Skip to main content

Identity – beyond black

Our cultures, goals, values, opportunities are diverse. Yet, living as minorities, we are thrown together by the long shadow of colonialism that shapes mainstream attitudes. Random souls, we are connected by 'black minority' status, in a random street, in a random city in Asia, Europe or North America. The 'black' umbrella covers the vast diversity of the African continent and Afro-American diaspora cultures. Like most race labels, 'black' is arbitrary.

Most people I know in the Anglo world would describe me as black, but I'm at least 50% white (probably more). 'Black' is a label I would be proud to wear, except that it sweeps away important aspects of my identity. While travelling the world, the poet Langston Hughes found similar problems with this label in his 1940 autobiography, The Big Sea.

You see, unfortunately, I am not black. There are lots of different kinds of blood in our family. But here in the United States, the word "Negro" is used to mean anyone who has any Negro blood at all in his veins. In Africa, the word is more pure. It means all Negro, therefore black.

Probably this is why the term 'African-American' has come into vogue. However, I find 'blackness' is a category that can't be ignored. It can attract prejudice, but more often, solidarity as I travel the world beyond the African continent. I explored these experiences in posts titled Beautiful Mongrels and Beggars.

'Half caste' is offensive to me. It has so many unpleasant connotations: caste systems, unfinished moulds, being incomplete. If I had to choose a label, I like the meaning and the sound of the French word 'metisse' (mixed race).
I like your cafe au lait 
said a man one night in Bologna, admiring my legs. Both coffee and milk are good, so I took it as a compliment... but some friends of mine find 'cafe au lait' offensive. Born in America to parents from Ireland and Barbados, I identify strongly with the 18-19th Century African diaspora that spans the Americas with its diverse musical, artistic and literary cultures. My identity is evolving as I explore these riches.

Two small islands of Empire

I don't think the people of my mother's country would describe me as black. Barbados has shadism... a whole other vocabulary. Shadism exists in many post-colonial countries: a stereotype that people with lighter skin are superior, more beautiful or have an unfair advantage. Thanks to the colonial legacy, there is some truth in the 'unfair advantage' assumption. 

Where you find shadism, all the different shades of brown have different labels... some of them based on a pseudo-scientific description from the era of slavery (eg: quadroon). Some labels show the higher value given to whiteness – 'high brown' for light brown. In the colonies where white ethnic groups were also subjected to forced labour and exploitation, derogatory labels were also found for them... for example, 'Redlegs' for the poor Irish in Barbados. 'Backra' was a label for poor whites in the West Indies, because they sat in the back row in church. 'White trash' is another, used in the American South. However in general, the members of the dominant ethnic group escape nicknames, even if they are poor. They claim for themselves the category of 'human', while 'the other' is reduced to perjoratives.

For most of my life, I've enjoyed the freedom of just being 'human' – in school, at university, amongst friends and family, in hotels, shops and restaurants, and in my various white-collar jobs. Usually, I can forget that I look different because I am given a fair go instead of a label. If anything, sexism has been more of an issue for me than racism. However, Ireland until the early 90s was very white place – growing up in the countryside, I could go a year without seeing another black person other than my mum and brother. Coming of age in this monoculture, my image was invisible in Irish media and culture, yet highly visible whenever I stepped out of our hilltop home overlooking the river Suir. In Tipperary streets and churches, people stared at me in curiosity. The staring was uncomfortable but I adapted, because there was no hostility.

It's not that Ireland was free from prejudice – up north, Irish Protestants and Catholics were still killing each other. It's the a fear of losing power or dominance that motivates hatred, and the experience of injustice and oppression that motivates resistance. During the 400 years of colonial domination and disposession, the Irish were held in contempt by their British rulers, forbidden to speak their native language and to practise their religion. Few Irish people know that Irish were forced to labour in the cane fields of Barbados before the Africans.

I loved country life, walking the fields with sheep and dogs. My school days in the Catholic Convent school in Cahir were happy and sociable. I excelled acadamically and was selected for the National Childrens Choir. On the weekends, my dad took me horse riding. In my teens, I commuted weekly to an all-girls city boarding school. It was privileged, secure and competitive. Sporting and academic excellence were rewarded. As white as it was, Alexandra College was more diverse than Irish society in the 80s and early 90s. Probably the mix of girls from all over Ireland: Protestant and Catholic, some with parents overseas, made it a tolerant environment.

