Mixed Up is a weekly series that explores mixed-race identity.
Each week we focus on a different person and hear their unique, lived experience of being mixed in the current climate.
Mixed-race is the fastest growing ethnic group in the UK – a trend which shows no signs of slowing down.
This series aims to go beyond the stereotypes and stigma to examine the joys, conflicts and contradictions that come with straddling two or more ethnicities.
Laura Adebisi is an actress and playwright. Both her parents are mixed-race and she spent the majority of her childhood in Nigeria before moving to the UK as a teenager.
‘I am Nigerian, English and Portuguese,’ Laura tells Metro.co.uk.
‘My dad is half Nigerian, half Portuguese and my mum is half Nigerian, half English, but they are both so much more than half of anything.
‘I grew up in Nigeria until I was 13, my parents have always been back and forth between England and Nigeria.
‘I feel a stronger connection to my English and Nigerian roots. My parents have always mixed both cultures very freely, especially because my dad grew up in England and my mum in Nigeria, so it has always been a nice blend.
‘I do feel my Latin blood come out once in a while, but my Portuguese side is definitely the side I am least connected with.
‘I visited Portugal for the first time when I was 18, and that feeling of belonging came when I was in Lisbon, it was undeniable.
‘My dad used to be fluent in Portuguese and now can’t speak a word. That loss of a language is really sad and interesting.’
As an actress, Laura feels certain pressures as a mixed-race woman. The way she looks directly correlates with the type of work she can get – and that can be hard at times.
‘I feel like there is an expectation of me as an actress because of my appearance,’ explains Laura.
‘I am a mixed-race, short girl with a big, curly fro, who “shocks” everyone when she speaks by being well-spoken – due to my years in boarding school and my mum’s impeccable British accent.
‘When I had straight hair, this was fine because I ticked the needed diversity box, spoke well, while still being ethnically ambiguous enough.
‘I used to get a lot of corporate roles with my straight hair – these are like internal training videos, or university adverts. Now that I’ve transitioned, and I’m curly again, I actually haven’t booked a single corporate job.
‘I now only really get “urban” advert roles and theatre jobs.
‘Mixed-race people – men and women – are also hyper-sexualised in the media and acting industry.
‘There were so many jobs when I first started out that were looking for a “mixed-race woman” to play a “girlfriend”, “stripper” or who “must be comfortable appearing in underwear”.
‘I can’t count how many video-vixen calls I saw looking for mixed girls. This isn’t progress. This sexualisation is not a privilege.’
Laura is in the rare position of having two parents who completely understand what it means to be mixed-race. There is no generational divide. As a result, being mixed-race is integral to Laura’s entire family, and that has shaped her opinion.
‘My mixed-race identity is important to me because it’s all I’ve ever known,’ she tells us.
‘Growing up in Nigeria, I am called half-caste out there. When I came to England for boarding school at 13 and I said, “I am half-caste” – the look on my friends’ faces was the funniest thing, they were so appalled for me.
‘I found out for the first time that half-caste was a bad word. Out there, my parents always characterised our family by our “half-caste madness” – something that is feared in Nigeria.
‘In Nigeria, I was bullied a lot for being different, for being “Oyinbo” – white.
‘Then I came to this country and I became black in my boarding school, which had a very small black community.
‘It wasn’t until university that I really felt mixed – not white enough for white people or black enough for black people. That was tough.
‘It is important to me because it’s a part of who I am. Being mixed-race is a culture in itself that I love and embrace. However, it is not solely who I am.’
Colourism is an internal kind of racism within black and mixed communities where lighter skinned black and mixed-race people are treated preferentially in certain circumstances – based purely on the fact that their skin has a closer resemblance to whiteness.
But Laura takes issue with the concept of ‘privilege’.
‘My dad used to say we get the best of both worlds,’ she explains.
‘But now, when people call me privileged because of the colour of my skin, it makes me cringe.
‘Yes, there are advantages to being mixed, just like there are advantages to being black, but I don’t see it as a privilege in the same sense.
‘I am privileged to have the best of both worlds, to have parents who can teach me how to make Nigerian stews, teach me the respect and discipline embedded in our Yoruba culture, but can still talk and laugh with me about relationships and guys I am seeing, which I guess is more European.
‘I think the major struggle of being mixed-race right now is the racism experienced from both sides.
‘In the space of a week at university, I was called a “black bitch” by a random white man and was then silenced and verbally attacked by some of my black peers at university when I tried to share my views about the antagonism colourism causes between mixed and lighter-skinned women and dark-skinned black women.
‘This is the thing, I know that racial discourse explains that black people can’t be racist, and institutionally I understand, their discrimination can’t oppress, but I tell you what – both of those experiences felt exactly the same.
