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Bobbie Little: “Other people decide what they want me to be”
The actor on the creativity of mixedness, not feeling attractive and being celebrated in both cultures
Hi, welcome back to Mixed Messages! This week I’m speaking to actor Bobbie Little, who is of mixed Grenadian and white British heritage. Bobbie has just finished performing in the Olivier-nominated Standing at the Sky’s Edge at the National Theatre, a musical which explores community and the history of modern Britain through one iconic estate over six decades. Both Croydon locals, we sat down to explore Bobbie’s story over coffee at Bob’s Your Uncle. Here’s how our conversation went.
How do you define your racial identity?
My mother's from Grenada in the Caribbean and my dad is English. I’ve always said I'm mixed–race. I’ve never been in a position where I've said “I'm white” or “I'm Black.” What I have found is that other people decide what they want me to be.
In my industry, I’m never going to be ‘the white one.’ I’ve definitely experienced not being sure where I’m supposed to be in the world, the thing of ‘you’re not Black enough, you’re not white enough.’ The parts I get put up for have actually been more colour blind, except for Hairspray which was about racism.
I’ve had a lot of conversations with actors on this newsletter about the roles they do and don’t feel comfortable taking. Where do you sit on that?
There's definitely roles that I'm not Black enough to play, and I wouldn't want to because there's full Black people in the industry. One of my first auditions was Indian Summers, and there’s not a scrap of Indian in me. I was told to straighten my hair and put on an accent, and at the time I thought ‘I’ll just do what I’m told!’ Now I look back, that’s so disgusting.
I feel most comfortable in roles where [my race] is sort of irrelevant. As much as I love doing things where there’s Black empowerment, sometimes I’m just like, ‘can’t I just be a person?’
The story I’ve just told in Standing at the Sky’s Edge is one of the only others I’ve done about racial identity. It’s really about who I am and it’s like nothing I’ve ever experienced. It's quite emotionally draining and triggering in a way, it feels like the most important work I’ve ever done.
I know you used to dance as well as act – has being in these white environments affected your sense of self?
There were no people of colour in my dance classes when I was younger. I remember weird things, like scratching my back and other girls laughing because my skin went white. I mean, that’s my fault for not moisturising…
I really wanted to be a ballerina when I was young, and I also wanted to have blonde hair and blue eyes. I was told that I didn’t have the physique for it, which was true, but race does come into that. The media, the magazines, the telly we watch were all reflecting this ideal. I was fascinated with my dad’s hair and wondered how it was so soft, and used to get my curly hair relaxed. That was internalised racism that I didn’t have the capacity to explore.
The more I went into dance and theatre, which is predominantly white, that fucked with me. I didn’t look the way I was dying to look, I was very shy, I didn’t know who I could be. I was not a theatrical kid, and it took a lot of me embracing my Blackness to get there. The world changing helped me change, seeing people embracing their curls and pushing for more representation.
Now, I can’t believe I spent so many years wanting to be like that. I was essentially thinking that who my dad is is better than who my mum is, and that’s bullshit. I could never want that now. I want to be celebrated in both cultures. Sometimes that’s tricky.
I feel like I’ve made my own unique thing. I can be whoever I want – I can’t stand people being like ‘you’re not enough of this because of XYZ.’ When I was young, I was dying to identify as a white person. Now, people are always going to see me as more Black. I’m fine with that – see me as what you want to see me as, it doesn't matter to me, that's on you. I love being half-Black, being Black is such a magical thing. Look at our history, are you kidding?
Did you ever speak to your family about being mixed?
I don't think I did. I've always felt like I'm not very attractive, I think a lot of people relate to that – not feeling attractive but not knowing why. For me, it was definitely the fact that I wasn’t white and didn’t have blonde hair and blue eyes. Now, I can see that doesn’t make any sense.
My mum’s never had this complex. She is a very confident person, coming to the UK at 9 or 10 years old. She was still young, but it makes a difference seeing that everyone around you can be beautiful. She has that fundamentally.
I was lucky because I grew up with a lot of mixed-race cousins around Croydon which is quite a diverse area. That’s been a saviour. At the end of the day, my soul is not a race. It’s a soul encased in a lot of historical data which makes up my race and who I am.
Do you think mixedness has impacted the way you are as a person?
It’s like a door to two different cultures and worlds, two different ways of existing. There’s something interesting in terms of how other people are attracted to me or not. It’s not a problem for me to go up to anyone and be their friend. I don’t give a shit what you look like. Whereas for other people, sometimes that’s more of an issue.
Is there anyone you think is speaking about mixedness in a really interesting way right now?
I saw Adwoa Aboah’s StyleLikeU interview and that was life-changing. I could relate to her and how her mind works, how your head can play against you, but also her mixedness.
In terms of art and creativity, I also love Zendaya. I want to play parts similar to her, like Rue in Euphoria. There’s a lot I can relate to in that story. I also watched Mood with Nicôle Lecky, she’s iconic.
Do you think there’s a stereotype of what it means to be mixed?
There’s definitely a stereotype. I’m part of that. When someone tells me they're mixed-race, my first thought will be ‘they’re like me.’ That’s why sometimes the term ‘mixed-race’ is unhelpful because it doesn’t really mean much. Everyone is kind of mixed.
It’s important to know how to describe a person, and how they want to be described. It’s getting both easier and harder to know how to describe yourself. There’s more language, but it’s harder to know what makes sense for you. I guess it's just what people find helpful or offensive. At the end of the day, if someone is offended by something, it's offensive. We do have to be careful, but we also need to be understanding of intention.
What’s one of the best things about being mixed for you?
I love it. Isn’t it cool that you have two different cultures with you? It also means that I have more of an open mind.
I think a really big thing about being mixed is the confusion that we face growing up. That’s big, and on behalf of myself that’s made me stronger in a way. It gave me the creativity to decide what I identify as. I can pick and choose what I like from both cultures, and in a way I don't have to cling on to an identity.
Can you sum up your mixed identity in a word?
Magical or powerful – I see it as my magic power, my superpower. It's who I am fundamentally in my DNA. I have to use that in a good way instead of hating it.
Bobbie will be performing at the Olivier awards on Sunday 2nd April. Watch the highlights on ITV1, or stream on YouTube. Next week, I’ll be speaking to presenter and DJ Kaylee Golding. Subscribe to get Mixed Messages in your inbox on Monday.
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Mixed Messages is a weekly exploration of the mixed-race experience, from me, Isabella Silvers. My mom is Punjabi (by way of East Africa) and my dad is white British, but finding my place between these two cultures hasn’t always been easy. That’s why I started Mixed Messages, where each week I’ll speak to a prominent mixed voice to delve into what it really feels like to be mixed.