Mixed Up: 'I'm so light that people don't believe I'm related to my black mum'

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

There is no ‘right’ way to be mixed-race, and yet we are so often presented as a homogeneous group – that couldn’t be further from the truth.

The UK’s fasted growing ethnic group is vibrant, diverse and has a multitude of different stories to tell.

We want to tell these stories – dig deeper than stereotypes and stigma and give a voice to an under-heard community.

Ashley Morris has always struggled with her identity. She says looking significantly lighter than her brother made it hard for her to find her place.

‘My mother is Kenyan and Tanzanian whereas my father is Welsh. He’s ginger too,’ Ashley tells Metro.co.uk.

‘I mostly grew up around my father’s side, but I don’t necessarily feel connected to one culture more than the other – I have always felt simultaneously isolated, yet excluded from both.

‘I always say that if I had grown up in a more diverse area, such as London or Birmingham, then I wouldn’t have the outlook on race that I have today – especially as a very light-skinned woman of colour who is almost white-passing (depending on who you ask).’

School was a tricky time for Ashley. She was in a rural, predominantly white area, and looking starkly different from her brother and parents often made her the topic of conversation.

‘Growing up in Wales and attending schools which were 99% white, I was always made to feel aware that I was different,’ says Ashley.

‘My father was a teacher in my school and he’s white, whereas my older brother is visibly a lot darker and “ethnic looking” I suppose, than I am.

‘So, I understand that naturally, people had a lot of questions.

‘But at primary school I remember being surrounded by girls with fine hair and being made fun of for my textured Afro, while simultaneously being of a similar skin tone to them and feeling incredibly alone in my experiences.

‘I recall being made fun for my more “ethnic” features, such as my nose, to the point where my teachers brought my parents in. My school even started celebrating Black History Month as a direct result of the bullying.’

The bullying was more subtle too – with children spreading lies about Ashley’s family and making cruel assumptions based solely on how she looked.

‘I remember a rumour going around that my brother and I were adopted because we didn’t look like our dad,’ she explains.

‘I remember being accused of lying about my race by some people while continuously being brutally reminded of my ambiguity by others, resulting in an incredible amount of confusion on how to conduct myself. It ultimately created some major identity issues.

‘On the last day of school – someone wrote the N-word on my t-shirt – the other kids would have “I’ll miss you!” or “good luck with everything!”

‘I remember my dad being heartbroken when he picked me up from school that day and saw that word written on my shirt.’

When it comes to her identity, Ashley is passionate about acknowledging both sides of who she is. She says people often want her to ‘pick a side’ because that makes it easier for them to understand.

‘I get genuinely offended when people try to dismiss my African side by referring to me as simply Welsh. Because I’m not only Welsh, I’m not only white,’ she tells us.

‘I may have grown up there for the majority of my life, and I understand that I am light-skinned, but I refuse to water myself down to what people are “comfortable” with.

‘I have always been made to feel isolated because of not being fully Welsh or white, so why should I pretend that I am when it’s convenient for others?

‘I think it’s important to acknowledge my mixed identity because I never want the next generation of mixed-race children to deal with a similar set of identity issues that I’ve dealt with, and still deal with continuously.

‘It’s not my job to have to justify my existence to anybody, nor should I have to.

‘My self-identity isn’t up for speculation or some kind of political playground. When I tell you what I am – just believe me, because I’m not lying about it.

Despite the internal conflict Ashley has harboured for much of her teenage and adult existence, she does think there are benefits to being mixed-race. She likes who she is and relishes the fact that her perspective on life is unique.

‘Being mixed-race has been just as much of a blessing as it has a burden,’ explains Ashley.

‘I don’t care for the ignorant comments I sometimes get, like: “I wish I was half-caste!” – but I also kind of understand why people say it. As messed up as it sounds. Because I’m proud to be a part of two deeply contrasting cultures.

‘I have a love/hate relationship with being different, but at the end of the day, being mixed-race while going through all the very unique experiences of my life is what makes me, me.

‘On a surface level, I love that I can do so many things with my hair. I’m proud that in my lifetime I have been able to experiment so much – I’ve bleached, relaxed and straightened my hair one day, while wearing box braids on another.

‘I love being an individual and I love that I can tell stories that other people can’t.

‘Sometimes it hurts to be misunderstood, but in a world where everything has become so rehearsed and tedious, it’s sort of refreshing to have my own narrative and my own take on things. I wouldn’t have this in the same way if i wasn’t mixed-race.’

Identity is a tricky issue, and for Ashley walking the divide between the different elements of her heritage has been far from simple. All she wants is to be given the space to express herself freely.

‘I can’t speak on behalf of every mixed-race person because we are all very different, but I have seen a lot of mixed-race people dismiss one side of their identity while running with the other,’ says Ashley.

‘I have seen mixed-race people deny their ambiguity altogether.

‘It all depends on who you speak to.

‘But what I can say is that a lot of us struggle with the juggling act of claiming both. It is genuinely difficult because there is no homogeneous mixed-race experience.

‘What’s strange with my experience is that I’m extremely light-skinned, yet in Wales I was always known for being the mixed-race one.

‘My parents are divorced and so, whenever I went to visit my mother and half brother (who is black), people would always look at us extremely puzzled and ask whether she was my biological mother because I’m so pale.

‘I grew up with a Brazilian stepmother and stepbrother who people more than often thought were actually my biological relatives. So a lot of the time, people would ask if I was Brazilian too.

‘It’s a little messy, so outside of other people’s perceptions, it’s also about finding acceptance within myself because I have always struggled to find it.

‘I have only just recently decided to stop chemically relaxing my hair in order to look white, acceptance is a quiet room.’

Ashley thinks racism is a universal experience for anyone who isn’t white – she also thinks it’s important to recognise and acknowledge that there are different levels of racism

‘I don’t know a single person of colour who hasn’t experienced racism. But what a lot of people don’t talk about is colourism,’ explains Ashley.

‘I’m not proud of it at all, but I am certainly not afraid to admit that I have benefitted from colourism my entire life.

‘Being virtually white-passing has unfortunately played to my advantage in more ways than I like to admit.

‘So, while I may have gone through my own instances of racism and ignorance, it’s unfair of me to complain while my darker brothers and sisters have had it a lot harder than I have. Perhaps in a less complex manner, but a lot harder.’

Celebrity culture has lead to racial ambiguity becoming a really popular ‘look’ over the last few years. Ashley doesn’t like this pick-and-choose racial aestheticism – she thinks it undermines the true experiences of people of colour.

‘People are weird,’ she says.

‘So many girls, in particular, are altering their appearance nowadays to seem ethically ambiguous, I can’t help but feel it’s problematic.

‘I’m high-key bitter that people are now using the over-application of fake tan and makeup and perms to gain features for which I was often made fun of for having whilst growing up.

‘Instagram and Kardashian culture claim that it’s a f***ing fashion trend now, so of course everybody wants to be mixed-race.

‘That is, until history repeats itself and it’s popular for everyone to have pale skin, straight hair and flat asses again.

‘It reminds me of a quote I’ve seen go viral in the past – everyone wants to look black without being black, or something like that.’

Ashley was isolated when she was growing up, which she knows was a contributing factor to the crisis of identity that she had to deal with. That’s why she’s passionate about sharing her story – she hopes it could help someone else feel less alone.

‘Telling mixed-race stories is important because representation is vital,’ says Ashley.

‘Everyone deserves it. Black people deserve it, Asian people deserve it, all people of colour deserve it.

‘I still actively look for good mixed-race representation in the media today, lord knows I would have appreciated seeing more of it when I was a teen.’

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