When I was younger, I always dreamt of exploring far-flung destinations. I wanted to live in a sprawling urban setting in which no one knew my name, where the air hung heavy with traffic noise and bright with light pollution. I yearned for lost cities and ancient customs and fleeting romantic encounters. I dreamt of relaxing my muscles on powder-white beaches where the water resembled liquid crystal.
And I wanted to travel to somewhere I could blend in.
I’ve recently returned from a year of travel and working remotely (it was totally as good as it sounds), and on reflection I’ve realised that the most satisfying, soul-shaping moments took place in black communities. Because although I’m mixed-race and look black, until very recently I never had any idea as to why. Travel has therefore been the solution to some of the identity issues that have cast dark shadows over my life for as long as I can remember.
My upbringing was very white, fairly Irish and very happy. My father was blue-eyed and British (much like my younger brother) and my very first taste of travel were the family holidays we took to the west coast of Ireland, where my mum hails from. However, our lives were untroubled by discussions related to my race – unless I broached the topic. My parents and extended family never once spoke about why I was the only brown face in our little community of whiteness in the London suburbs. My mum often told me I was white, like her.
Because of this, I identified as white up until the age of around 15 and repeated to strangers what my parents repeatedly told me: I was a “genetic throwback” and I was unsure of my biological mix. Devising quick-witted, sarcastic responses to the occasional racism or jokes about affairs and hospital mix-ups became part of my childhood narrative and when we went on family holidays, I grew accustomed to strangers asking if I was adopted.
Then, when my father fell ill with cancer in 2014, I felt an unquenchable desire to uncover the truth. My feelings of utter hopelessness and devastation were marred by guilt and confusion; I felt selfish for wanting to find out my identity while he was still around, but I feared for upsetting him further. Although Dad consented to a DNA test before he passed away, I didn’t get it processed until a year after his death. To my despair, I discovered we were never biologically related.
Weeks of traumatic discussions and rage-filled rows in my family home, with my younger brother as mediator, eventually led to a confession from my mum; she’d had a one-night stand with a dark-skinned stranger in a pub she didn’t know anymore. The shock of first losing the generous, funny man who’d raised me, then finding out a year later that we weren’t related, made me feel as if my heart had been ripped from within me. I could barely speak to my mother through the cloud of rage which engulfed me and left me choking on all my words. So I looked for an antidote – which came in the form of travel. My mother’s confession – although devastating – gave me the courage to finally embrace my blackness, which I’d tried to suppress for so long. I decided to head off to spaces where I wouldn’t stand out, in an attempt to process all that had happened and uncover my place in the world. My first stop was Brooklyn, New York City.
New York is like London on pills. Everything is bigger, louder and more pronounced – including the national obsession with race. I noticed that friendship groups were way more segregated than back home, much like the individual neighbourhoods. I lived in a rapidly gentrifying West Indian area and loved it. But having to explain whether or not I was “bi-racial” to the strangers who asked became a highly complex issue and racial discussions felt far more heightened than in the UK. After six months (and no visa), I left for the Caribbean.
Family and friends asked me what the hell I was doing; no one had heard of my new, paradisiacal home, 500 miles from Jamaica. I had chosen to head to Nicaragua’s Corn Islands and I was living the dream, renting an apartment for just $200 a month while I made money writing from my laptop on the beach. I blended in well, made island friends and started dating a local guy and improving my Spanish. After a couple of months there, I moved to Cuba, then the Dominican Republic, Costa Rica and Morocco. I realised that often, my appearance afforded me the ability to move around incognito and I enjoyed connecting with locals and sometimes paying less for market items than the friends I made in hostels.
But embracing my blackness in its entirety also meant accepting the racial baggage that came with it abroad. I noticed that years of colonialism and oppression in the Caribbean had left communities plagued with colourism, racism and misogyny. In Nicaragua and the Dominican Republic, for example, I saw locals bleach their skin, frazzle their hair with relaxer and stay out of the sun for fear of being darker. Being a black tourist who didn’t subscribe to these ideals sometimes left me feeling alienated, as I fended off questions about my natural hair or whether or not I could “really be English” if I wasn’t white. I remember I once had to justify my existence in an expensive hotel in Cuba as other white tourists sauntered past, which was maddening. And in Morocco I lost count of the amount of times cries of “Michelle Obama” or “African queen!” followed me around the narrow streets of the medinas.
Saying that, in many ways merging into the cultural fabric of black countries was the wake-up call I needed. Although I’d identified as mixed-race as an adult, I’d never really felt black. Family and friends had avoided using that word to describe me all my life, and I had no black friends until university. Seeing my image reflected in the communities I interacted with and being spoken to in Spanish and Creole helped me embrace a part of me which had been denied for so long. I dated Caribbean boys in New York, Cuba and Nicaragua and allowed myself to turn a deep shade of brown in the sun. I learned Spanish in home stays, wrote extensively about my experiences and finally understood that not only was I going to be identified as a woman of colour for the rest of my life, but that there was nothing negative about that, either.
As many of us know, travel is synonymous with growth and development for good reason. World views change and minds expand as you place yourself in new and challenging situations which force you to re-examine all you’ve been taught. For me, once I removed myself from my protective sheath of whiteness, travel imbued me with the kind of self-love I’d been missing all my life and allowed me to return to London more tolerant and at peace with myself and my mother. I’m still searching for some of the answers related to my identity, but my year of travel has certainly helped me gain a deeper understanding of who I am – and the woman I want to become.