How growing up mixed race in mostly white areas can shape your identity

Kindred’s Fashion Editor – Janet Osayande, and Identity Editor – Laila - chat about their experiences growing up mixed-race in predominantly white areas. Janet grew up in the Czech Republic while Laila calls Cornwall home.

Despite the fact that Janet grew up in what is often referred to as a “white country” and Laila was raised in one of the most multicultural countries there are, they share similar experiences – spending their childhood struggling to find a sense of identity, self-worth and belonging.

Janet Osayande (left) & Laila Hodd (right)

Did you struggle with your sense of identity growing up?

Laila: Growing up I definitely did struggle with a sense of identity. I grew up with a white family in a very white area. To outsiders I was always the Black girl, but I had no connection to that side of me. It was therefore hard for me to develop a sense of identity that wasn’t a projection of who other people thought I should be. This resulted in a lot of confusion about who am I and where I belonged.

Janet: Like Laila said, I had quite a similar experience. Even though I grew up in a different country I was still surrounded by white people - my family was white and the only Black person around me was my dad or some of his friends, but that wasn’t family. And if I ever met a family member from my dad’s side, they’d be fully Black - no one would be mixed race around me.

So obviously to white people I was the Black girl and they kind of projected all the stereotypes about Black people onto me, which was wrong and it made me question who I’m even meant to be. For everyone and myself I was too Black to be white, but also too white to be Black. It wasn’t fun.

The common misconception is that if your father is Black, you grow up without a father, just with a single mother raising you. What’s your view on that?

Laila & her brother as children

Laila: So unfortunately, I kind of fit into that stereotype. My mum moved down to Cornwall when we were very young where she raised us as a single parent for a while. Since then, we have been raised by my mum and stepdad.

This stereotype is an uncomfortable one for me because I hate the presumptions that are often made about me and my family. People look at me and think I confirm a stereotype and I hate that.

Janet: In my case, my mum raised me but my dad was there when I was growing up. They got divorced when I was about 18.

I can’t say they had a perfect relationship and in my opinion they should’ve gotten divorced when I was little, but you know, I had both parents growing up and they were both there.

Do you think being surrounded by white people growing up had any impact on your self-image?

Laila: I know for a fact that it has on mine - particularly impacting my relationship with my hair. I still straighten it religiously because growing up all the girls around me - all the pretty girls – they had straight hair. So, loving and appreciating my curls is something I’m still learning to do.

Janet as a baby

Janet: I think I started straightening my hair when I was ten. It was because I wanted to fit in and I didn’t know what to do about my hair because I lived in such a white country, so all the products were aimed at Caucasian hair types. There was nothing for my hair, so I just thought it’s easier to deal with my hair when it’s straight. Even my mum didn’t know what to do with it and well, my dad, he’s a man so why would he care about my hair?

I spent over ten years of my life damaging my hair, trying to get it as straight as possible.

When I would see myself with my natural curly hair, I would hate looking in the mirror. I just wanted the perfect straight hair, so I tried relaxers, chemical treatments, just to get it as straight as possible and fall within the European beauty standard.

I didn’t want to stand out because I already stood out enough due to the colour of my skin so why wear my afro and make people stare at me even more? We shouldn’t feel like hair is so important, but I think it was one of the biggest things that made me not like the way I am, because I was too different already. So I felt like my hair made me even more different.

It’s weird though, because when I would see someone with similar hair to mine, I’d find it beautiful. I just didn’t like it on me.

How do you address micro-aggressions when they come from those you love?

Laila: I think that if it does come from someone you know it’s as important - if not more important - to address it. They may know me and they may love me and often they mean no harm but it doesn’t mean I can let it slide. Sometimes comments are made and it is as if they don’t see me and my brother as Black. It’s a sort of ‘I don’t see your colour’ kind of attitude which is awful and definitely played into the identity issues I struggled with growing up.

