In this witty and moving piece, Marissa McCallam reflects on navigating the world as a brown girl, encountering other people’s racist views and prejudices, connecting with her mixed heritage and embracing the freedom and power of ambiguity.
As others gyrated to the floor with ease, undulating their hips and isolating the twitching of their buttocks with intention, I came to the conclusion that my lower spine was fused and I must have missed a particular, carnival-themed dance class. I rocked awkwardly with my knees bent in the hope that I was at least showing the will to ‘Broke up me back’. Brown girl fail.
Anything more than a single chilli on the Tesco Meal deal Sandwich scale and I was out. The level of heat would be too much for me; there was a fast transition from mild discomfort to outright displeasure. Brown girl fail.
The disbelief was palpable as my teenage self naively divulged to my peers that I conditioned my hair with ‘Timotei’ and had never heard of Dax. It was just what my Mum bought. My white Mum.
Don’t get me wrong, despite undertones of the clichéd absent black father, I wasn’t brought up in a Caucasian vacuum. Mum’s eclectic music collection meant that soulful voices provided a soundtrack to me jumping on her bed manically. There is definite recollection of attending a nursery in a church with a black care-giver called Polly and my primary school being diverse, despite frequent use of the term ‘half-caste’.
I remember the kudos gained when our family moved to a notoriously rougher borough. I now found myself going to and from school on the ‘rude gal’ buses and trains, taking every opportunity I could to pick up social cues and cultural tidbits from my melanin-rich travel companions. Every so often there would be reference to ‘Coconut’ or ‘Bounty’ and, I quickly recognised that, these could double as terms of endearment for those of us that didn’t demonstrate enough nods to food, music or our respective ‘motherland’.
In combination with this, I did the best that I could to glean culturally-appropriate references from my mixed-race Stepdad who had Jamaican origins. Every so often, an exotic food item would appear for me to try. The under-washed salt-fish a strong and unpleasant memory in this category.
When I was just approaching double-digits, I had a habit of questioning my being described as ‘half- black and half-white’. Elementary paint-mixing had confirmed that this would equal grey. I was brown, not grey. Perusing the foundation offerings on a make-up counter throughout the decades had also been a tour of the brown palette, but, still always managed to be the wrong shade. Tan, Copper, Medium, Cafe au lait – who knew a single term could be used to simultaneously make the recipient feel like they were European, Exotic and something on a menu. Labelled for your convenience.
The diversity and inclusion world is also littered with acronyms. They are great for shorthand referencing but should be considered carefully before becoming official. POC is arguably one that falls into this category, when uttered it sounds like ‘Pox’. Who wants the inclusion of ‘Pox’ into the mainstream?
Skin tone has invariably brought opportunity to me. A door opener. The hue of my complexion lends itself well to a number of origins, spanning the globe from Puerto Rican to Arabic. During a stint as a Sales person covering mainland Europe, many a Spanish and Dutch person was noticeably surprised to hear my first utterances in a South London accent. It would become a thing of novelty and, as my inoffensive brown girl manner revealed itself, soon forgotten. I was not what they had expected. Inoffensive brown girls put people at ease.
We are also often confused with each other.
On more than one occasion I have been called by the name of another brown girl colleague. Not in an absent-minded, shout-all-of-your-children’s-names-before-you-berate-the-right-one way, more a genuine belief that I-am-that-girl-and-am-definitely-lying-when-I-say-I-am-not kind of way. Some would take offence. I find it laughable, turning these moments into comedy, to be pulled out of the anecdote bag when appropriate. Or not appropriate. Comedy is arguably funnier when it’s completely inappropriate.
Like the time I was helping a boyfriend clean and wax his Metro outside of his Cotswold family home. His cheerfully, home-grown neighbour came outside to Britishly comment on the typically un-British sunshine.
‘We’ll all be looking like ni**as if we’re not careful!’. An ignorant slip of the tongue, reflective of a sheltered upbringing and deliciously awkward. She took a split second to register my skin tone and the potential power of the n-bomb, then quickly went into damage limitation procedure. This took the form of a high-pitched stammered apology, bumbling through a retraction of how she ‘…didn’t mean anything by it…’ and loved ‘…the colour…’ of my skin.
