Katy Massey: “I had no choice but to find identity within myself”
The author on why she won’t self-identify within structures designed by racists
Hi, welcome back to Mixed Messages! This week, I speak to writer Katy Massey, who is of Black Jamaican and White Canadian heritage. Katy is the author of Tangled Roots, an anthology of writing on mixed-race Britain, and her memoir Are We Home Yet?, which is about the sex industry, mental health and growing up in a white family. Katy has such a strong sense of self and it was refreshing to hear her take on identity and how she’s built her sense of self from her life experiences, rather than purely her ethnicity. Katy gives me hope that one day I’ll figure out who I am!
How would you define your ethnicity?
I would describe myself as a Black woman, and within Blackness, as mixed.
Has that changed over time?
When I grew up, I’d call myself half-caste. At that time it wasn’t particularly an insult. Now, I say mixed-race.
I think there’s a certain amount of revisionism, as identities are remade within culture and different terms are rolled in and out of existence. Sensitivities change around language.
I don’t think I’ll ever be comfortable with a language around identity that wasn’t invented for us. I think it’s important not to define myself according to labels white supremacy has made to identify us.
Has your sense of identity shifted with you?
In terms of my sense of self, I don’t think that’s changed much. My book is called Are We Home Yet? because it’s considering different forms of home-making and belonging. It’s about looking for a place to relax and breathe out in. I sometimes look at these big extended families around me and I think “that must be lovely, you must have a strong sense of where you belong”. But if you don’t have that, you have no choice but to find it in yourself.
How did you experience your Black cultural heritage growing up?
My process of identity has been wondering who I am, rather than worrying about external indicators. I didn’t learn how to make Caribbean food growing up, but I really liked it when we got it from the takeaway, so I’ve since taught myself. These things are less important to me than how I feel within my world.
Do you ever feel stereotyped as a Black author?
As a writer, you’re expected to write about your own cultural experience. When I first finished writing Are We Home Yet?, I was told it needed to be about being mixed-race, or why mention it at all? For POC authors, ethnicity and culture seems to be the thing people are most interested in, whereas for me, having a mother who made her career in the sex industry was far more a defining feature than me being brown.
That reminds me of a quote of yours, where you said, “an individual's racial identity might be very important to them, but equally, it might be quite meaningless”. Does your sense of identity change with you?
Racial identity varies in importance, depending on what’s happening more widely in society. For me, it was important growing up in a white family where I was different, and it became more important when I had my little girl. She’s blonde and blue-eyed, so people used to ask me if I was babysitting her. I’ve also had to have difficult conversations with her recently, as she realises her mummy can be hated for the colour of her skin.
I don’t want to talk about being murdered in the street with my seven-year-old; it’s hard and exhausting and upsetting. Race matters at different times, but it’s not me that makes it matter - it’s the world around me.
How would you describe your mixed experience in one word?
I would say it’s like a pinball. There’s a sense of nothing being fixed and being subject to outside interpretation all the time.
Next week, I’ll be talking to journalist Josie Copson. Subscribe to get Mixed Messages in your inbox next Monday!
Mixed Messages is a weekly exploration of the mixed-race experience, from me, Isabella Silvers. My mom is Punjabi Indian (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.