About Isabel Adonis
I’m a private tutor, artist and writer and I live in Wales. My mother was a white Welsh woman and my father was a black man from Georgetown in Guyana. He was quite a well-known writer and artist. I was born and brought up in London until I was six when my father began working in Khartoum in the Sudan. I lived and went to school there until I was nine when my parents bought a house in Wales. For the next nine years I lived and went to school in Wales and travelled to Africa in the holidays. After five years in the Sudan my father worked in different universities in Nigeria. My parents split up when I was seventeen and my father returned to the Caribbean. My mother did not remarry. In my twenties I trained as a teacher but because of an incident at the school, which I think was race related I decided I would never teach. I have four grown up children.
Do you remember when you first came to understand that you are mixed race?
Yes, around the time that ethnic monitoring was introduced in the UK in the early nineties. I had no notion of being mixed race prior to that. I was not brought up to call myself anything. However I do not call myself mixed race now. I leave it to others to do that kind of thing. I resist being categorised in this way, since it is problematic. Identification functions by inclusion and therefore exclusion. I’m not happy with that.
Did you parents talk to you about your mixed race identity growing up?
No. Race was never talked about when I was growing up, though it’s clear looking back both my parents wanted their children to fit in with white culture. They weren’t making us fit in to black African or a black Caribbean culture. My father was rarely personal and did not mention his background or culture. Much time and consideration was given to grooming, hair, table manners and that kind of thing when I was growing up. My father wanted badly for us to attend boarding school but this didn’t happen because my mother had been raised in an institution.
What positive memories do you have from your childhood about being mixed race?
My sisters and I pretended to be from the Dr Barnadoes Home so that we could gain free entry to the local cinema. Llandudno, the town where I was raised in the 1950’s and 60’s, had mixed race children in the local Dr Barnado’s home. Apart from those children there was our family and a couple of middle-aged mixed women who worked in the local train station. Even though race was not mentioned there was a sense growing up in white Wales that we, as children, had some kind of hidden powers. We knew we were being watched and scrutinised and took advantage of this in various ways.
What are race relations like in Wales? Did you experience any racism and/ or feelings of isolation as a child?
I read recently that a high percentage of ethnic minority children are racially abused in Wales which came as no surprise to me. My family and I were forced to leave the confines of a small Welsh town because of racial bullying and harassment. This was the town where my mother was born and raised until she was six. I believe that nationalism and racism do not make for good bedfellows.
What was school like for you?
I had no notion that people saw me as black until I was 45. I did not think of myself in this (racial) way and it came as a great shock to me. My identification was always with white girls but I know now that they didn’t identify with me. I do have a vague memory of being about sixteen and someone asking me if I liked Engelbert Humperdinck, to which I answered ‘No, why would I?’ The response was, ‘Because you and he have big lips!’ There was the issue of hair however and every week I washed and straightened my hair with a metal comb heated on an electric cooker. Frizzy hair in grammar school was definitely out.
How are mixed race people treated in Wales generally speaking? Are you part of any mixed race networks there?
I don’t know. I am not part of any mixed race network. I was forced to leave my family in order to find myself and who I really was. The patriarchal nature of my family did not suit, or make any sense to me and I was fed up with being scapegoated for the wrongs of the family. My family was divided into a white side and a black side. I feel that my black father was symbolically white and my white mother was symbolically black because of her submissive nature. Oddly my father’s rule was mediated through the women of the family.
Yes, I felt isolated as a child but did not know what it was. I still feel socially isolated to some degree. I do not feel a part of any family or community, apart from my own partner and children.
Are there any other aspects of your identity which you feel affected your experiences as a mixed race person that you would like to talk about?
I was brought up by a white mother and I was just like her. I was her “dark side” which she could not integrate. People treat me as black, as other. I don’t feel the need especially to get in touch with my black people. I don’t know any black people and there are none about either. I don’t see that necessarily as important. My challenge in life is to understand myself and not be part of separate racial groups.
Do you feel more connected to a particular part of your racial/ cultural identity? Has this changed over time?
I am culturally white and this sense of being ‘white’ has grown over time. I am not in denial of my blackness or my brownness, but it is my mother whom I most resemble in nature. It’s only something I’ve fully realised recently. I don’t feel culturally Welsh either and I don’t know actually know what that would mean. I do love the old Welsh folk very much, though I dislike Welsh nationalism and its aspirations.
My mother didn’t speak Welsh to me and she pretty much kept her Welshness to herself. I was not Welsh in her eyes. She resisted me and I in turn resisted her. I asked her once if I was Welsh and she said ‘No’. When I pressed her she said that it took a long time to be Welsh, which I understood as being I would never be Welsh. I did my very best to be part of my mother’s culture and home but without success. It was very important to me for a long time to be close to her and where she came from, but I had to realise my failure ultimately. So while I say my identifications are white, they are not Welsh. I do love this country though. It is very beautiful.
I would like to add here that I have really had to make and remake my own culture, and I’ve done this in many different ways – through education, through art and through writing.
How do you feel being mixed race has affected your personality and life choices?
I feel as if I am forced to consider who I am all the time in a way that a white-skinned person does not. This is a continual challenge.
Has race affected your dating preferences and experiences?
I’ve not known any black or mixed race men. I live with a white man who at times in his childhood was brought up with his aunt’s adopted mixed race children. She adopted one mixed race child for every one of her own children. She had six children and six mixed race children.
How do you feel about being mixed race today? What are the difficulties and benefits?
People always assume you are some kind of ‘other’ and there is no getting away from that. I could say I was black but I wouldn’t get away with saying I was white.
I don’t have any friends apart from my partner and children. But I am my own best friend! It’s impossible to engage with folks on a serious level, or on any level about race. Occasionally I get invited to social things but no one will talk to me or they want to use me as some kind of accessory, as proof that they’ve heard about diversity and inclusion.
I think the worst thing is that people imagine that you are involved in doing something e.g. stealing, trying to take over what they are doing, have some kind of problem that they don’t have, causing trouble, have some secrets or hidden agenda. I am always treated with unwarranted suspicion and I feel I am always being overly defined from the outside. This kind of thing used to come as a great shock to me, but now I just take it in my stride.
I guess a benefit would be that I’m pretty self-aware and I know myself pretty well. I have definitely taken ‘the road less travelled’ in order to discover the truth of my life. This hasn’t been easy but I have transformed my life in this way.
If you are a parent, how does being mixed race affect your choices as a parent and your relationship with your child/ children?
When I saw that my children were being set apart in mainstream schooling I decided to teach them myself which I did for many years. My youngest insisted on attending school but when she cut off all her hair at age four I think this changed our lives as a family forever. It was at this time that I began to write and get increasingly interested in issues of race. I read a great deal and mainly American stuff where there is some scope for dialogue. I don’t talk to my children about race unless it comes up in conversation. I certainly don’t have a policy. I did buy them books which featured brown and black children and made black dolls at one time, although these were mostly for me! I have encouraged them to attend university outside of Wales in order to be part of an international community. Besides they are far less hung up about race than I am.
Links to Isabel’s artwork:
A book Isabel wrote about her mother:
Isabel on youtube: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bHJXiguRyyI
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