By Kate Maxwell
It’s taken me my whole life to really work out who I am, who I really want to be. My grandparents on my father’s side immigrated to the UK from the Caribbean during the Windrush and from that point on integrated fully into ‘British’ (read, white!) culture.
I was brought up in the north of England in a predominantly white town and only knew two other brown girls through the entirety of my schooling. Race wasn’t discussed at home which on the one hand seems wonderful and idyllic, on the other, I never really understood who I was, what made me different and powerful. I didn't know that my lived experience would be different from that of my peers. It meant I didn’t have the fire in my belly to promote change and inclusion. Until now that is!
Oddly, despite being the most immediate thing many would notice about me, being brown simply didn’t form part of my identity for much of my childhood and adolescence. I knew I didn’t look the same as those around me but the impact of that felt unimportant. My father, an accomplished surgeon and my mum an NHS nurse of over 30 years, both had felt the pain of being a mixed-race couple in the 80s and they had worked hard to provide a home where we were all safe from that sadness. I was allowed to flourish. I was clever, happy, capable.
It was only when I moved from home, making my own way through the world and more importantly, started dating that the way I look started to feel important. The combination of becoming a woman and realising you have been living a fraction of your identity was a total shock.
There was an uncertainty about how I was viewed – my wild curls, brown skin and very formal education all suddenly felt juxtaposed. I had to read and consume and ask questions about the most basic parts of black culture. Why had I never had my hair braided, did my Grandma have options on police brutality, would I be fetishized or would I even be attractive at all? My face and body didn’t feel my own. That combined with long undiagnosed high-functioning depression, made my mind a battleground. I was constantly trying to understand where I came from, who I was, who I am and who I will be.
As I’ve passed through my 20s I’ve consumed and shared and sought counsel from friends, family or strangers on the internet! My body has changed as I’ve grown mentally and that too played into the unknowns of who I was meant to be. As a somewhat bookish teen and equally bookish adult I’ve never considered myself sexy or desirable. But as I’ve grown more confident in myself, both through being medicated now for several years, untold hours of therapy and support from those I love, I recognise there is sexiness in certainty. I am more certain of who I am now than ever before. I don’t look like everybody else, I don’t think like everybody else. I am in equal part who I was and who I want to be and that is okay.
I’m not all the way there yet, with accepting who I am, how I look, who I’ll become. But I’m getting there. I also know now that I’ve never had my hair braided as I don’t have the patience to sit in the chair for hours on end!