I don’t wake up every day and go about my life thinking “I’m a mixed-race woman”. Most of the time I’m worrying about if I should have gone to university, trying to resist eating that chocolate brownie, or missing my boyfriend who lives 5000 miles across the Atlantic. I live a very privileged cosy middle-class life.
Not thinking about the colour of my skin everyday shouldn't be a privilege, but unfortunately we live in a world where it is.
I was fortunate enough to be born into a family that celebrates diversity, not just in skin tone, but also in thought, perspective and experience. My Mum is a white English woman and social anthropologist. My father is a black Nigerian man and a composer/musician. My sister and I grew up in one of the most multicultural cities in the world, London. My sister’s husband is white German and my boyfriend is Chinese Canadian. What a fabulously diverse clan I am lucky to be a part of. I count my blessings to have a mother who is intelligent, enlightened and humble; she has been unafraid to dive into what it means to be a white woman who is the mother of two mixed-race children. My sister and I have a loving, supportive, smart father who is deeply proud of his Yoruba heritage and has instilled that in us. Again, lucky me.
However, even with all these advantages, I still have not walked through life unaffected by the social and personal consequences of the idea of race: I went to a private school in London and was, for 7 years, confronted by racial microaggressions from people who I considered to be my friends; it has taken me 2 decades to embrace my curly hair; I have experienced being fetishized by men, of all races, for being mixed-race; I still struggle when I spend time in North America and realise that most people identify me as black and do not embrace the ‘both/and’ reality of my existence that means I proudly call myself mixed-race.
Through my mother’s work as a social anthropologist, I have come to a place of being determined to consider how race, class and gender all intersect with capitalism. I may have grown up at a time when there was a dearth of people who looked like me in the media, but we are now in an age where it is trendy to be mixed race. This is a world in people on social media are engaging in ‘Blackfishing’ (google it, it’s shocking), and having a mixed-race baby on the arm is the latest fashion accessory. What disturbs me about this is that people want the ‘rhythm’ but no one wants the ‘blues’; people think that light brown skin is beautiful and it is becoming a valuable commodity, but they don’t stop to think about the way in which ideas about race create a corrosive system of economic disadvantage. When it comes to plundering, unfortunately, culture and identity are fair game if it can make you more money.
Having to think more deeply into race, as a system of hierarchical classification, means that I can only begin to imagine the challenges faced by people who may not have benefited from the privileges I enjoy. How can I empathise with and do something about a system that unfairly subjects certain people to the worst effects of systemic racism, social and economic disadvantage, emotional and physical violence and deeply entrenched inter-generational prejudice?
On a personal level, I think the craft of acting has a lot to teach us about how to empathise with other people. As an actress trying to understand a character, I have to start with myself. I start by acknowledging who I am and where I've come from including my own personal experiences, privileges, biases, wounds, and scars. Having that conversation with myself first and foremost about how I experience the world, I can then perhaps begin to be curious about what it may be like to be someone else? What is their heartbreak, their pain, their joy, their flaws? What makes up who they are as a person? Where do they stand in relation to the history of their own family across the generations, and to society as a complex story of political and economic change?
This is what I love about storytelling. It is a vehicle for empathy, a way of stepping into someone else’s shoes and asking exactly that question – what is it like to be human for this person at this time in this place among their people?
At the moment I can’t help wonder what it might be like to be a Chinese person at a time when violence and discrimination against the Asian community is rife due to ignorance about COVID? I wonder what it’s like for a black man simply driving his car through the streets of America? How does it feel to be a white woman being labelled as a ‘Karen’? (A term that I don’t think helps anyone.) What was it like to have been George Floyd? Breonna Taylor? April Webster? Nina Adams? Crystal Ragland? (And if you aren’t familiar with the female names here, as I wasn’t, ask yourself why? Can we think more on how race and gender intersect?)
Can we try to understand with more compassion what lies beneath people’s anger, fear and confusion about race? How do we create safe spaces for conversation about such a sensitive issue? We humans have a hard time letting go of our taken-for-granted idea of the world and what we deem to be the natural social order of things. When threatened, people tend to cling on for dear life because they don't trust the process of change. It’s probably not best to hit them over the head – they will probably grip tighter. It might be better to build a bridge of enquiry by stretching out an arm and patiently waiting for them to accept it. When it is possible and safe to do so, I feel it’s best to operate with compassion for those who may express ignorant, naïve and hurtful opinions. And yet I also know that it is important for us all to know how to create distance and to protect ourselves from the worst effects of racist beliefs and actions.
In what has been a very challenging year for everyone, I actually feel it is sometimes good to step back from ‘the conversation’ to take time to reflect and to recuperate from the struggle of challenging racial injustices. It is also necessary to consider what means best serve the cause. For example, it is difficult to effectively discuss emotionally charged topics, such as race, in a nuanced way if you are limited to 280 characters in a single social media post. I have found it helpful to be wary of social media and its frantic energy when thinking about racial controversies. If in doubt, I start with myself – I learn by reading, watching, and listening. Sometimes, I choose to retreat to my cave and dive into Angela Davis’ work – I know I can’t go too wrong with that.
I also know that we can’t presume that everyone wants to talk about race all the time, whenever and wherever. We need to understand that some people are tired of having to educate or explain to others and we should have a healthy level of respect for that. This piece of writing is over 1000 words and I realise that I am barely scratching the surface, but I think what iCARE is doing is vital. Writing this sparked conversation between me and my parents. It sparked a conversation with myself. I really had to sit down and ask myself – what do I want to say? What is honest? What do I actually want to contribute beyond platitudes and general buzz words? I’m sure tomorrow, or next week or in another 10 years I’ll have different things to say as my understanding of race grows and changes. The point is to make a commitment to an honest and on-going enquiry. Thank you iCARE for providing a platform for considerate, nuanced conversation.
Emmett John Scanlan: Father. Husband. Actor. Best known for his roles in Peaky Blinders, Gangs Of London, Butterfly & Krypton among others.