Is ignorance bliss? It certainly can be comical. As well as ‘brown girl’ I have also been referred to as ‘coloured’, ‘the one with the skin’ and, my personal favourite, ‘you people’. The latter was uttered in 2020 by an elderly white lady who, with genuine tears in her eyes, was trying to express the need for more tolerance in the world. Imagine if she had found out that my partner was white…
Don’t be too down on discrimination – apparently it can be ‘positive’. For a while, this was something which tinged any sense of achievement taken from gaining a place on an oversubscribed university course or securing a popular job role. Was I just a box-ticker? Low socio-economic background and brown girl are a strong combination. I remember speaking with a Nigerian lady who had secured a high-level position in a prominent University. She described how she was often invited to be part of action-groups with a focus on ‘BAME issues’ however, she usually declined. She didn’t want to be part of organisations that, no matter how well meaning, could potentially exacerbate a feeling of ‘otherness’ or produce an unhealthy sense of entitlement purely because of skin colour. She was an advocate for equality, everyone assessed on their individual merit. Initially, I was inclined to agree with her, but it did make me question the level of opportunity that would have been available if I hadn’t been able to tick the ‘Mixed Other’ box on an application form occasionally. Had I been made ‘token’?
Well into my twenties, I was reintroduced to my very cockney Father. It wasn’t until I met his Mother that the enormity of tradition, history and heritage available became apparent. At a brown family BBQ, riotous with music, alcohol and mixed-race children, I felt overwhelmed. There was a sadness at how closely this source of culture had existed to me, without my knowledge. How different would life had been if this backdrop of pride and richness had been more prevalent? What did this mean for my identity?
Recently, I stumbled across a hard-back book filled with angsty poetry I had written as a teenager. ‘…if there was a war, both colours divide, where should I go? You decide…’
The apathy around society’s need to compartmentalise was already present then. There was no inclination to make the choice on its behalf.
Living in a seaside town for over a decade was an interesting one. Despite its Universities and Language schools providing a rich mix of international students, there was sometimes an undercurrent of diversity being seasonal. As the years went on, I began to see more ‘mixed-race faces’ out and about but I still found my physical features a reason for people to invite me to perfect my English or immediately regard me as ‘cool’. Then, I was invited to join an Indian, African Caribbean Action Group. My ‘brown’ is half-Guyanese, so, technically South American, but this was never clarified and I attended a few of the meetings feeling like an imposter. Was I the right kind of brown? Was I brown enough to speak? The response of others towards my lack of ‘brown milestones’ fed into the belief that I had been disconnected from a definitive heritage for a majority of my life and had no right to access it now. I could only truly speak from a place of ‘Me’. Did that matter? Was ‘Me’ alone enough? It had to be.
Being asked a question from a space of ‘ethnicity’ used to make me feel uncomfortable. There was a sense of exposure. Vulnerable to being outed as someone who had cherry-picked the elements of her culture when they were needed…and what if they saw the cherries in my bowl? A permanent tan, impressive musical ancestry, versatile hair, an ample behind that no jeans had been tailored to cover, unimpeded access to certain geographical locations, the ‘black’ not ‘cracking’. Racial ambiguity.
But there it was, my liberation. Ambiguity. Just keep them guessing. ‘Me’ was the only true responsibility I had and, if anybody did question it, I could just feign offence. Brown girl prerogative.
About Marissa McCallam
Marissa McCallam is a writer and the founder of Centre Myself, the social enterprise on a mission to positively impact the lives of as many girls as possible. She is a Body & Mindset Coach and has a degree in Television Production, and is a qualified Group Exercise to Music Instructor, Circuit Trainer and Boxercise/Kickboxercise Instructor. Through changing the way she thought about things and using physical movement, she overcame 15 years of depression and anxiety. As a Performer and Teacher she truly believes that by connecting with our bodies and using simple tools to change our mindset, it is possible to be confident, calmer and have more fun! Marissa has trained in Treating Anxiety, Building Resilience in Young People, Meditation, Speaking to Inspire and studies Positive Psychology and Personal Performance Development. Read her blog here and find out more information about her work with adults at www.marissamccallam.com