Janet: There’s a lot of things that my mum says, because after what she went through with my dad, she kind of puts all the Black people in one box. She’s not racist, but she has a very strong opinion about things because of it. There’s been many occasions where we’d fight about something she said and I feel like it’s because she forgets that I’m half Black. She sees me as a white person, which I sort of understand, but at the same time I don’t. She doesn’t mean to hurt me, but it does anger you.

Do you feel like you belong in your country?

Laila: So yeah, tricky one. I would say that now I do, I’ve come to terms with who I am, it no longer matters what external forces say about me. Cornwall is my home, its where I’ve grown up. It’s where my family are. Somebody can be walking down the street and say “go back to your own country” but I know Cornwall is my home.

Janet: For me I didn’t feel that way because there weren’t many people that would look like me. I just never really felt like I belonged. When Laila said “go back to your own country”, that really is a trigger. Makes my blood boil. She probably belongs there more than the person saying it.

Do you think you experienced micro aggression when you were dating?

Janet: When I first started having some interest in dating I felt like an animal in the zoo. When people call you exotic and all that, you can’t be sure if they’re dating you for who you are or they’re dating you because it makes them feel special to have something not as “normal”.

One of the things that would however mess with my confidence would be the fact that a lot of Czech boys when I was growing up, they’d look at me as the Black girl, as if it was something bad. Obviously everyone has a preference, so no harm, but it’s about how you go around it. That f*cks up your confidence, because your identity is already misshapen, and when there’s someone you may be interested in telling you “oh, I don’t date Black girls”, it makes you think being Black is bad. That was back home. Here I don’t feel like people care, especially in London.

Laila: I definitely have. This is particularly the case in Cornwall as a teenager. Growing up I didn’t really date at all and looking back I think it has something to do with the fact I was always singled out as the Black girl. People considered me ‘exotic’ and it made me feel uncomfortable because I didn’t know if they were dating me for who I was.

Have you ever visited Nigeria and if so, how did it go, did they look at you differently?

Laila: So, I’ve never been. I think a lot of my issues with identity stem from the fact that I don’t have a connection with that side of me. It took me a long time to accept that I am actually Black. It’s awful to think about and say now because that is who I am but as a little girl in Cornwall I just didn’t feel a connection with that part of me.

Janet: I have never been myself. People always look at me weird when I tell them I haven’t been, that I should get to know that part of me. I understand what Laila means, because I don’t think I fully accepted that I have that Black part until I moved here. I didn’t do it on purpose but to kind of blend in, I was trying to “enhance” the white part of me just to fit in more. I think maybe if I grew up somewhere else that would never happen, I would never have to pretend I’m something I’m not. It’s so weird because I would think that growing up in the UK Laila’s experience would be different. But even though we both grew up in different countries, we still have a very similar experience.

Did you feel safe growing up back home? Would you move back knowing now that you can feel more accepted somewhere else?

Laila: In terms of feeling safe, I mean I grew up in a very small town where everyone knows everyone so I always felt physically safe - I just felt different.

That said, I don’t think I will move back to Cornwall for a very long time. I always say I will retire there. For now, I need to be in the city, I need to be around people who are more like minded.

Janet: There were definitely situations where I would be scared because there’s a lot of skinheads back home, so I’d avoid public transport when there was football and things like that - just taking those extra steps so you don’t end up in trouble. But I never really had a bad experience - mostly just people calling me names.

And truthfully? Right now I wouldn’t move back home. It’s always going to be my home and I’m never going to say it’s not, but considering my experience growing up and what I had to go through… It messed up my confidence, my image and my self-worth and it really made me question who I am. So spending the past five years here, I am more me than I have ever been me back home.

I always say Czech Republic is good for a holiday, but not for living at the moment. Don’t get me wrong, I really love it there, but it’s only good for a visit and then let me go back to London.

Funnily enough, even though my family is still there, London feels like home more than Czech ever did.