When I was a child, up to the age of 6, I didn’t know that I was any different to the other kid around me. I was born in to a family with a brown Jamaican Dad, a white English Mum and 2 brothers and 2 sisters of varying shades from black to light skinned. To me, this was the norm.
My reception school books back this up with pictures of my family where we all appear as a different colour on every page. Was this because there wasn’t a right colouring pencil for each of us? Or was I not seeing our individual colours as defining features worth noting? I think it was more the latter.
By the time I was in year 2 of primary school, though, things changed and I started to become aware of how different this multi-coloured family, my own caramel coloured skin and blonde fluffy frizzy hair meant living in England.
The first memory I have of this was another little girl, just one year above me, asking why my hair was like it was before proceeding to stick her fingers in it. From there it seems to cascade in my memory. Kids sticking pens and pencils in my hair in class to see if they’d stay. Being used as a colour chart for those coming back off their summer holidays. Only being allowed to play non white characters in the playground… Scary Spice, Mulan, Jasmine, Pocahontas… clearly it didn’t matter what my actual race was but what is clear is that, even as a child I was seen as anything ‘other’ by my fellow students.
By the time I was reaching Year 6 the points of difference begun to change; some for the better… now I got to be Beyoncé (the star) although strangely my white friends in this instance were allowed to be Michelle and Kelly (my first taste of white privilege I guess!) But in some instances it was for the worst; by now my braids were a sign of defiance to school teachers who asked my mum to take them out to avoid injury to others in PE. Girls coming back from holidays with a fabric covered individual braid or head full of box braids couldn’t wait to compare heads with me, and this was also around the time that I began to realise boys just weren’t as interested in me as they were my white friends.
Sometimes I’ve questioned if that was just me? As I was becoming more aware of my difference in a majority white school, was I also becoming more conscious of how boys were around me in comparison to others?
As I entered secondary school I was popular, with lots of continuing on together from junior school. Some of my best friends at the time were boys; I enjoyed playing games that involved running around and getting messy, more than I enjoyed dressing in pretty clothes or going shopping; so for me this was a natural thing. It was as I grew closer to the boys as friends that I began to ask boys didn’t fancy me?
The answer to this question came from one of my closest boy friends and has stayed with me ever since; not down to any malice it held, but because of the absolute honesty he delivered the message with:
“If you want boys to fancy you, Tara, then you need to be less scary”
Scary? What did they mean by scary? I wasn’t too scary to play with in the playground, but I was too scary to go out with? I had girl friends who were equally Tom-boy like and happened to be white; the same ‘scary’ label didn’t apply to them.
It wasn’t until I was fully in to my teens that I learnt how to be more appealing to the opposite sex – sadly looking back I don’t think this was simply by being myself. That said, I imagine this is something that many young girls and boys go through at this age.
By now, hair relaxed and having worked out the act of dating; I’d have been forgiven for thinking my race was no longer a ‘thing’. Of course, I was wrong. The next moment that sticks out in my mind was at the age of 17 when a friend of my mums then partner, congratulated me on the fact that I could ‘pass for white’.
I was shook by this statement and at the time I couldn’t find the words to describe how it made me feel. Looking back at this moment and the years after, I can see that what was meant as a compliment by an ignorant white male, actually went on to cause some serious identity issues for a while.
I had felt comfortable in my skin for a while now but this threw me off. I didn’t want to look white. I didn’t want to look black. I wanted to look mixed race. I wanted people to know I was mixed race without me having to wear a t-shirt saying so. Now, of course, I realise the stupidity of his statement and that anyone with half a brain cell would know, but at the time it led me down a path of re-finding myself as a young woman and finding ways to physically show what I felt was my identity inside.
So, that was the end of relaxing my hair! I moved in to my brother and sister’s flat in Tooting and started working in Oxford Circus in the day and dancing at Pineapple Studios in the evenings. I moved myself as far away from the white surrounds of West Sussex that I could and didn’t look back. Here I was surrounded by friends of all colours, backgrounds, race and religions – it was just what I needed.
When I began to look at universities I think I subconsciously wanted to continue living in a more diverse environment than that which I’d grown up in. I moved to Leicester, a city where no ethnicity holds a majority, and began to study dance at De Montfort University.
Having visited the city I had believed that it would be like living in a mini-London, where no-one asked me “so, what are you?” In some respects I was right, what I hadn’t accounted for was students coming from other white-washed areas. My course in particular was very un-diverse. In my halls I lived in shared accommodation with a group of girls, two of asian heritage, one black and myself. This make up was flipped in the dance course. Across the whole course there were only four of us who weren’t white (that’s not even considering gender… pretty sure we had two boys!)
What this meant was that my experience in the studio to outside the studio was very different. In my course I was seen as ‘black’ then to some of my black friends outside of my course I was seen as ‘white’. I couldn’t seem to get it right. All I wanted was to be seen as what I was – mixed. As I began to integrate more beyond the uni campus though things felt much easier. I worked in a number of bars and restaurants during my time in the city and the friends I made who were actually from Leicester never once commented on my race. Of them, many were mixed race themselves, others black, others asian and others white. Somehow race was less of a thing in this environment.