In my six years of high school, I remember only one or two other dark-skinned pupils. We would exchange smiles in the corridor, but no strong feeling of solidarity. I didn't get to know them – I didn't the need to. My skin colour and natural, braided Afro hair were rarely mentioned, except in compliments. Most of the students were Irish, but my first year bestie was a Norwegian called Kirsten Mogensen (pictured above). Her bed was next to mine and her parents lived in the Gambia.

Girls (even blondes) who went on their annual family holiday and came back with a tan, would be greeted with the envious exclamation, "You're black!" The first time I heard this comment, I felt anxious until I realised they were complimenting the person with the sun tan. In the sunless, cold Irish climate of the economically depressed 1980s, a tan represented good fortune, happiness and luxury. Knowing that I was from tropical Barbados only filled my classmates with envy!

In Barbados in the 1990s, with my mother Doriel and grandmother, Geraldine.

Readers might assume that I would feel more at home in Barbados, where I was fortunate to live until I was eight years old. Certainly I have happy, sunny childhood memories from this tropical paradise – I was unaware of shadism until I returned as an adult. It's always a pleasure to return to that beautiful island, populated with all diaspora skin tones from ivory to ebony. However, we didn't return to Barbados until I was 18 years old. Like Ireland, Barbados has suffered mass emigration – all my Bajan cousins had already gone to Canada. Ageing Bajan relatives and family friends welcomed us with delicious home cooking. These were great holidays – creole cuisine, dancing in nightclubs, kissing boys at the beach. In later years, I enjoyed beach time with a family friend called Andrew. He lived at his Auntie Berenice's large beachfront family compound with his mum, brother and grandparents.

Although I appreciated the culture and the people, I never felt at home in Barbados because I got stared at so much. There was a lot of sexual harassment. One memorable night, I was in the city centre with two friends, looking for a nice bar. On this particular street, we found only brothels. A group of men on a street corner stared at us from the time we got out of the car till the time we got back in. A man approached my window to take a closer look. He stood and stared down at me, while I started the engine, marvelling at his rudeness. In the street, even women stared at me. Barbados is a small island, with small-town parochialism.


The Irish have a culture of good-humoured mocking between friends called slagging. It's like a more casual, simple version of 'Yo mama' (The Dozens) insult or hip hop dissing battles of African Americans. 

If a slagging is done well, between friends, it's funny and a sign of affection. However, it's very rude to shout such mockery at strangers in public, as it would be in any culture. Unfortunately, as with catcalling women in the street, Irish people often do it without thinking.

A boyfriend of mine in Dublin suffered public slaggings for his albinism. It's dehumanising to be labelled... Johnny felt the disrespect keenly. 'Hey, Santa Claus!' came the shout, mocking his snow-white hair and beard, as he went about his business in town. When it happened to me, I understood that it was not exactly racism, but a different form of low-grade bullying. Slagging a stranger serves the same psychological purpose as racism – to make one social group feel good by scapegoating or mocking another individual or group. I now realise that's why the poor kids in the street were the main perpetrators.

Until the recent era of prosperity, Dublin had an entrenched underclass, especially in the north inner city. Intimidation, theft, vandalism, drug dealing, assault and teenage pregnancy would generally be expected from this class of Dubliner. Their accents, habits and attire distinguished them from my social circle, drawn from leafy southern suburbs and country mansions. Between ourselves, we had mean names for them – knackers, scumbags. The tracksuit-clad youths asserted their territory in the streets, no doubt because it was their only escape from cramped, public housing. Sometimes these inner-city dwellers went about in pyjamas and slippers. In case you haven't got the picture by now, these street corner youths were all white. While occasional harassment could be expected in the socially mixed inner city, it was easy to avoid really poor neighbourhoods because we had no reason to go there. Also as I hardly drink, I would cycle untouched through the weekend danger zone, when drunken Dubliners from all classes were to be found wobbling around the streets looking for taxis, picking fights, pissing on walls and vomiting.

Scary Spice in the 1990s
As an adult, studying and working in Dublin, I often encountered labels – drunk people in pubs and poor kids on street corners slagging me. The labels were derived from their only experience of black people – American television, MTV.

In the spirit of the Irish smart-arse, labels were shouted at me: the Jackson Five, Scary Spice, Tracy Chapman, Fugee-la, Macy Gray... whoever was most fashionable at the time. As most of these labels are basically positive – even glamorous – I could usually ignore them. When I wore my hair in a natural Afro, it attracted even more attention (and still does). One particular day, it was too much – at a music festival, strangers repeatedly yelled the name of a reality TV show personality at me: 'Mikoze.' As the punters got drunker, I could not walk by a group of men without attracting this shout. Understandably, Irish men thought I was exotic – but to many I was a novelty toy, not a person worthy of respect.

