I recently met someone new on a course I’m doing and after some conversation, they mentioned how important it is for “us as white women” to be aware of the lens of experience of BIPOC in this particular field. I sat there listening quietly but going round and round in my head was- but I’m not white. Well not entirely. Do I say something? Is it worth it? I just sat there and listened to them talk. It’s hard to describe how that feels. When someone just assumes your race without asking first. And to be fair- I am white passing. 9 out of 10 people assume that I’m completely white on a daily basis. And that remaining 1 out of 10 people often ask questions such as “are you completely white?” or “looks like you have something else in you?”. The most common question being “errm where are you from?” and I say London. “Erm where are your parents from?”. Again- I say London. “Oh no I mean what is your heritage?”. Finally, I then say my mum’s side of the family are Jamaican.
Actually, it’s a part of me that I really want people to know. It was always my go-to in group interviews- state something “interesting” to the group that might surprise them. A fun fact.
I was so close to my grandpa and feel like this part of me is a connection to him. And I want it to keep living and breathing. I find myself wanting to throw it into conversation, to let people know that I’m not completely white. Want them to know how proud I am of my Jamaican heritage.
I’ve been going to Notting Hill Carnival for as long as I can remember. One of my earliest memories is holding my grandpa’s hand and looking up and seeing a sea of people, twice, maybe three times my size, crowding all above me as we weaved through the streets of West London. Every Summer I would go with my family; in the later years wheeling my grandpa up in his wheelchair so he could enjoy the floats with a can of Red Stripe. However, as I got older I became more self conscious of my presence at Carnival. Even more so after my grandpa passed. I suddenly felt- well- very white. Since a late teen, I had become a serial hair straightener- never letting my natural curls be free. However, I remember on more than one occasion for Carnival I would purposely not straighten my hair. I wanted to appear less white. Wanted people to know that I belonged to my own heritage.
I was extremely lucky to go to a great secondary school, slap bang in the middle of London. Kids of all different cultural and religious backgrounds, from all “walks of life” as my mum would say. But this was the point where I really started to become aware of how my race was perceived to the wider world. Something I had never really thought about. Until girls would comment that I wasn’t “black” enough and friends would say that I was a “black girl in a white girl’s body”. I brushed it all off to be honest and didn’t actively find it upsetting at the time. But comments like this make a lasting imprint. And now I think of it- it definitely alienated me from my heritage.
This carried on through most of my twenties, and felt especially prominent as I entered the lion’s den of the acting industry. I spent the most part of that decade with every part of my face, body, personality etc. being commented on/questioned/picked apart. Thankfully I made it out alive and through to the other side (fairly!) unscathed. For the most part, the uncertainty of my race was the largest subject of inquiry.
I went through a series of different agents during my 7 years as an actor. Each of them had their differing opinions on how they could “use” my race to both our advantages.
Today, I still feel as though I have one foot in my Caribbean heritage and one foot in the English. Coming to terms with my own race, as opposed to how others view me and where they perceive me to be from. It’s such a difficult feeling to describe. Akin to standing over the border of two countries, straddling each landscape. The two lands are strikingly different, and you feel the imprint of that on your body and on your mind. Different temperatures, terrain and altogether different environments.
This is an excerpt from a Thought Piece Emily Aitcheson wrote as a provocation for The What If Experiment.