As I became more settled in the city, I found myself becoming more involved in the cultural scene and was invited to volunteer at events such as Black History Month. Whilst I was aware this was a ‘thing’ I’m honestly not sure I’d ever attended an event celebrating it before. I certainly don’t think it’s something the school I attended would have even thought about. For me Black History Month in Leicester was like someone slightly opening the curtains for me to see through, before quickly closing them again. It made me realise there was something I couldn’t see, just enough to make me curious.
In my second year at uni I was able to make an application to swap one of my course modules for a research subject of my choice or a ‘negotiated study’ as it was called. I used this as a chance to delve deeper in to my black heritage through the medium I knew best; dance. I began to research and document dance of the African and Caribbean diaspora in Britain from the 1940’s to early 2010’s.
As soon as I set down this path, I realised how little my education had actually taught me. How many times histories had been white-washed and how education in this country had opted to use African American examples over Black British; to an extent where I didn’t think we even had a history in this country.
After uni I stayed in Leicester working for a while before moving on to Nottingham. A couple of years in marketing and PR led me to a breaking point. I wasn’t happy in work and I didn’t know why hitting targets and getting pay rises wasn’t doing it for me. I took a holiday with my boyfriend to Thailand and whilst reading ‘I am Malala’ on the beach it hit me. I wouldn’t be happy until I was working in an area that I’m passionate about. For me that came back to equality, culture and people.
So that was it. I made a beeline back for the arts sector but of course it wasn’t as easy as I’d have hoped. Two years in communications seemed more of a hindrance than added value as I began to look and apply for even entry level roles. I wasn’t having much luck; that was until a job came up with the East Midlands Caribbean Carnival Arts Network (EMCCAN). They took me on as their Tour Manager, a pay cut for me, but I never looked back.
Working in this organisation, whilst it had it’s struggles, was a breath of fresh air. A black-led organisation with a passionate Chief Executive, and a network of artists so diverse that you couldn’t say what ‘normal’ looked like if you wanted to. I was in my element. Working to take Caribbean Carnival arts to areas that lacked any cultural diversity felt like a personal mission given my childhood in West Sussex.
Finally my position as a mixed-race person felt like an attribute. Some how it meant I was able to navigate through both the colourful world of Carnival and the far whiter world of the arts with ease. I could work either world, and work it well. I understood the cultural references on both side. Understood where people were coming from and was able to mediate the two groups to achieve new things for the organisation. Perhaps most importantly I understand how I could use my own privilege.
As I was reaching the end of my time with EMCCAN I had returned to researching (some three years after my last stint), this time looking at ‘cultural diversity’ in the arts. I was interested in understanding more about representation and what organisations were doing to try and become more representative of today’s society.
This led me down a whole new rabbit hole. One where the answers were few and far between and where the outlook was less sunny than my joyful discovery of black British dance since the 40’s. As I realised how bleak the picture (and the data) was, I also began to discover theories new to me such as unconscious bias.
As I was challenging myself to learn and understand more, I wanted to be able to use my position as a young mixed-race woman and continue challenging myself in a new environment. One where, unlike the world of Carnival, things weren’t so naturally diverse and my passion for equality could be more necessary.
This pretty much brings me to today. I took on a role as Creative Producer for a new 4 year programme of work aiming to make theatre and performance for children and young people more representative of young people today. It was exactly what I’d been after. A challenge. A place where my voice might just be saying something that wasn’t already a given.
So far it’s been just that. One thing I didn’t anticipate though, was just how ‘white’ the theatre for children sector could be. I don’t just mean in terms of those working in it, but the thinking at the heart of it too. I’m fortunate to be working wit an organisation that has embedded itself in to Leicester’s more diverse areas and the thinking of the organisation is 100% behind what I am trying to do. The wider sector, however, has a long way to go.
In some ways I feel total progression. My role today is a step up and I am taking on opportunities to discuss and speak about representation in the arts that would not have been on offer before. Then there are times when I feel like I’ve come right back to square one; the 17 year old girl being told she could “pass for white” or the 7 year old whose hair was a thing of fascination for all to touch.
It’s on those days, when I feel like an alien surrounded by people I cannot connect with, that I write and reflect. I remind myself of why I’m doing this and of the younger me who had to look to American pop stars for role models beyond my family. I remember how far the arts & culture sector has to go, and I read about how we’ve got here today. I connect with people who are on a level with me, people who have been through exactly what I am, just in another time or another space.
All of this helps to recharge my batteries. Taking me back to that moment on a sunny beach in Thailand where I realised my calling, my reason for being: equality, culture, people. The three most important things to me. The three things that I believe passionately about. The three things that drive me day in and day out.
Featured Image: Street art at the Nottingham Street Art Festival at Sneinton Market