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Tony Wright: “I don’t know where my community is”
The comedian on box-ticking, the different forms of representation and The Rock
Hi, welcome back to Mixed Messages! This week I’m speaking to comedian Tony Wright, who is of Somali and white British heritage. As a self-professed “half-Black person who looks Asian,” I was excited to continue exploring mixed identity with someone who doesn’t quite fit the mould of what people expect from him.
What’s your ethnicity?
I’m half-English, half-Somali. I describe myself as 50/50, mixed-race or biracial... but I don’t know what the correct lingo is in the eyes of the majority. I grew up in the very white Margate, where using half-caste was OK growing up.
Do people know you’re mixed-Black from looking at you?
No, my face isn’t a good indicator of my mix. Mixed Black and white males don’t typically look like me – I have no idea what went wrong in my genes. I feel like a lot of people don’t realise that being mixed creates something new, rather than the same thing over and over again.
Growing up, were you connected to your Somali culture?
I don’t know my biological dad, which is where I get my Somali heritage. I grew up with a white family who didn’t acknowledge my difference. It was out of love, but it was odd.
My reality is so different to what the public perceive me as. English is all I’ve ever known, but you can’t fit in with white culture if you've got a slightly darker pigment. They don't let you.
I want to get to know my Somali side more, but my family are scared that I’m going to throw them away. I’m not – I just want to see what my biological dad is like. It would answer a lot of questions for me.
How do you deal with that?
I learned how to befriend people so they wouldn’t get aggressive with me. At the time, I thought jokey racism meant they were on my side, but as I got older I wondered why they kept bringing it up.
I started thinking that I didn’t have a place in the community that I thought was mine. I looked for that community in the British African diaspora, but it wasn’t there either. I don’t know what my community is.
Do you bring your ethnicity into your comedy?
In the early days, I didn’t mention my race as much. But after I started to question my place in the comedy industry, I’m using that time on stage to explore these things within myself. I hope that the identity conversations I have are therapeutic for the audience, the ones asking themselves the same questions as I do everyday.
Just before the pandemic, I performed my show The Untickable Box. It was about ticking all the boxes, but at the same time, none at all. It was me, laying out my life story for the audience and asking them to help me find my place.
I have a few mixed friends from different cultures and communities, but my show resonated with them. I always thought that to be represented you had to have the exact version of you, but relatability can come in many forms.
Did you ever look up to any mixed-race role models?
The only person I looked up to was Dwayne ‘The Rock’ Johnson, who’s half-Black and half-Samoan. I was a big wrestling fan, so seeing this guy be the best at what he did gave me motivation that the way I looked didn’t have to hold me back.
If you could sum up your mixed experience in one word, what would that be?
Enigmatic. It's all been a mystery.
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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.