Eventually, I learned to slag them back. On one of my visits to Dublin in recent years, I asked a handsome Irish man to dance at a swing social.
"You look like Macy Gray," he said as we took off across the floor. I kept dancing, silently. It was our first dance, and really great. He wasn't slagging me, just making clumsy conversation.
"You must get that alot," he said.
"Only from eejits," I said.
"I must be an awful eejit so!" said the dancer.
Later on, I went over to him. "When are we going to dance again, you big eejit?" I asked.
"Anytime you like, Ms. Gray!" He laughed. We had another great dance.

A brief stint in the Newbridge College boys-only dorms at the age of twelve earned my brother a nickname from television – Benson. Within a year, Rory moved to a co-ed day school in Naas and sailed through the rest of his education with many friends and no labels that I know of. Still, I suspect that he received a more hostile reception in wider Irish society, especially as he got older. The black male is often seen as a threat. In his teens, Rory responded by exploring our family roots. He also developed an obsession with weapons. Fortunately he found a healthy outlet for these two passions: making weapons for historic reenactments of Celtic-Norman battles.
Rory also became a fan of Public Enemy and other political hip hop groups. He discovered that we are related to Afrika Bambaataa and sent a painting to the hip-hop legend. The reward was a vinyl EP, with a signed dedication to 'my Irish cuz'... pride!

A large island of Empire

I've lived in Australia for ten years, where the term 'wog' is still in surprisingly common use.

Perhaps this is because it has been reclaimed in much the same way as 'nigga' has, by the targets of the label. Some people think this gives them the right to use the word whenever they like.
"Wogs are hot," I overheard a co-worker say over a pub lunch one day, soon after I started freelancing at a large publishing house. Who was he talking about? Luckily I did not work directly with that particular white Australian!

'Wog' sweeps away culture, as it's applied in Australia to anyone from of South European or Middle Eastern appearance through to African. I can only recall one occasion when someone called me a wog to my face. It was 2007, in an open-air BBQ near Kalbarri national park in remote Western Australia, where I arrived with a busload of tourists, hungry after a long drive. I was the first to enter the restaurant. The man behind the grill greeted me with a big cheery "Hello.." and I was saying hello back before I realised he was saying 'Hello Golliwog!" My jaw dropped... the look on my face must have said it all. I don't remember if he apologised, but he didn't want our big group to turn around and leave. I was very hungry, so his sorry face and a few extra prawns for my plate were enough to placate me.

As the slave trade did not reach Australia and the distance is great, Africans are tiny minority. Most Africans living in Australia have an African birthplace or parent, and are proud of their diverse national and tribal cultures. I expect that any pejorative labels or judgements used against them are usually borrowed from the American racist tradition. I have no interest in using (or hearing) racist words – wog or the n-word. Their time is up.

What's your name, mulatta?
... came the catcall from a group of men on a truck as I walked down a dirt road in Cuba. I knew what the word meant, but I didn't know its significance in Cuban culture. Curious, I asked my Cuban friends about it. First, here's a current definition, courtesy of Wikipedia.
"Mulatto is a term used to refer to persons born of one white parent and one black parent or to persons born of a mulatto parent or parents. In English, the term is today generally confined to historical contexts (otherwise may be considered offensive)."
The word ending changes to 'o' for the male, but I'll use the female plural of this adjective/noun to include both male and female.

This Spanish label 'mulatta' dates back to their colonisation of the Americas – a label for offspring all to often conceived through the rape of an African slave by a wealthy European. The name may stem from the word mulo for mule – the hybrid of a horse and a donkey. Mulatta had different meanings in different regions, sometimes including Indigenous-European mixes or other combinations (also known as 'mestiza'). The label was also used Virginia, USA for children of white working-class women and African-American servant, slave or free men. Based on the status of their mothers, these Americans were born free, or could acquire freedom after a period of indentured servitude. Inevitably though, the caste systems of slavery and segregation put the 'mulatta' in a precarious situation. Mulattas could try to 'pass for white' or find a place in the black community, on the disadvantaged side of the racial divide.


In Cuban society today, the Afro-European beauty of the mulatta or mestiza is recognised proudly as part of the national identity. However, the mulatta is also sexualised and stereotyped as promiscuous.

