I learned the hard way that racial identity matters

What constitutes your personal identity? It’s a question you might not have considered before. Perhaps it’s never bothered you. The topic of what makes us who we are, and our sense of self, has been discussed since the origins of western philosophy. The central theme in some of the world’s most famous novels, such as Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre, Charles Dickens’ Great Expectations and JK Rowling’s Harry Potter is one of identity and the search for self. Yet defining who we are proves notoriously tricky.

Some may think identity as being forged through seminal moments – the birth of a child; perhaps a marriage. Many people see a personal identity as correlating with their ethnicity, nationality, or racial background. 

The sociologist Stuart Hall believed that cultural identities are subject to change, and belong “to the future as much as to the past”. Cultural identities originate from somewhere, they have histories, he said. But how do you identify if you are misled about your own history? Or when your view of yourself does not match up with how others see you?

I examine all this in my book, Raceless, which traces my attempts to piece together the truth about my heritage. I was told by both parents that I was white, but in my early 20s discovered my biological father was black. In researching this, which also involved a podcast series, The Secrets in Us, I also discovered the stories of many others who were misled about their personal identities. After years of believing my own story to be utterly bizarre, it was oddly reassuring to draw points of reference from others around the world.

There was the mixed-race girl in her 20s from Florida who, like me, was raised to believe she was the child of two white parents. Both of us confirmed our black parentage from ancestral DNA testing. There was the Welshman, also mixed-race, who was passed off as fully white by his white mother, who raised him alone. In a cruel twist of fate, just before he tracked down his black family in London, vitiligo robbed him of his phenotypical blackness and he now passes as a white man.

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Then there was the London-based businessman in his 40s who contacted me to share a story almost identical to my own: his blackness was ignored by his parents because, he later found out, his mother had had an affair with a black man in Paris. I interviewed the musician Shovell, of the band M People, who was always told that his white parents had adopted him. Although he identified as black, the truth later emerged that the woman who had raised him was, in fact, his biological mother. I also found there to be parallels of racial or cultural erasure between my experiences and that of some Nigerian-born children fostered by white families.

Each of these stories is deeply layered and complex, yet they all centre around the control of a child’s identity to ensure the comfort of the parents. In many cases blackness was only accepted if it was overlooked: tolerated but not celebrated.

Shame also played a huge role – shame around a child’s difference, shame in relation to a woman’s extramarital affair. And shame around who you are can often manifest itself in self-inflicted abuse of the body. My own teenage years were marred by an eating disorder.

Loving, affectionate relationships with white caregivers can be pushed to breaking point when it emerges that the child’s cultural background or parentage has been obscured from them. The psychological impact of discovering deception of this kind is massive: people told me they felt furious at being robbed of a key part of their identity. The process of rebuilding and re-deciphering their story after a lifetime of believing it to be something else was hugely destabilising: depression, PTSD and grief were common. As Shovell told me: “I was deeply, deeply, deeply scarred. Immediately. PTSD doesn’t only happen to soldiers on a battlefield.”

In hearing so many stories like this, it has become clear to me that withholding information that is fundamental to a child’s self-development is a cruel form of identity erasure, warping realities and often leaving emotional scars that take years to heal.

I don’t believe that black children raised within white homes have to endure pain and suffering. A transracial home does not need to be a synonym for trauma if it is a place of openness and honest dialogue; from my experience I would say that imbuing a child with a sense of pride around all aspects of their identity is key. Ensuring they are surrounded by “racial mirrors” (successful role models who look like them) will help raise their aspirations. Discussing and celebrating difference when children start to notice it will lead to positive associations.

What is absolutely the wrong approach is the colour-blind one. Accepting racial difference only by pretending not to see it keeps families separate and distant. It stilts relationships and creates a damaging silence around who the child really is. When lies are at the heart of the home, it is impossible for children to trust their caregivers, and sometimes other people too. They can grow up believing there is something unspeakably wrong with them. Love is not enough, I know this from experience. It is up to parents to ensure their children are not left to decipher race, and what it means for them, on their own.

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Unikorn Staff
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