Natalie Morris: “Ideas of mixedness are binary and centred around whiteness”

The author of Mixed/Other on the duality of holding two truths simultaneously and the isolation of being mixed

Hi, welcome back to Mixed Messages! This week I’m speaking to journalist and author Natalie Morris, who is of Jamaican and white British heritage. I first came across Natalie with Mixed Up, a series on Metro exploring the nuances of mixed identity. Continuing this vital conversation, Natalie has just released her first book, Mixed/Other: Explorations of Multiraciality in Modern Britain. Read on to hear Natalie share her own experiences, plus what she hopes everyone can take from her important work. 

How do you define your ethnicity?

My dad’s family is Jamaican and my mum is white British, so I say I say mixed or mixed and Black. I’m trying to move away from ‘mixed-race’ as it implies a kind of essentialism. 

The terminology changes and develops, which is good, but it can be tricky to keep up with that. There’s no wrong or right way to describe yourself, but it’s important to be open to those changes. It’s important that people also listen to what mixed people want – so many things are forced on you when you’re mixed, and it can be hard to push back against that.

Your father was newsreader Tony Morris – did having a father in the public eye affect how you saw your identity?

My dad was visibly successful in a world where it is still very much a rarity. As a result, my sister and I have always been hyper aware of how he was perceived as a Black man, which had an impact on us. He did face struggles, but was overwhelmingly loved, which made us feel accepted.

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Did you have conversations about your mixed heritage when you were younger?

I don’t think we had any explicit conversations about race. My parents’ generation focused on working hard to get where we needed to be, trying not to always talk about race. But as I got older, I did have those conversations. If I have kids, I’d want to speak to them earlier about it all – it would have been helpful for me.  

Did you face any racism growing up in Manchester?

I grew up in a white area, so it was easy to think that race didn’t concern me and that I was the same as my friends. Retrospectively, I’m reassessing things that happened, possibly because I’m not white. The impact that can have can be quite long-lasting if you don’t acknowledge it at the time or have the language for it.  

Did you grow up connected to your cultural heritages?

My dad’s parents were part of the Windrush generation and came to work in the NHS and on the buses. They put my dad up for foster care with a white woman from Portsmouth called Audrey, where he stayed. Because of that, we were disconnected from that side of the family.

I’ve only recently started to connect with them and it’s been so rewarding getting to know them now, but it did mean we didn’t have those big family gatherings at Nana’s house on a Sunday. It’s difficult when people assume certain things about you, like you must know how to make Jamaican food, but I didn’t, and you can feel like you’ve failed in some way. But not eating that food or listening to that music doesn’t mean you’re any less Black.

I’m having to put in work to fill those cultural touch points retroactively, but it’s nice to be able to figure those things out as an adult when I really care about them – sometimes you take it for granted as a kid. 

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I loved Mixed Up. Why did you start that?

As a journalist, I love telling stories and speaking to different people. The articles in Mixed Up are basically the stories I wanted to know when I was younger and starting to think about where I fit in. Moving to London and being around more diverse pools of people sparked this change in my mindset and I realised that there isn’t just one way the world looks.   

I wanted to convey that mixed people aren’t a homogenous group. It wasn’t enough to just write my own story because I am a tiny individual in this wider puzzle, which is why I started speaking to people who didn’t necessarily fit the blueprint of a mixed person, which is essentially people like me.  

The reaction I got to the series was brilliant, with people saying that they’d felt so alone but now they know that other people feel the same as them. It can be quite an isolating experience when you’re mixed. 

You’re taking the conversation further with Mixed/Other. What do you hope to convey with the book?  

I wrote Mixed/Other to add some much-needed nuance to a conversation that is so frequently stilted and oversimplified in mainstream spaces. Perceptions of mixedness are still so frustratingly binary and often centred around whiteness – I wanted to challenge those narratives and open a more inclusive conversation. I wanted to tell stories or joy, hope and belonging as well as the more painful and sometimes complicated parts of being mixed. It’s the book I wanted to read in my teens and early twenties.

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Did you learn anything from writing Mixed/Other?

Definitely this idea of holding two truths within you simultaneously. On the one hand, this privilege if you’re mixed with white and have lighter skin, and on the other hand racism and oppression that you also experience as a non-white minority in this country. Trying to reconcile the duality of these things can be incredibly challenging, and something I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about while writing the book. 

If you could define your mixed experience in a word, what would that be?

Unique. My experience is unlike anybody else's, except maybe my sister. We all have individual narratives that are valid and worthy of hearing. I think the moment you start to bunch people together into one group, you lose that nuance.

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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.