In Trinidad de Cuba, I stepped into a painter's shopfront studio to shelter from the rain. I was drawn to the painting of women with suggestive fruit and cigars shown above.
Mulattas with cigars, said the painter, when he saw me looking.
"What's the significance of the mulattas?" I asked him.
"Oh, that's the classic Cuban beauty, the mix with African blood," he said. I wonder if he changed his answer for me? In any case, the beautiful women celebrated in tropical colours pleased me. Regrettably, I forgot to ask the artists name, but I did buy this painting and a similar one. Like folk art or design, they were inexpensive, repeatable and unsigned. After I paid, he returned to his work table. I watched him painting quickly, direct onto the canvas. Within a day, he had replaced the two designs he sold me, with slightly different fruit arrangements.

The sexualisation of the mulatta explains her role in Latin American liquor branding. In Cuba, Mulatta is a popular rum brand. The Castillano word 'ron' is masculine, but the sexual innuendo is better served by the feminine label. Tres Corderas brewery in Colombia sell an amber beer labelled 'Mulatta' and another called 'Mestiza'. Seeing these labels, I was reminded of the Australian brand: 'Pure Blonde' beer. The feminine 'e' in blonde is no accident. Alcohol advertising often exploits the macho idea that women can be bought, sold and enjoyed as easily as fermented vegetable juice. If there was any doubt about this, consider a memorable, but flawed beer brand that I encountered when I gate-crashed a party in Sydney a few years ago. A group of African-American men welcomed me, saying, "Here, have a Bitch! It's our new beer."
I suspect that was a short-lived brand name.

If your ethnic group or image is excluded from glamorous roles in movies or magazine, plays or ads, it can make you feel invisible, excluded and devalued. Even my Australian Jewish journalist friend laments that to this day, she never sees even a woman with dark curly hair on Australian magazine covers. To be honest, the sexualisation of the mulatta in Cuba was a relief for me after for so many years in Australia — a country that idolises blondes. Used to being 'the one and only' mulatta in Ireland and Australia, I'm thrilled to find mulattas featured in art, literature and songs. Cuba is the richest source I've found so far. I'm looking forward to exploring this African diaspora culture... from the Cuban novel and operetta Cecilia Valdés, to more recent works by mulatta women and men.

On my journey around the world, the globe-trotting Harlem Renaissance poet Langston Hughes has been my most entertaining (virtual) companion. His play called Mulatto had a successful run on Broadway in 1935. Two poems by Hughes captured the situation of the American mulatto. One is cited below, titled Cross. His more famous and powerful poem, Mulatto, is too long to cite here. These mulatto/mulatta stories relate to me, indirectly through my parents, and directly through my Bajan ancestors on my mum's side, descended from sugar plantation African slaves and white English or Irish overseers.

My old man's a white old man
And my old mother's black.
If ever I cursed my white old man
I take my curses back.
If ever I cursed my black old mother
And wished she were in hell,
I'm sorry for that evil wish
And now I wish her well
My old man died in a fine big house.
My ma died in a shack.
I wonder where I'm going to die,
Being neither white nor black?
by Langston Hughes

A more recent exploration of the complexity of mixed race identity comes from dancer Alessandra Seutin. Her performance title, 'Ceci n'est pas noire,' is an allusion to a famous surrealist painting. The painting by Belgian surrealist Renee Magritte painting is titled, The Treachery of Images – also known as Ceci n'est pas une pipe.

Ceci N'est Pas Noire from Alesandra Seutin | Vocab Dance on Vimeo.

Do we need labels? For me, after first getting to know someone, their skin colour becomes as irrelevant to our relationship as their ear shape. Their culture and values affect the relationship more – and are not necessarily linked to skin colour. With labels, it's too easy to fall into discriminatory habits – for example for the media to label a minority criminal in the news, while omitting to label 'white' perpetrators. However, to refer to the history of African diaspora experience and culture, sometimes the historic label is useful. Shadism piques my curiosity about language, prejudice and taboo histories.

In day to day life, I'd rather live without labels. Adjectives are okay – as long as they are kind. In my writing, I've been playing with adjectives that seem innocuous to me: white, bright, milk, ivory, cafe au lait, golden, amber, honey, caramel, cinnamon, bronze, chocolate, coffee, dark, jet. I also aim to use the politically correct language whenever it's possible to do so with accuracy.

