Growing Into My Skin


Now I thank God that I am mixed race, although for many years I resented the fact that I was different because it brought trouble to my door. I remember being on a bus one day when I was about 13 and suddenly noticing that my hand was brown. Everyone else on the bus was white and I wondered what they were thinking about me. I imagined bad things.

In those days I lived in Colchester in Essex. I rarely saw any other black people apart from my brother and sister. My mother and all the rest of my known family are white. My Sudanese father died in a car crash when I was six. We'd all been living in Khartoum at the time, but with him gone life became very difficult – particularly for my mother. She was treated with contempt because of her colour. People spat at her and called her a whore. My grandfather told her to go back to England but that her children would stay. Sadly, I can remember walking two or three paces behind her so that people wouldn't associate us. At the age of seven, I was dimly conscious of racism and I wanted to distance myself from trouble. I wanted to fit in with the majority. Perhaps if we had stayed in Africa I would, although I hope not. After 18 months my mum managed to smuggle us out.

I already knew England well and had friends here as we had made frequent trips before my dad died. My brother was born here. We were a bilingual family and spoke only English at home in Sudan, and Arabic when we went out. Settling into life in this country should have been fairly easy, but we soon got the message that we weren't quite good enough. At that age I didn't question it, I didn't know what was going on. Also, it was the mid '70's and I don't think many white people questioned it either. For example, we were collected from the airport by an aunt. It was a beautiful day and she was keeping us entertained by teaching us 'The sun has got his hat on'. When it got to the second verse, my mother told my aunt to shut up. My aunt said 'Why? It's just a song.' But it was too late. We were already singing: 'The sun's been tanning knickers out in Timbuktu' I still remember that journey as a washing line of multi-coloured pants swaying in the breeze.

We lived at our grandparents in a tiny, faded, town on the Essex coast. Nonie, my grandmother, was a formidable woman with rigid ideas on right and wrong. Nonie didn't act out of malice, but out of an genuine desire to mould us into respectable citizens. She just believed that British was best. Her influence was strong because our mother was living and working in London during the week and only came home at weekends. Three lively kids under the age of eight can be a handful, and we regularly drove Nonie to exasperation. That's when she'd shriek: 'You little savages!' We'd giggle and mumble to each other in Arabic and she'd blow her top. 'We're not in Africa now, this is England!' I came to see Africa as disgusting, without being aware of it. In the early days we didn't think to dry our faces (in the Sudanese heat it was best not to), but we soon learned that this was barbaric. My sister couldn't get used to wearing woolly tights and used to tear them off in the playground. She was seen as delinquent. All too quickly I shook off my ties to Africa – except my colour. There was nothing I could do about it so I ignored it. But as much as I wanted to believe it didn't matter, every day I could see that it did – to other people.

After some months my grandparents wanted their lives back. My mother gave up work and we lived together in an even smaller Essex village. My mum was keen for us to embrace our African side, but we didn't want to. I refused to speak Arabic, or to wear my hair down (too frizzy). She forced me to watch Roots and I could hardly stand it. I felt such rage at the way black people were treated, I cheered when a slave spat in the master's drink but it was too painful for me to accept in my own life. I didn't want to be associated with those slaves. I didn't want to be an object of pity or contempt. I wanted to be free to be me. At my primary school, kids started calling me Kunta Kinti after one of the slaves. Instead of seeing them as wrong for being racist, I hated the programme for highlighting my difference.

I was pulling down the shutters on race and racism but this state of denial was precarious. Any incident that touched on the subject could reduce me to tears – and I couldn't understand it. My mum was powerless to help because I couldn't bring myself to talk about it and she wanted to spare me any pain. But I think this was a natural reaction to a hostile environment. It was also a survival mechanism.

Things got worse at secondary school. I actually preferred racist incidents that took place without any witnesses because then I could pretend it hadn't happened. But attacks were just as likely in public as in private. In one class we were made to sit boy, girl, boy, girl. As I took my seat the boy next to me shouted that he wasn't going to sit next to a nigger. The teacher dragged him off and I wished the ground would swallow me up. Another time I sat through a lesson having paper darts tipped with pins thrown at my back. I didn't tell the teacher because I wasn't a grass. I was just humiliated and I hated myself for being such a wimp.

Although I had a British passport (once I was 'naturalised') and an English mum, I wasn't able to declare my Britishness. People would say: 'Yes, but what are you really'. At the same time I was in exile from Sudan. It made me wonder a lot about nationality and nationhood. Especially as I was born in China. I thought it all seemed so arbitrary. Chinese nationality was only conferred on people with a Chinese parent so I was born Sudanese (the Chinese decided my father's nationality was superior to my mother's). My sister was born in Sudan and also given Sudanese nationality. My brother was born in England and was therefore granted British nationality. We had the same parents and it wasn't rational. It also seemed irrelevant. But it did matter, as I found out during the Falklands War. My classmates got swept along with Thatcher's patriotic passion. They were delighted when we whipped the Argies and some went to greet the returning soldiers when they arrived at port. I envied them their closeness in uniting against a common foe, but I felt it was phoney. (Besides which, the Falklands looked like a dump and seemed suspiciously close to Argentina.)

I was dogged by the question of who I was and where I belonged and I think this has been the greatest gift my background has given me. As I grew up I felt more secure about being seen as different. I gained some objectivity which meant I didn't dissolve into tears of self-pity at the prospect. I also knew I wasn't inferior and I needed to understand why I was seen that way. Who says black is bad? What's wrong with Arabs? Why do people insist that a white woman with brown children adopted them? Why do some people feel sorry for you if you're mixed race? So I began the long process, which I'm continuing today, of finding out.

I started reading books on racism, international history, psychology – looking for answers. I got righteous and angry and defiantly black. This felt good, very empowering; and when people pointed out to me that I was brown I just glared back at them. (But I did worry that I wasn't black enough). I had a naive idea that all people who weren't white felt they had a special affinity and were united. At university one day a white friend of mine introduced me to a black friend of his. This guy was quite stiff until my white friend happened to mention that my father was Sudanese. "Thank God" he said "I thought you were a f***ing Paki."

My experiences have opened my eyes. They have shown me that racism is a system we live in – consciously or not. We're all prone to it's sneaky influence. It's comforting to feel superior; it's satisfying to blame others for our own misfortunes or shortcomings; and being part of a gang can boost your confidence no end. But I'm aiming for a self-confidence that comes from love, not fear. Something inclusive that allows me to feel happy with myself and about other people. I've been forced to realise that my true allegiance is with everybody. Nationality is arbitrary; countries can change their shape or character (what does it mean to be British today?); colour is in the eye of the beholder. But I'm still me. Now when I catch sight of my skin I get a warm, tender feeling. Not pride, but a kind of twinkling delight. It's me and everything I've been through. It's a perfect fit.

Ishraga Lloyd (© Copyright 1999 Lloyd)

People in Harmony News Letter Issue 21 April 1999