for Husna and Karim
My boy is blonde. He is two. Always singing. Fascinated by wheels. Mischievous. Wants a cat. Hides by scrunching up both eyes tight. Falls asleep with a train in each hand. Loves the feel of sand on his toes and the squidge of butter. But firstly, before any of that. First and foremost, he is blonde.
And I am not.
I grew up in the eighties, in a town in the north of England where “ethnic” was used as a one-size-fits-all noun. The story goes that my parents arranged their first date over a shift in surgery: nurse, pass the scalpel, Tuesday at seven? A date for which my dad was three hours late, since in Africa seven o’clock meant ten maybe eleven and he was still young and had all the time in the world. I like to think it must’ve been a real heart.stopping.kapow!boom! love that tethers someone to a local lass and a hostile place for almost half a century. But that would just be convenient storytelling. There was more to their life than that.
When our childhood days were flecked with casual racism, my family called it a sign of the times and found solace in each other. The blackest humour that takes us to the lightest of places. We laughed at the irony of tanning salons in British National Party heartlands. Perfected our comebacks, always after the event. Giggled when our mum recounted her tale of how she’d been told to expect my sister’s skin tone to be “like coffee” but how was she to know what kind of coffee that meant… latte, a smooth mocha, straight up Nescafe? It didn’t matter that her story became exaggerated with each telling, not least because we know that lattes didn’t reach our hinterland until 2002. The transformation – for my parents, for me and my siblings – came in the simple act of weaving our own familial folklore, speaking about race and difference and celebrating the truth that skin colour played a central role in our lives. In a tapestry whose soundtrack included insults spat by strangers, and monkey impressions in the school playground, our parents’ gentle legends were eternally welcome.
My skin grew thick. I moved to the big smoke, worked with asylum seekers, tried to learn Arabic and wrote my heart out.
And then, years later, when I thought I had figured out my place in the world, I had a son and my son was blonde. Three quarters British and one quarter North African, with pale eyes and the kind of platinum blonde curls that could double for Marilyn.
Two years since we brought our baby home from the hospital, people still ask when his hair will darken and when his eyes will turn brown. I’ve been asked if I’m sure he’s mine and told that if I was the dad there’d be demands for a paternity test. Told by smiling strangers – and friends who should know better – that you wouldn’t think he had anything to do with me.
Our physical presence requires a leap of the imagination that most people manage no problem. Occasionally, though, I meet someone who so struggles to navigate the concept of different skin tones that they seem to halt, mid-jump and do a kind of floundering Wile E Coyote air dance while their brain tries to catch up.
Since the day my son was born, I’ve had to defend us. Explain us. Sometimes it feels like I’m written out of the equation. When my partner introduces his son to a stranger or an acquaintance I’ve never met, and I show up later, I can see the cogs turning and I wait for the words. “But… he’s so fair.” Although I’m standing there next to my partner holding our baby, politely making small talk, I feel like they’re still waiting for the pretty white chick they’d expected to be mama. Sometimes I feel like the fucking nanny. And I feel the judgement on behalf of my partner – huh, did you know his girlfriend was black?
I see the same cogs that clank when people ask, “But where are you from originally?” The same primitive neurological mechanism that we once watched implode as kids. We were sitting on a packed train to London, when an eldery woman with a poodle on her lap applauded my mother for adopting “those poor brown babies”. My brother almost snorted his chips out of his nose and we found somewhere else to sit.
These days, I find myself speaking the words that my mum spoke then, though more gently, still tentative, without her inimitable wryness or years of practice: “I distinctly remember giving birth.” And I skulk away, my lifelong intruder disorder rearing its head again as I become acutely aware of being the only non-white person in the room, gently reminded that, to certain people, my son and I are a bit of a curveball. I’ve considered bleaching my hair just to mess things up a little.
I wish people would be direct. I would love to have a conversation about the part of the Nile where my dad used to play and how my mum looked like Agnetha Fältskog from Abba, when she was my age. I try to open dialogue, pull out my now-weary aren’t genes amazing line and look, no, look closer, past the skin colour, don’t you see all the similarities between his face and mine? I am constantly explaining my relationship to my son in a way that my fair-skinned partner will never have to.
Last month, for the first time in years, my beautiful, gentle sister was called “Paki” by a teenage boy. She was on her lunch break. Leafy suburbs, birds in trees, unguarded. I was proud of her for confronting the kid and we dissected the event over and over that evening, like in the old days: laughing first at the geographical innacuracy; troubled by his use of that archaic insult, which shouldn’t even be in a 15 year old’s vocabulary; alarmed and certain that the act was emboldened by the systematic normalisation of xenophobia during the Brexit campaign.
So why do I let it get under my skin?
Because I spent my formative years justifying the right to define my own identity. Forcing people to recognise that I was not “black”, no matter how many times I was told to tick that box. That mixed race isn’t “half-white” or “half-black”. That there’s a reason why my face reddened in class reading the poem ‘Half-Caste’ at the age of twelve. That mixed race doesn’t mean a dilution of anything.
When they say he’s so blonde, it’s in relation to me, the unspoken half of that thought being “but you’re so dark“, and suddenly it’s all about halves again. It proves to me what I’ve spent my city-dwelling, head in books, small circle of trusted friends life denying – that people do see colour. They see me as “black”. Or as “Asian”. Or as “foreign”. And in that act of convenient categorisation they erase my family tree. They erase my courageous mum and my beautiful dad, the town I grew up in, what I do in my spare time, the music I listen to, the clothes I wear – and replace them with something more befitting a woman of my colour. A longer hem-line, perhaps. Spicy food. An extended family. Religion. Otherness.
It strikes at the naturalness of my son, goes beyond curiosity.
And it negates the insults I’ve taken and transformed into kindness, the empathy I’ve spent years cultivating, everything I want to teach my son about being strong in a world that can catch you off guard as you stretch your legs on your lunch break.
It’s an extra dimension to the kaleidoscopic shift that comes with all motherhood, where the patterns and shapes of things that used to be second nature seem to reassemble themselves into new daily unrecognisable challenges. A process that has rattled me to my core and forced me to sharpen my focus and blur out the rest, so that I’m ready to engage with the questions his childhood will bring. My own story has equipped me for his.
I can’t wait for the day when our little boy has enough sass and can talk/ write/ sing through their ignorance. Shed their skin and make it his own.
And so we gave him an Arabic middle name and we’ll teach him why it matters and that one great grandad rode a horse across the Sahara and another built submarines and that one loved baklava and the other loved battenberg and both were kind and mischievous and always singing and that only one of them was blonde.
Find more of H.A’s writing at www.everyday.com/blog