Mixed Up: 'I spent a large part of my life wishing I was just one race'

Being mixed-race can be complicated. Straddling two or more cultures, often feeling like you’re not quite enough of either.

But there are also unique pleasures and benefits of being in this position – a multiplicity of languages, religions, cuisines and perspectives on the world.

For many, it’s about occupying two identities simultaneously, reconciling the differences and trying to carve out a space to exist between the two.

Mixed Up is a weekly series that aims to go beyond the stereotypes and get to the heart of what it means to be mixed-race in the UK today.

Ilayda McIntosh is a writer and photographer. She is Turkish, Jamaican and Indian, and says she spent years wishing she could erase parts of her identity.

‘I define myself as mixed. My Mum is Turkish – born and raised in Turkey, and my dad is Jamaican and Indian – born and raised in Birmingham,’ Ilayda tells Metro.co.uk.

‘My mama (grandma) came over to the UK from Jamaica in the 1960s. I’ve never met my granddad on my dad’s side and I’ve never been introduced go my Indian heritage, so I identify more with my Turkish and Jamaican sides.

‘My parents met in Istanbul and came over to the UK when my mum was pregnant with me.

‘All of my mum’s family live over in Turkey, which means I only see them once or twice a year. But on both sides, my family is huge. I have relatives in Florida, Antigua, Turkey and more.’

So much of the narrative around being mixed-race centres on mixes that include a white parent or a proximity to whiteness. Neither of Ilayda’s parents are white, something that she finds makes it even harder for other people to understand.

‘Most of the mixed-race people I know have a black and white heritage,’ says Ilayda.

‘Though we share many similar experiences in navigating through society and our identity, my experience of being mixed without a white parent is very different.

‘I think of it as having three different homes.

‘I have a huge family in Turkey. I have family in the Caribbean and I have a family in the UK. Three different places where I belong, but also three different places that don’t represent all of me.

‘It’s like I have an intersectional version of a diasporic experience, which I can’t really make sense of. But I do my best to accept it as is and get on with life.

‘If I had a white parent, I think my experience may have been different.

‘I would have only had two homes – which would be much less confusing – but also I wouldn’t have experienced such a culture clash.

‘There’s an abundance of cultures in my experience which often contradict one another.

‘Turkey is mostly Muslim, Jamaica is largely Christian. Turkey’s culture and social norms are relatively conservative, Jamaica can be quite the opposite to say the least. So I do find that to be a bit of a conflict.’

The merging of multiple cultures and traditions isn’t always to do with conflict or confusion – Ilayda has experienced the joy and variety that the multiplicity of her heritage has added to her life.

‘The foods we eat are just as good as each other, but again so different,’ she explains.

‘I remember at Christmas we have ackee and saltfish, plantain and dumplings for breakfast, then a full British roast for dinner. And the day before we would have had dolma (stuffed peppers) with Turkish yogurt. I can’t complain about the food, that’s for sure.’

As Ilayda grew up, the complexity of her identity began to weigh on her shoulders. It was a feeling that she never really felt prepared for.

‘No one warns you about the identity crisis you have when you start navigating spaces in society,’ Ilayda tells us.

‘As a child, it was never something that concerned me, but as I got older, moved to London, it became a huge part of my life. I have struggled in finding my space as an adult, both internally and externally.

‘I spent a large part of my life wishing I was only singular raced. My perception was that it would be a much easier experience.

‘As I’ve grown older, I’ve come to realise that all aspects of my heritage are just as important, and have been equally important in shaping the person I’m becoming.

‘When I look back, it’s upsetting to think I wanted to erase part of myself to ease the understanding for those around me – instead of questioning why they find it difficult to perceive.

‘But I wouldn’t change a thing, I’ve found comfort in knowing that I am unique. I have so much love and pride for my heritage. It’s a blessing to have so much and such a rich culture.

‘Being mixed-race isn’t black and white – pardon the pun. There isn’t a singular shade, hair type or body type that defines what it means to be mixed-race, it is so accurate to say that we are really mixed up.’

Ilayda’s racial heritage is only one of the many components that make up who she is – but it is a significant part. She is still learning how the world reacts to her and figuring out a comfortable place to exist within that.

‘Being a woman informs my identity first and foremost, being mixed-race comes very closely behind,’ explains Ilayda.

‘Throughout my life I have learned and adjusted to parameters set by society because of my gender – norms, expectations, restrictions. Equally, I have adjusted to the expectations and norms based on my mixed racial heritage.

