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Sophie Williams: “I’m not interested in being claimed by people who don’t want me”
The author on not relying on family to form her sense of identity and fetishised representation of people who look like her
Hi, welcome back to Mixed Messages! This week I’m speaking to author and anti-racism activist Sophie Williams, who is of Jamaican and white-English heritage. Sophie’s book Millennial Black: The Ultimate Guide for Black Women at Work continues the incredible work she does to uplift and advocate for marginalised groups. Having loved Sophie’s @OfficialMillennialBlack Instagram account for a long time, I was excited to find out how she feels about her mixed identity.
How do you define your ethnicity?
I’m a Black woman, and I don’t elaborate on that unless pressed. My mum is Jamaican and my dad is white-English. I think of myself as a Black person with a lot of privilege because of the proximity to whiteness that I have.
I feel like non-white communities claim mixed people in a way that white communities don’t, so I think a Black person would accept me as Black when a white person wouldn’t accept me as white. When I was younger, I used to make a point of saying I was as much white as I was Black, but now I don’t care. I’m not interested in being claimed by people who don’t want me.
Has your sense of identity shifted over time?
It’s definitely been a journey. I’m in my 30s now, but I think everyone struggles to understand their identity when they’re young – especially when you’re part of two different things. I used to find it a challenge, but I’m sure of it now.
Have you ever felt that you’ve needed to tick certain boxes to ‘fit in’ with your heritage?
My mum moved here when she was eight, without her own mum, so I don’t think she has a very strong connection or grounding with her past or culture. There’s never been something that I felt I had to be a part of. I’m estranged from my parents, so I don’t get my sense of self from a sense of them. I’m out here, on my own, making things happen myself.
People will ask, “why are you so posh?” or “why are you so white?”, but I don’t have time for nonsense. Going to Black hair salons in the past, people have questioned how I look, sound or express myself, but never said “you’re not really Black” in those explicit terms.
Do you feel like there’s a stereotype of being mixed?
For a long time, if you were going to see a non-white person in an advert, it would be someone like me with light skin. I’ve got blue eyes and big curls too. It’s a non-threatening face of Blackness that’s not meant to be mixed representation, I think it’s meant to be a substitute for Blackness.
In a lot of ways, my experience is not the same as the completely Black experience, or a dark-skinned Black experience, where people have grown up not seeing themselves reflected back in the media. I’ve seen myself a fair amount, but in ways that is exoticised or sexualised. When people say “I want mixed babies,” it’s that kind of look they’re talking about it, so it’s uplifted in a fetishised way rather than a “what is your actual lived experience” way.
Do you think that we need a bigger conversation on mixed identity?
Yeah, absolutely. When I started the work that I do on my Instagram, lots of mixed people reached out to me saying they hadn’t found their voice yet, or wondered what their place was in this space. They didn’t know how to have these conversations and add value, which was interesting.
I don’t know if mixed was ever an option for who I was allowed to be. There’s a big dichotomy, and people are generally encouraged to pick one side rather than call themselves a mixed-race person.
Do you think speaking about your mixedness at a younger age would have affected you positively?
My parents tried to talk to me about it, and I found it embarrassing. I’m the only person of my race in my family. My mum is Black, like the rest of her family, and my dad is white, like the rest of his family, so I’m the only person like me in that space. One parent has one group, one has another, they come together to make you, but you’re not the same as them.
I didn’t want to get into that conversation with my parents, so I don’t know if it would have been helpful. They did say that they deliberately fostered a strong will in me, because I wasn’t part of one group or another, and that they knew I’d get pushback from wider society. I think it stood me in good stead.
If you could define your mixed experience in one word, what would that be?
Disconnected. I felt like I was the only person like me in my environment, so I just got on with it. I didn’t look around for what that meant or how I could engage, I was just me.
Pre-order Millennial Black: The Ultimate Guide for Black Women at Work now. Next week, I’ll be talking to comedian Callum Oakley. 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 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.