Patrice Lawrence: 'If I read "caramel skin and swishy hair" again I’m going to scream'
The author on her Indian heritage, writing mixed characters and the fluidity of identity
Hi, welcome back to Mixed Messages! This week, I’m speaking to author Patrice Lawrence, who is of mixed Guyanese, African and Indian heritage. Patrice spoke so openly about what it feels like to not be connected to your heritage cultures, as well as explaining the wealth of history behind her mix. Read the edited version of our conversation below, knowing that there is an equal amount of insight that I could have included. Is there an appetite for a bonus edition of Mixed Messages offcuts?
How do you define your ethnicity?
I find it easier to identify as Black British because that’s how I present and I can’t be arsed with the discussion. My biological dad was born in Guyana, with an African Guyanese dad and Indian mum. His parents weren’t married, and the fact that he was mixed was a stigma. He was brought up by his mum in an Indian family, and moved to Barbados when he was three.
The couple of times I’ve told people that I’ve got Indian heritage, they look at me and ask why I don’t have features that are more Indian.
Are you connected to your Indian heritage?
No, I know nothing about it. My dad came to England when he was 19 and never went back, and died when I was in my early 20s before I had the opportunity to ask him about it. I’ve never met my grandma.
I ponder a lot on that Indian side of me, and I feel really sad that I don't know about it or feel able to claim it. There’s a whole family experience that I just don’t know, a part of my heritage missing.
Do you feel the same about your Caribbean heritage?
As someone who’s born in the UK, I do feel lacking in those cultural reference points. What you do get through your parents is distilled through their eyes. Caribbean is my birth heritage, but I don’t particularly feel culturally Caribbean.
Caribbean is such a fluid concept too because most of the islands were invaded by so many people – most people are mixed.
My mum sometimes played calypso music, but she also liked Depeche Mode and Status Quo. It’s interesting what we decide is culture and what isn’t. I’ve always found it very complicated trying to work out if I’m the right sort of Black or the right sort of Caribbean, because I don’t fit in with the culture I’ve found in London. It’s a strange, strange thing.
How does your daughter identify?
My daughter’s father is white English, with a lot of Irish in there too. She doesn’t like identifying as Black and white because she knows it’s much more complex. I know it’s a shorthand, but as I’ve gotten older I don’t like the half-and-half conversation or the idea that anybody is half of anything. Genes are much more complicated than that.
There’s a conversation about the fluidity of identity too. In the US we’d have to identify as Black because of the one drop rule; in England, she’d identify as mixed and me as Black; in Trinidad, we’d both identify as mixed. You pick up the context of where you are.
I think parents can bring internalised prejudices from their own communities when they have children, thinking straight hair and fair skin is “good”. I also hate the fetishisation of mixed children by their own parents.
How do you include mixedness in your books?
I write characters that are mixed-heritage in very different ways. People often assume it’s Black plus white European, or white plus something else, which isn’t the case. For example, in Trinidad there are a lot of mixed-Black and Chinese people because of migration patterns.
I want other people to see themselves in a non-fetishised way. If I read another girl who’s got caramel skin and swishy hair again I’m going to scream. Language is so loaded, it’s important to know the history of words.
My latest book, Splinters of Sunshine, has a young character with a mixed father and a white mum. He presents as white to people who aren’t really looking. His mum wants him to be proud of his Black side, but puts him in a “good” school, which is predominantly white. I wanted to explore that, plus what people project on you or think about your family.
Which other authors do you think write about mixedness in an interesting way?
Dean Atta speaks a lot about mixedness in his book The Black Flamingo. Catherine Johnson is another – she was born in London at a time where there were very few mixed-heritage people. Her father was a tailor from Jamaica and her mum was a Welsh teacher. She’s always written young adult books with mixed-race characters, putting them into historical settings so children can see themselves and know that they’ve always been there – despite history lessons making it seem like Black people arrived with slavery.
How do you think the conversation around mixedness needs to develop?
We talk about what our parents’ heritage is as opposed to who we are – that’s unsustainable. There’s increasing mixedness in society, and historically from slavery, migration, colonialism and indentured labour. People want racial absolutes, and they just don’t exist.
Can you sum up your mixed experience in one word?
Oblivious, because most people are to it.
Patrice wrote about her father’s life and death here. Next week, I’ll be talking to former Miss World Japan and founder of Mukoomi, Priyanka Yoshikawa. Subscribe to get Mixed Messages in your inbox on Monday.
Enjoy Mixed Messages? Support me on Ko-Fi so I can continue to grow this newsletter! Your donations, which can start from £3, help me pay for the transcription software needed to keep this newsletter weekly.
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.