One of the many reasons I love living in London is the city’s diversity. Take the street I live on, for example. I have neighbours from India, Nigeria, Japan, Jewish neighbours and Polish neighbours. And English neighbours too of course. When I recently blogged about self-identifying as a Londoner, I came in for some criticism from a commentator who insisted that only those who are born and bred in London could rightfully call themselves Londoners. I beg to differ. For I don’t believe that identity and belonging are set in stone or determined by bloodline or place of birth. Rather, as my own history tells me, identity is fluid.
I was born and raised in Stockholm, Sweden, and for the first twenty years of my life, I identified accordingly. I was nineteen when I first left Sweden to study in the US and save for a brief return to the motherland, I’ve lived elsewhere ever since, first in the US for seven years, and for the past nineteen years I’ve made Britain – London to be precise – my home, where I’ve studied, worked, married, had children and paid taxes. If anyone asks where I’m from these days, the answer is, “from London, by way of Sweden.”
It’s in London where I met and fell in love with the man who was to become my husband and the father of my kids (although in reverse order, I must admit). And through him, a black Brit of African and Asian Caribbean heritage, I also discovered the meaning of white privilege.
Whereas my husband was racially abused through much of his childhood, I, as a white person, have never had to think about the colour of my skin. For, as Reni Eddo-Lodge writes in her book, Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People About Race,
“…the positive affirmations of whiteness are so widespread that the average white person doesn’t even notice them. Instead, these affirmations are placidly consumed. To be white is to be human; to be white is universal.”
I recently attended an informal gathering of parents from my daughters’ school; while sipping coffee, we talked about books, culture, education and our precious offspring. Sounds lovely, doesn’t it? And it was, for the most part. When one of the mothers began to talk about her desire to maintain her (white) nine-year-old daughter’s innocence for as long as possible, the mood changed somewhat, for which I bear some responsibility I readily admit.
“Our school is such a lovely diverse mix of children,” she said, “and the children just don’t pay any attention to the differences [in colour]. I hope my daughter can stay that innocent for a while longer.”
As the mother of two children of mixed heritage, who are very much aware of the colour of their skin, their complex cultural and ethnic heritage, I couldn’t stay silent in the face of her obliviousness to her own – and her daughter’s – privilege.
“That innocence that’s quite possible to maintain if you’re white,” I said (although I think I phrased it slightly more diplomatically). “But my children, who are not white, lost that innocence a long time ago when a white child first pointed out to them that their skin is brown.”
An awkward silence descended on the room, but I soon cut it short.
“We talk openly in our home about important issues like racism, slavery, colonialism, etc. because my husband and I believe it’s important for our children to know about this as soon as they’re mature enough to make sense of it.”
It is true that my family is fortunate to live in a rather cosy bubble of privileged diversity in Northwest London, but that doesn’t mean that racism isn’t an issue. When my eldest daughter was only a baby, people often did a doubletake when they realised her father was black. Once, when my husband came to fetch our baby and me from a very white, middle-class breastfeeding group in Camden, he nearly scared the living daylight out of the breastfeeding consultant in charge of the group, when he knocked on the window to get my attention. Dressed in an oversized hooded coat that had seen better days, he seemed to confirm the white stereotype of the dangerous black man. Only when I cheerfully piped up, “oh that’s my baby’s father,” did the smell of fear subside.
To this day my family gets the occasional disapproving stare from strangers on public transport. In 2018, mixed families like ours still provoke reactions, in London, Stockholm, and just about everywhere we go.
As a white woman, I can’t truly know what it’s like to be a woman of colour, and I don’t pretend to. But as a mother, I work hard to raise my daughters to be conscious and proud of their mixed heritage. For we are not a colour-blind family.
Well said Jenny! Even if “we” cannot truly know what its like to have different skin color, we can be sensitive to diversity and white privilege.