Home / Relationships / Mixed Up: If you are anything other than white, you are seen as black

Mixed Up: If you are anything other than white, you are seen as black

Mixed Up is a weekly series that aims to elevate the under-heard voices of the mixed-race population in the UK.

Mixed-race is the fastest-growing ethnic group in the UK, and this hugely diverse group comprises an enormous range of ethnicities, cultures and fascinating narratives.

Having access to more than one cultural reference in your immediate family is an incredible privilege, but being mixed also comes with a unique set of challenges, conflicts and contradictions.

This series explores the joys, sorrows and unique lived experiences of this relatively young racial group.

Rob Parks is a former MasterChef contestant and is now the head chef at a south London restaurant.

He grew up feeling proud to be mixed-race, but his opinions have become more complicated in recent years.

Picture by Jerry Syder for Metro.co.uk

‘I am, by all accounts, what everyone thinks of when they hear the term “mixed-race”,’ Rob tells Metro.co.uk.

‘I am white British and black Carribean – even more stereotypically than that, I am white British and Jamaican. I think this is palatable to people. Everyone seems to accept this as a valid ethnic background, maybe because it is the most common variety of mixed heritage.

‘Many mixed-race friends of mine who come from what some people view as a more niche sub-genre of dual heritage, are frequently questioned on it, scoffed at or just not believed – meaning that they constantly have to justify themselves.

‘Thankfully this is not something I have ever had to tolerate.’

Being mixed-race means that you don’t fit neatly into a singular category. When it comes to black and white, Rob is neither and both at the same time. But rather than causing confusion, Rob sees hope and possibility in this fluidity.

‘I see being mixed-race as a great opportunity to defy stereotypes and to be the person I want to be. I am able to draw on a wide range of cultural experiences and form the person that I am based upon these.

‘I don’t think this is something that is perennially on my mind, but it does inform the way I live my life.

‘If you are solely from one ethnic background, people expect you to conform to certain stereotypes – of course this is massively prejudiced – but unfortunately that is the nature of the society that we live in where people are pigeonholed.

‘Being mixed-race affords me the luxury of not being defined by one ethnic backgrounds in other people’s eyes.’

Little Rob looking dapper with his dad

Little Rob looking dapper with his dad (Picture: Rob Parks/Metro.co.uk)

Rob’s early life experience informed this overall positive view about being mixed-race. He was widely accepted and embraced by peers – he saw himself reflected in the community where he lived.

‘Generally, I think society reacts pretty favourably to mixed-race people,’ explains Rob.

‘Even my very early experiences at primary school in Walthamstow were overwhelmingly positive. There were many other mixed-race children. We were almost cool by default.

‘That was a very powerful and uplifting experience as a child. I identified as mixed-race and I couldn’t comprehend if someone identified me as black. For me, that was only a part of my identity.

‘As I have grown older – and hopefully wiser – I would say that although I still agree with this mindset, my thoughts on it have become a bit more nuanced.

‘Secondary school had a large effect on this. I went from studying at a school that reflected the diverse cultural backgrounds of the local area in which I had always lived, to going to a grammar school in Redbridge, which did not.

‘The association that I had felt with a core group of friends of the same background suddenly disappeared.

‘At an age where everything becomes about pigeonholing and compartmentalising groups of people – the “nerds”, the “cool kids” etc – I felt like I didn’t easily fit into any one group.’

It’s hard to overstate the importance of your environment when it comes to feeling comfortable in your own skin. When Rob’s surroundings drastically changed – and the demographic of the people in his social circles – so too did his opinions about his own identity and where he fit in the world.

‘As a teenager, there is a lot of pressure to conform to stereotypes, including racial stereotypes,’ says Rob.

‘In a largely Asian school with a very small black population – let alone a mixed-race demographic – it was necessary to listen to hip-hop and grime, for example. Although I do now, at the time I wasn’t much into music and this meant that I was often on the outside looking in.

‘Some of my black friends would call me “posh” just because I contributed in classes.

‘I found myself a bit like Mahershala Ali’s character, Dr. Don Shirley in Green Book – feeling neither black enough nor white enough for anyone.

‘But I realise, in hindsight, that this is an age at which we all have our insecurities.

Young Rob with his parents

Young Rob with his parents (Picture: Rob Parks/Metro.co.uk)

‘My confidence has hugely improved thanks to the relationships I have formed and the things I have achieved in my life – graduating university, competing on MasterChef and cooking in front of an audience of millions and now running my own kitchen.

‘All of that has help me realise that I don’t need to be white enough or black enough for anyone, I just need to be me, and this “me” is informed by both sides of my heritage in various ways.’

Rob likes the idea that the mixed-race population are able to form their own narratives and build an identity for themselves. It is only in the last few decades that the numbers of mixed-race people have exploded in this country. There is so much scope for growth.