‘The mixed-race experience varies based upon every mixed person’s individual story. But I have found that being mixed-race is a constant balancing game. Balancing multiple identities, multiple cultures, multiple expectations.

‘It’s about creating your own space to exist in the in-between of your races.

‘It’s accepting that you won’t ever find one community which reflects your experience, which is a blessing and a curse in itself; you find multiple communities of those who represent and share elements of a lived experience with you, but never those who share an exact experience.

‘You have to learn to create a home where you are, regardless of wherever feels like home.’

Ilayda uses her creativity to understand and analyse the world around her. Creating art has helped her to piece together her own narrative through the stories of others. Giving a voice to the voiceless is something that she is passionate about.

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@troythedirector on film for @roots__journal

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‘Photography has been a way for me to tell the stories that can be difficult to tell through words. I’ve found that people engage with visual storytelling more than written,’ she explains.

‘I first got into photography in the summer of 2018. I started out with street photography and eventually became fascinated by portraits.

‘Human faces are so unique and in such a busy world we rarely stop and admire them. I pitched the idea of creating a photo series exploring the mixed-race experience for The Black Experience exhibition and began shooting when my place was confirmed.

‘Unpacking each individual experience was so powerful, it helped me make sense of my own mixed-up experience, as well as each of my subjects making sense of theirs.

‘The lived experience of mixed-race individuals isn’t discussed openly within society as there isn’t a distinct communities which brings them together.

‘The black-ish photo series allowed me to create a community through shared experience, which was huge for me.’

Not fitting in is a feeling that has characterised much of Illayda’s youth. It’s a feeling that’s hard to quantify, but easily recognisable by many mixed-race people who will have experienced this same sense of inadequacy.

‘At university I went to the ACS, which is the African and Caribbean society. I attended one or two events, but after a while I found it wasn’t particularly a space for those who aren’t visually Black; African or Caribbean.

‘This is just one example but it extends beyond this. I’ve been told many times that my race isn’t clear enough.

‘I’ve been asked why my hair isn’t curly if I’m Jamaican, and told that I look more Brazilian. Hearing these types of comments once or twice wouldn’t affect me, but I’ve been asked these things my whole life – to the point where I have considered whether to just say that I’m English instead.

‘I think society reacts to mixed-race people either through exoticisation or anti-blackness.

‘Mixed-race individuals are often hypersexualised and exoticized as some sort of hybrid-being through colourist perceptions.

‘One time a guy called me an “exotic creature” on a night out. I find it wild that people seem to think this is okay?

‘”Lightskin privilege” dominates TV and media, which I think makes some people think that the commodification of mixed-race individuals is okay.

‘Colourism also hugely affects this. Being lighter skinned doesn’t mean that you can’t experience racism, but it definitely means you don’t experience it to the same extent as darker skinned women and men.

‘As a lighter-skinned person, if you don’t acknowledge your level of privilege, you run the risk of perpetuating colourist attitudes. It’s important to keep this in mind when discussing mixed-race struggles.

‘Equally, some people deem it okay to express racist views to people of mixed heritage because they’re still “half white” – even though this isn’t the case for me.

‘It’s hard to understand what is and isn’t racist when you’re mixed race, because it exists in such a grey area.

‘I’ve had experiences where people around me often think it’s okay to share racist views with me because I can pass as non-black, as though mixed individuals aren’t black enough to be offended. It’s a difficult thing to navigate.

‘I also acknowledge that I have a certain level of privilege in my “passing”, making me less susceptible to such explicit racism.’

The shift towards more overt racial tension and hostility in the UK worries Ilayda. She thinks political policies have emboldened people to be more open about problematic or racist opinions. Her solution is to make sure marginalised voices are still being heard.

‘I don’t think attitudes to race are changing or getting better, I think people are now comfortable enough to express the views they previously deemed too provocative. It’s scary.

‘This uprising of the far-right adds fuel to the fire and make it difficult for these attitudes to improve. The state of America right now is deeply disturbing. I don’t think it’s a case of attitudes improving or getting worse; true attitudes are just coming forward.

‘During my studies I wrote my dissertation on mixed-race portrayal in London’s contemporary theatre – and I was surprised at the lack of literature about mixed-race identity.

‘I think it’s so important to tell these stories, and listen to these stories in order to then understand the lived experiences.

‘If conversations don’t exist, then it’s the responsibility of individuals to create these conversations, and that’s what I try to do with my photography.’

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