round to the police station to get the two men out. Of course, no apology was ever made to either of them. Apparently they were suspected of being drug dealers.

Our daughter, who prefers the term "mixed race" to any of the other definitions, suffers from bi-polar disorder. She had a crisis and was sent to a psychiatrist she hadn't seen before. This man informed her that the only reasons she was mentally ill was that she had an identity problem about her ethnicity and about the fact that she was gay (she had told him she lived with her woman partner). He said if she would decide which colour she was and cease to think of herself as gay and get herself a boyfriend, she would no longer be ill or in need of medication!

We wrote a strong letter of complaint to the relevant health authority and a very thorough and concerned letter was sent back, saying that this particular doctor had "moved on" elsewhere. That was very worrying. How many more people has he upset by saying such awful things?

This was in 2005.

Our 24 year old son has been stopped so many times by police he doesn't even bother telling us about it any more. To them, he is, of course, a drug dealer!

Have things changed?

About the author

Gill Lawrence is a freelance writer and carer-trainer and was brought up in a mainly white community, and was shocked by the levels of racism she and her family encountered later on. Her partner is black and their children prefer to be referred to as "mixed race".

what i find amazing is that people think that racism – in all its forms is no longer with us ( and that we should all get on with it and stop whinning). I think these two pieces have demonstrated clearly it is alive and well.

As a mixed race Irish person growing up in South country Dublin in the 70s and 80s - believe me people were constantly “surprised” to meet a mixed race “Siobhán McKenna” (which is a very Irish name) some people hid the surprise better than other...others didn't bother and proceeded to quiz me on my origins (total strangers thinking they had the right to enquire as to my personal circumstances, touching my hair, asking me if I can run really fast – no joke! Literally like I was Hottentots Venus…) And while this pales into insignificance with the experience both your husbands & children have experienced, my heart wretches when I think of what my future children will have to go trough in their lives; it will be difficult for them, that much I am sure of and no doubt they will struggle with their identity but at the same time I do believe they will be a bridge between cultures and are the best hope for a truly harmonious society; to fully understand more than one culture is a real gift – but they will pay a price for it just as your children have.

Siobhán McKenna
24 August 2007

Hi Gill,
My name is Moira. I am Celtic Canadian. My husband is Ethiopian. We met at Boston University in 1966, a time when 17 US states would have put us in prison for being married, had we ventured further south.
Our experiences have been the same as you describe. Four years ago, when searching for a house, we found a couple sitting on a curbside outside the house to let us know we were not welcome in their neighborhood near Toronto.
In the 80's, my husband had two job offers lined up for Mondays but was telephoned on Sundays to say a mistake had been made. He ended up driving taxi and no one would believe he owned the plate. When he wanted to try out a cadillac at a dealership in Mississauga, he was not allowed to test drive the car until he called me to come test drive it. Living with racism is terrorizing. It has the same effects. It wasn't until we could tolerate no more and moved four years ago to Ethiopia that we finally got over the feeling of being terrorized on the streets of Toronto. Ethiopia cured that at least. We returned feeling that we could start with a fresh slate and handle what was dished at us after 40 years of insults and degradation. People who hate themselves always need a scapegoat and I knew when we married, I was volunteering to help raise the moral standards of my society by refusing to give in to their terror and fears, corruption and immorality.
Our son too has had problems finding work in Toronto. Racism is alive and thriving, but each decade improves for us. The sacrifices we've made has only made our marriage the more sacred.

Moira Tessema
23 August 2007

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