Black history is not just for a month: how I learnt to embrace being mixed race and teach my kids about their heritage
I’m proud of my heritage now, but as a mixed race child in Leeds in the nineties, I was lost and confused.
Not feeling truly accepted by white people nor black people…just somewhere in between.
I was having this internal battle to overcome preconceptions and challenge labels, in order to prove my self-worth.
African or Jamaican?
My mum was white but she loved black culture – the music, the food, everything.
She was respected by the black community and she took on the important responsibility of ensuring that her child was connected to her roots and learning how to adapt to their needs differently (e.g hair).
To my frustration, my Jamaican father played into the black male stereotype as he was absent. This contributed to my feelings of negativity towards him and consequently being black.
Because all my family were white, I knew I was different and I felt embarrassed.
I didn’t look like them. I faced things that they didn’t understand.
I was a big shock to my grandparents, they still loved me regardless, however never really got it and I can recall daily ‘problematic’ comments.
I always told people I was Jamaican. Being Jamaican was considered cool when I was growing up because of Bob Marley, whereas it wasn’t cool to be African.
There was a clear divide between the two groups and West Indians were often viewed as being trouble-causers and less educated.
I believe this disconnect is one of contributing factors to racism, as black people are still fighting within themselves.
I too was ignorant to the fact that I was African. I just denied so much of my heritage and who I was, but that’s when slavery comes into the mix.
My dad was a descendant of African slaves. That’s when I started trying to understanding where the Jamaican side of my family were from. I realised that Africa was much bigger than I had ever imagined and things got a whole lot more complicated and interesting.
My husband is mixed race too but he’s always been very proud. His mum was Irish and his dad was a Nigerian chief. He was raised in Liverpool and it was tough.
In Leeds, I was more familiar with unconscious bias (mentally). Whereas his experiences were next level in comparison (physically) – this was just after the riots.
When we got together as students and we shared our stories, I couldn’t believe it.
That was the beginning of my own growth and getting comfortable in my own skin.
I felt like I’d been living a lie.
Taking my husband’s Nigerian name
My maiden name is Moore.
Even after I got married, I continued to use it at work for a while because I didn’t want people to judge me differently because my married name is Okojibe.
I contemplated changing it for some time, but it was only after taking part in the Diversity Forum that I started to use it.
Okojibe is pronounced Oko-Ja-Bee. It’s Nigerian and it means ‘water has no enemy (needed by all)’.
Some people still can’t pronounce it but I am proud of it.
It basically means even the richest man, if he doesn’t have water, can’t survive. We all need water and that’s something we have in common!
‘My kids are proud to be black’
I’ve got two daughters who are seven and nine years old and a stepson who’s 13.
We’ve all lived very different experiences.
When I was at school, barely anybody looked like me. I wanted to straighten my hair. I even tried to cut a fringe!
But they’re very proud of their hair. My eldest won’t even let me slick it back or tie it up – she’d wear her hair out every day if she could.
She says “I love my hair, the bigger the better”.
But she doesn’t like it when people try to touch her hair. People try to do it all the time – in the shops and stuff – because they’re curious and it’s different to theirs.
The girls are also very tolerant and open with their friends.
They know that if someone doesn’t know, they can explain to them, and don’t have to be offended.
I learned to avoid the confrontational black girl stereotype by keeping my head down, however this is not always the answer. I encourage my girls to have the confidence to speak up if they feel uncomfortable and to educate with grace.
They never got to meet their grandparents, but their stories live on.
My kids are proud to be black.
That’s been a priority for us as parents, to teach them to embrace who they are. It also helps that we are lucky to live in a very multicultural community.
When my daughter’s school did a lesson about Muhammad Ali, the class were calling him aggressive.
That kind of thing just perpetuates the stereotype of the angry black man, just based on the way he speaks.
She decided to put her hand up and said “But Miss, he didn’t want to go to the war, he didn’t want to fight and he went to prison.”
Kids need black role models.
Not just rappers and sportspeople either – they need to learn about some of the Greats like Mansa Musa and Queen Idia.
We need black people to use their platforms for empowerment and strength. Instead of focusing on the struggles of the past, coming together to build and challenge the systematic barriers.
Why Black History Month?
Racism has always been there and always will be.
Look at what happened to the England football team over the summer. People were already riled up following recent events and it all came out then.
It’s sad that in this day and age, old habits still exist. You get to a point when it no longer surprises you, you’ve just got to rise above it and keep moving forwards!
The narrative needs to change. Maybe it’s time for a different approach and mindset…
What do black people need to do to overcome racism?
Nothing – because it shouldn’t be the responsibly of black people to labour and teach others.
I wasn’t even too sure about writing this blog if I am honest…
I don’t think we need to do Black History Month once a year, if it’s just a tick box exercise that reminds black people how different and badly treated they have been previously.
If you’re going to study black history, you need to acknowledge that there was black history before America in the 1960s.
Also, question why we refer to it as Black History and not African History? No other history is named after colour and doing so disregards the many different histories/traditions within the continent.
We can’t just focus on slavery either, because that’s white history. If you are genuinely interested, there is so much out there. Get books, get online and do your research.
This content is part of our Black History Month series where we are sharing stories, celebrating and amplifying black voices from history, across United Response and the people we support.