At the fourth AfroEuropean conference recently held in London, a young man named Johny Pitts gave a talk about his journey to discover his identity. Born to a white mother and African-American father and raised on a Sheffield council estate, Johny discussed his quest to find an ‘Afropean’ identity in a polarized North England town. Elsewhere at the conference, another young man named Norradean Amorro discussed his own background as born to a British mother and Dominican father, born in Egypt but raised within South East London’s black community, and the inevitable identity confusion he faced. This story of mixed race young people experiencing identity confusion and divided selves is not a new phenomenon. Ever since the impacts of colonialism changed the face of Britain, countless young people have recounted their experiences of multiple heritages as difficult, challenging and antagonistic.
In my home, Judaism, not unlike blackness in so many others, was a dirty word
Listening to Johny and Norradean speak, I realized how similar, yet differing, our journeys had been. I too grew up with immense identity confusion. But unlike these young men, I am not mixed race, nor did I grow up working class. Indeed in many ways our upbringings were very different. I grew up over-privileged in West London to middle class white parents of Jewish origin.
The fact that I was Jewish was not something I truly understood as a child. We did not practice Judaism in any way. My brother and I were sent to Church of England schools. I was told from a young age to deny my Jewish heritage. My mother converted to Christianity and I was baptized at the age of ten. In my home, Judaism, not unlike blackness in so many others, was a dirty word.
Despite growing up with material wealth, I spent my childhood feeling alienated and excluded. Culturally, I did not know my place. I did not feel affinity with my peers. Being a second-generation immigrant, and a Jew, meant, despite our wealth, we were not and would never be, a part of the aristocratic class. There would, fortunately, be no debutante ball for me. Yet I was clearly a recipient of white privilege, due to my white skin, blonde hair and private education. But it was a privilege that I struggled to understand, relate to or reconcile, with the endless suffering I saw in London’s streets, or within the pages of books.
Culturally, I grew up on Hip Hop and Jungle, police brutality and pirate radio, seven inches and sound systems
My love for reading from an early age aided my search for identity. As I trawled through libraries I came across the great African American slave narratives. The autobiographies of people like Fredrick Douglass moved me and gave me a sense of a world beyond the confines of my well insulated but cold home. This inevitably led to an exploration of African American history and civil rights literature: W.E.B. Dubois, Malcolm X, James Baldwin. Concomitantly, black music began to seep into my soul, through Jungle, Reggae, Trip-Hop and Hip-Hop. Like Johny, I’d turned to black British and African American music forms to find a culture, to find an identity that meant something to me. It was in Hip Hop culture that I seemingly found my place, my politics and my ideology.
Understanding Jewish history allowed me to relate to black experiences. It opened the doors for me to an ideology outside of whiteness, to distance myself from what I understood as colonialism, domination and normativity.
My father had his reasons for denying our Jewish heritage. Born in a Czechoslovakian village in 1923 into a relatively wealthy family, when the Nazis occupied his family were able to flee. My father, his brother and his parents relocated to London. At least 12 other members of the family were unable to escape: grandparents, aunts, uncles and cousins, were executed. My father remained in the UK, gaining a degree from Cambridge, and joined his father’s wine business, which did exceedingly well. As far as my father is concerned, his Jewish heritage has brought nothing but tragedy. He has often said to me that anti-Semitism was always extant, thus it was best to refute our Jewishness.
It opened the doors for me to an ideology outside of whiteness, to distance myself from what I understood as colonialism, domination and normativity
It was only in my twenties that I began to embrace my Jewish heritage, racially if not religiously. Before that, it felt like a shameful secret, not visible but nevertheless there. Born and raised in London in the 1980s and ‘90s, culturally, I cannot claim Jewishness (unless you count a predilection for chicken soup cultural!). Culturally, I grew up on Hip Hop and Jungle, police brutality and pirate radio, seven inches and sound systems. Perhaps I could now, like Johny, claim an Afropean identity. Married to a second generation Ghanaian, with mixed race children, a career in music journalism and a recently completed degree in sociology with a focus on race and ethnicity, perhaps an Afropean identity more encapsulates my actual lived experience.
Identity confusion seems to be a part of the human condition in this day and age, especially during those formative teenage years. It is not just something to ascribe to those of mixed race or those transracially adopted. Visual signifiers do not need to be the only basis for multiplicity. It is a part of the human condition, a part of postmodernity, a part of the Western cultural mix. A part of growing up with cultural choices, a part of postcolonialism, a part of displacement. A part of Johny, a part of Norradean, and a part of me.