‘One was definitely racism, so if it felt the same, wasn’t the other one too?’
Growing up in Nigeria, Laura felt that she and her siblings were ostracised and constantly made to feel ‘other’ because of their mixed-heritage – something that she has felt on a similar scale from white communities in the UK.
‘It felt the same as growing up in Nigeria and being cornered by a group of black woman who, at the age of 11, told me I was chewing gum like a prostitute.
‘That’s how they saw me, because of the colour of my skin, because I hung out with guys, because of so many reasons possibly, but one thing that stands out – I was the only mixed girl in the room.
‘Another major struggle is also having to prove my blackness. When people ask me where I’m from, I tell them Nigeria, I’ve had someone outright say to me repeatedly, “no you’re not”, or immediately ask, “and where else?”
‘I’m constantly having to explain how my face came to be.
‘Having to take it back to black and white, to a place they can understand because for some reason certain people can’t get their head around a mixed person having a standalone identity.
‘The mixture is fetishised so heavily, it’s incredibly frustrating.’
Laura believes that the focus on colourism and the privileges it affords to some could actually perpetuate divisions in black and mixed-race communities.
‘I recently watched a BBC video in which dark-skinned black and Asian women were discussing colourism,’ she says.
‘One of the women said that colourism is; “when a guy says ‘I only want to date a peng lightie’” – it is the same idea I have heard before, that there is more of a “market” for light-skinned and mixed-race women.
‘This reality of colourism is, of course, harmful and hurtful to dark-skinned women, but there is no real consideration of how harmful the perpetuation of these sexualised stereotypes about light-skinned and mixed-race women can be.
‘Walker’s definition of colourism is commonly used in racial discourse, but there is rarely any mention of what Walker discusses only a few lines later: “the hostility many black black women feel toward light-skinned black women” (Walker, 290).
‘This idea is not permitted into the mainstream colourism discourse as it nuances the idea of light-skinned or mixed-race “privilege”.
‘We instead focus on the light-skinned/mixed antagonism towards dark-skinned women. We don’t talk about the bullying, the exclusion that many mixed women feel from black communities.
‘Walker coined the term colourism in 1983, but it has taken about 30 years for this word to come into the mainstream, partly also because the media has chosen to talk about it too.
‘I feel like the people at the top, who are usually – because of how our society is – white, have allowed this term to enter the mainstream media and consciousness because it divides black communities, which is what has been done throughout history.
‘When divided, we can’t thrive, and yes, mixed people have been a part of that “we” too.
‘Differences have always been there, but by allowing the idea of colourism to enter mainstream consciousness it conditions the next generation to be hyper-aware of these differences and it has divided us more.
‘This is incredibly controversial of course, but it’s just my take on it after seeing the different effects.
‘I will not deny colourism exists, I can’t, but the word “privilege” for me is questionable.
‘I am lucky, yes, because of my parents that they’ve been able to give me, because of the life I’m able to live in this country – but I wouldn’t say the colour of my skin and the experiences I’ve had as a direct result of the colour of my skin correlates with “privilege”.’
Laura thinks it’s vital that we unpack the stereotypes surrounding mixed-race identity. As an actress, she has first-hand experience of the boom of popularity of faces like hers – but she thinks progress needs to be much deeper than this.
‘Being mixed-race is not a trend, it’s not what’s “in” – we have to live this,’ says Laura.
‘I feel so fortunate to have mixed parents, but it has still been difficult.
‘It’s not amazing, we don’t think we’re more “nice” or more “gorgeous” or more “peng” that the next person, we have out insecurities, we have our pain.
‘I have to stand and affirm these things to myself in the mirror, it’s not something I just know because of the colour of my skin.
‘Life is so much more than race. My life is so much more than the colour of my skin, even though sometimes it has affected every aspect of my life, I know ultimately life is so much bigger than that.’
Inevitably, Laura’s creative work focuses on these issues. In her plays she delves into what it means to be a mixed-race woman, playing with conventions and deconstructing societal expectations.
‘We need to hear stories from mixed people, because we need to move past the stereotypes in this country,’ she explains.
‘Mixed women are real people with real everyday problems, maybe if society knew that and saw us like this, they would stop representing us in such hard and fast stereotypical boxes.
‘I can’t count how many plays or films I’ve seen presenting a mixed girl going through an identity problem with a white mum and absentee black dad.
‘When are we going to diversify our representation of mixed women beyond video vixens and identity crises?
‘I am a playwright, writing plays, some of which are in pre-production, and I am always writing mixed characters from different places with different stories.
‘Mixed-race people need to tell their stories, so they can forge their own identities.’
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