Wired for prejudice, choosing diversity

Auntie Anne shows Dad her geneaology research, 2017.
Shadism's petty taxonomy of race is obsolete from a scientific point of view, since anthropological and genetic evidence shows that all humans originated from Africa. From there, they went on to populate the world. This is logical when you think about it... humans didn't evolve separately all over the world, but share one place of origin. Lighter skin can make more Vitamin D from less sunlight, so this superficial genetic expression would have been advantageous in the colder latitudes. Environmental factors play a vital role in every aspect of childhood development, from IQ to diabetes risk. At a fundamental genetic level there is only one 'human race'. For most measurable attributes, more variation is found within 'races' than between them.

During my psychology degree I learned that prejudice has its roots in cognition and self-esteem. Firstly, stereotyping helps humans to simplify the complex world we live in. This is how you can recognise a chair, no matter what it's made of, what colour etc. We automatically stereotype and categorise ourselves and others into 'ingroups' and 'outgroups'. When a group feels threatened, finding a scapegoat group to externalise fear and negative judgements can make them feel more secure (self-esteem). A very dominant group can also impose its negative judgements and values on oppressed groups. This is why political correctness is important – language contains value judgements. As the oppressed strive to climb the social ladder by fitting in with the dominant worldview, they often suffer 'internalised' racism (or sexism etc). Of course it's very damaging when this happens. But I digress. 

My point is that its human nature to stereotype, and this can easily be transformed into prejudice and hatred. If we want to share this planet in peace with 7+ billion other humans, it's all in our interests to overcome our natural inclination to stereotype. We need to actively cultivate cultural sensitivity and recognition of our shared humanity.

Prejudice and race hate have biological and cultural roots – cognitive bias, group dynamics, history, economics and value systems shape how people treat each other. We can also look to culture and biology for ways to create peace and harmony. All humans have language and storytelling. Curiosity is universal. Today the quest for scientific knowledge brings people together from all cultures, colours and creeds. We all have a heartbeat, we all breathe and walk – in that sense all humans have rhythm. In the history of the world, only the most repressed and authoritarian the cultures lack art, music or dance. To talk, sing, dance, write, learn, draw, and share stories – that is peace and freedom. Recognising our common humanity is the foundation of freedom of association and many other freedoms.

We can choose to abide by the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and other value systems that enshrine concepts of human equality. It was proclaimed by the United Nations in 1948, aiming to prevent a repeat of the carnage of WWI and WWII. The ethic of respect for difference is not automatic, not even 'natural'. But it's safer than building walls. Choosing to value diversity is human culture at its best ... learning from our mistakes, to make a better future.

Image Credits
Mulattas with cigars: paint on canvas by unknown artist in Trinidad, Cuba 2018.
Golliwogg in The Adventures of two Dutch Dolls And A Golliwogg, by Florence Kate Upton. Published in 1895. Public domain, source: Wikipedia
Early 20th century glass Golliwogg perfume bottle: image by Sobebunny. Source: Wikipedia


Popular posts from this blog

Physical poetry – Contact Improv in Madrid

On my first visit to Madrid, I wrote about exploring Lavapies Tabacalera by day – sophisticated art installations in warehouse galleries. On this second visit to Madrid, I discovered the Tabacalera studios by night – a living, breathing art community. Cuban flautist and poet Liz stayed in touch after our chance meeting in Lisbon, and joined me for this contact improvisation adventure. Tabacaleras are former tobacco factories, given over to the arts by many Spanish municipalities. Passing through the unmarked portal into this furnace of creativity, I quickly felt relaxed and at home. Liz said she had never seen anything like it it. To get the dance studio, we traversed a cavernous room of giant murals into a corridor of spectacular street art, past booming reggae and African DJ dens, out into the yard. A few oil drum fires burned, and people gathered around to keep warm, under the gaze of Albert Einstein. If only he could see his two-metre high portrait, spray painted on old wo

From seaweed to bananas – Contact Improv in Dublin

The dancers were sitting in a circle when I arrived. A stranger, I was greeted with words of welcome and invited to join the end of a class by Yaeli. We danced as seaweed buffeted by waves, brushed by fish... first anchored on rocks, then taking flight into the water. This seaweed dance was one of my best trio experiences, taking turns with David and Fergus in the roles of weed or wave or fish. A friendly jam followed, including dances with Isabel and Jacob.  When the jam was over, we said goodbye with hugs. I felt great... welcomed to the community, emotionally and physically invigorated. I walked to my bus stop with a smile on my face. Though bus rides are usually tedious and smelly in the damp Dublin winter, I smiled the whole way. I got off and walked the few hundred metres home in the freezing rain. Soon I was home with hot tea, a hot bath, and downy bed – a happy body, drifting into dreams. Going bananas at the Lab The offer to share dance skills came at a dance