When I visited Jamaica earlier this month, my grandmother detailed what it was like arriving in the UK as an 11-year-old child in 1965.
“People would just stare at you,” she said. “It was like you were in a zoo and they’d call you a monkey. I was one of four black girls in a 500-strong school, so we were the novelty. We were the circus act.”
I’m mixed race, born in Britain and raised in a majority white community. Growing up, I rejected the Jamaican side of my heritage because I considered it to be something so far removed from the white culture I was brought up in. It wasn’t until I got to university and spoke to black peers about shared experiences that I began to explore my Jamaican background with interest.
I’ve visited Jamaica twice and I adore everything about it. I love the food, the sunshine, the music and the easy-going lifestyle. Above all, I love the people; the way they speak honestly and unapologetically, their genuine zest for life and their resourcefulness, often growing their own food and building their own houses.
The sense of community I felt there was overwhelming, and something I had never quite experienced fully in my home country. I could hardly string a sentence of Jamaican patois together, and my Kentish accent marked me out as painstakingly British. However, I was never made to feel different, not in the ways black and brown people across Britain are made to feel every day because of the way they talk, the way they look and sometimes, the way they simply exist.
Sure, Jamaica has its flaws. The island is notorious for having one of the highest homicide rates in the world, and the popular tourist area of Montego Bay is currently under a state of emergency due to recent surges in violence.
For this reason among others, I questioned why my grandmother had chosen to move to Jamaica long-term, despite spending most of her life in England. When she told me why, it began to make perfect sense.
“When I’m in Jamaica, I don’t feel like a minority,” she explained. “And to not be a minority is a wonderful thing.”
What she told me resonated. Despite being British in every way, the fact that I wasn’t white meant I was a minority in my own country and I was constantly reminded of that fact. Whether it’s the kind of racism that is as underhand as asking “where I’m really from”, or asking if you can touch my hair – you can’t – or the kind of obtuse racism that my grandmother and so many other Windrush kids experienced, can we honestly say that much has changed?
The Windrush scandal cemented the realisation that we are still regarded as foreigners in our own homes, and that was what led me to apply for my Jamaican citizenship, enabling me to have a Jamaican passport and vote in Jamaican elections.
My grandmother was overjoyed that I was finally embracing a part of me that I had tried to keep buried for so long. My dad was also supportive – deep down, I think it is something he wished he had explored for himself in his younger years.
Although my mother passed away recently, if she were here I imagine she’d have strong reservations about my decision. While she never denied my black heritage, she always reminded me that my white side was just as important and told me that effectively, I could never fully embrace one racial identity without acknowledging the other.
But I’ve always felt like there’s a part of me that’s missing. I don’t think having a Jamaican passport will solve everything, but I do think it might help a few pieces of the puzzle fall into place.
In a post-Brexit world where racial tensions seem to continue bubbling beneath the surface, I desperately wanted somewhere else to call home, perhaps out of a dystopian fear that one day I would find myself in a Britain where I am no longer welcome.
The UK will always be my home and I will always proudly declare myself as British, but until the day I am not made to feel otherwise, I need to search for a sense of belonging in a place where I am accepted because of who I am – not in spite of it.
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