‘What I love about being mixed-race is that we are a relatively new ethnic group,’ says Rob.

‘I don’t feel that I am weighed down by any of the baggage that is associated with one ethnic background and this paves the way for me to just be who I am.

‘That being said, it’s not all rosy and there can be difficulties with this. But generally, I love my mix of cultures. I love having jerk chicken with a roast dinner and I love sharing experiences with a broader group of people than most people are able to.

Race versus heritage or ethnicity is a tricky question. Rob and both of his parents were born in Britain – so really, the only difference comes down purely to skin colour. How do you grapple with the fact that you are still perceived as ‘other’ when even the generation before you were born in this country?

‘The issue when considering race in a question about heritage, is that both my parents are British,’ explains Rob.

‘Despite my Dad being of Jamaican heritage, he was born here and therefore he is culturally British. He embraces his roots, but he doesn’t let them define him in the eyes of anyone else.

‘Dad is just as likely to listen to Mozart as Marley and as a child I would deride him for listening to opera because I thought – what self-respecting black man listens to opera?

‘When all my mixed-race friends’ parents were listening to popular R&B and other urban artists, I saw it as a rejection of his heritage.

‘”You must be some kind of coconut” I would say – my own insecurities about the subject matter being verbalised in what I have come to see as childish nonsense.

‘But he is a man that is true to himself and escapes categorisation.

Baby Rob on the beach with his dad and grandma

Baby Rob on the beach with his dad and grandma (Picture: Rob Parks/Metro.co.uk)

‘I am immensely proud to call him my father and he sets a great example for me to follow. I don’t have to feel that being strongly aligned to the British element of my heritage is in any way a rejection of my Jamaican heritage.

Rob has always strongly identified as mixed-race, rather than black or white. It is something he is incredibly proud of – but he is beginning to understand that as a mixed-race person, your identity often lies in the hands of how other people choose to define you.

‘I would love it if people understood that mixed-race people are whole and unique people,’ Rob tells us.

‘There is something quintessentially British about being mixed in the UK.

‘I think it is generally seen as desirable and something to be proud of. But there is a complexity about issues of racial identity in this country, and it is something that we are all still struggling with.

‘As a child I would reject in the strongest possible terms identifying solely as black because I felt as though that was a rejection of some of my heritage. But often it was my own parents who would encourage me to accept this label because that is how society would see me.

‘My parents, with their insight on how Britain works, understand that what is important is how you are perceived.

‘If you are anything other than white, you are considered black. Maybe even as adults we never truly get past that pigeonholing that I felt subjected to at secondary school.

‘Although I would say I have never felt subjected to any form of direct racial abuse or prejudice myself, I also have an awareness of the fact that I am a privileged exception to the rule.

‘Many friends of mixed ethnicities have not been so fortunate and even my own brother has been subject to abuse.

‘I think that perhaps to understand what being mixed-race in Britain means, is to understand that until there is no longer any racism in Britain, you must consider yourself black because that is how you are perceived.’

Rob finds that being a mixed-race man means walking a fine line of duality. He no longer wholly rejects the label of ‘black’, as he did as a child, but that doesn’t mean he is OK with the lazy erasure of his mixed identity.

‘Mixed-race people make up a small proportion of the population but we have very unique experiences.

‘Not being totally represented by any ethnic group other than their own I believe that it is really important to hear from people who might have had shared experiences.

‘So often people of mixed black and white ethnicities get overlooked or absorbed into a single ethnic background. That’s not to say that this is always necessarily a bad thing.

‘I will never forget having performed a cooking demonstration at a Food Festival in Alexander Park, a black mother and her two sons approaching me afterwards and I spoke to them about how my time on MasterChef had inspired them as young black boys to pursue cooking.

Rob competing on MasterChef

Rob competing on MasterChef (Picture: BBC/MasterChef)

‘It was a really humbling moment and, in a society where we perhaps lack enough young black male role models, I think all black or mixed-race men should aspire to be one.

‘But then on the other hand, take Barack Obama, people so often forget that he is mixed-race. I don’t want to have to forfeit that part of who I am.

‘This is the dichotomy that mixed-race people often face and having an opportunity to hear more mixed-race experiences can hopefully address that.’

MORE: Mixed Up: ‘I want people to understand that there are different types of black’

MORE: Mixed Up: ‘You don’t get to tell me that I’m not really black’

MORE: Mixed Up: ‘Racism made me feel sub-human. I used to pretend to be anything but black’

Check Also

relationship status memes

5 Funny Relationship Status Memes

5 Funny Relationship Status Memes 5 Funny Relationship Status Memes to brighten your day. Always …

Leave a Reply

Your e-mail address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.