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Mixed race author on the struggle of having to 'pick a side'

LIFETIME OF LOVE: Gus and sister Chi-chi with their parents Michael and Margaret

THE PRESSURE to 'pick a side', the struggle to find acceptance, and the sense of alienation are issues that have been addressed by many academics when examining the mixed race experience.

But rarely has the subject of mixed race identity been chronicled through literature, by authors who have lived the experience. Gus Nwanokwu seeks to fill this void with his new book, Black Shamrocks – a powerful memoir, in which he charts his experiences as a mixed race child in post-colonial England.

Growing up in London in the 1960s and 70s, Nwanokwu would often see the ‘No blacks, no dogs, no Irish’ signs hanging in the windows of rented accommodation. The experience was all the more poignant for the youngster, as he was born to an Irish mother and Nigerian father.

“My parents met at the Hammersmith Palais in 1955,” Nwanokwu explains. “Mum was collecting her coat as she was about to leave when my dad walked in. He was instantly smitten and persuaded her not to leave, but to accompany him to the dance floor. They stayed together forever after that point.”

Unsurprisingly, Nwanokwu says life for his parents was “incredibly difficult” as a mixed race couple in an “overtly racist” post-war Britain. Nonetheless, the couple’s love for each ensured they remained together until Nwanokwu’s father Michael died in 2004. His mother Margaret died two years later.

“Growing up, we saw the signs ‘Accommodation available – no blacks, no dogs, no Irish’ in the windows of houses to let across London,” says the 59-year-old, whose older sister is the renowned classical musician Chi-chi Nwanoku.

“But undeterred, [my parents’] love for each other grew and became even stronger, despite the fact that my mother’s family disowned her for marrying a black man. “That said, on a recent trip to Ireland I was told it was probably more to do with dad not being a Catholic that prompted my maternal grandfather to warn my mum ‘never to darken his doorstep again’ by bringing her husband home. She never did. She was strong enough to commit herself to her husband and future children, who she passionately protected and nurtured until the day she died. She was an incredible woman.”

Still, life for Nwanokwu and his four siblings was challenging, as they grew up facing the harsh realities of British racism and bigotry – while also dealing with exclusion from black social circles.


CHARTING HIS EXPERIENCES: Gus Nwanokwu

“The majority of racism I experienced was from white people,” recalls Nwanokwu, who has spent most of his career teaching in and managing further education colleges.

“But black people, though generally more accepting and inclusive, can and do exclude mixed race people in social circles. This is particularly painful, because it is evidence that black people are equally prone to treat others, even their ‘own’, on the basis of preconceived negative stereotypes.

“I’ve been called mongrel, hybrid and half-breed – among other names – by ‘fully’ black people, mainly, interestingly, of Caribbean origin. Where African ‘racism’ is concerned, it tends be that I’m treated on the basis of preconceived positive stereotypes. Both forms are equally displeasing and unacceptable, and probably reflective of the difference between the effects of African colonialisation and Caribbean slavery. Similar to the white British obsession with social class, black people appear to be obsessed with ‘colourism’.”

Facing this ostracism from both his black and white peers, did Nwanokwu struggle to ‘pick a side’?

“There is immense pressure, usually from black people, to align ourselves on the ‘black’ side,” he says. “This is understandable. However, I didn’t really need much persuading because I couldn’t align myself with the side of my heritage that abused and disadvantaged me and my family.


HAPPY SIBLINGS: (clockwise from left) Gus aged seven; sister Chi-chi (aged 8); and twin brother and sister Obi and Ijeoma (aged 6)

“While I was always aware of my genetically mixed-race heritage, psychologically and emotionally I developed a very black, and pro-black identity. This is not to say I rejected my white side. I cherish every moment I spent with my mum and I’m so appreciative to her for the love, strength and support she gave us all. She politicised us, she made us aware of racism, how it works, to prepare for it and how handle it.”

In stark contrast, Nwanokwu says his father was naïve to racism when he arrived in England, as it wasn’t something he experienced growing up in Nigeria.

“My dad had never experienced racism in Nigeria, and was relatively slow to identify it when he was subjected to it in the UK. I think as we, his children, grew older, the quicker he learned!”

While Nwanokwu’s mixed heritage provided its share of challenges, the father-of-three also acknowledges the ‘privilege’ that can come with being of dual ethnicity.

Last year, US actor Jesse Williams gave an insightful interview, in which he spoke about the privileges he’s afforded as a mixed race man, due to his blue eyes and fair skin. Speaking to The Independent, the Grey’s Anatomy star, who was born to a black father and white mother said: “We are programmed to believe that someone is attractive because they told you that blue eyes are hot. I am not going to participate in that s***.”

Williams added: “I aim to do what I can with what I have. And I have my [looks] – you know, European beauty standards give me access to things.”

Does Nwanokwu agree that there is such a thing as mixed race privilege?

“Unfortunately, yes – this is unequivocally true,” he says. “White people, where required, are more able to ‘tolerate’ lighter-skinned black people and, as a result, afford them greater privileges. In essence, we are the acceptable and more presentable version of the black image. This, to me, is patronising and offensive. My preference is to be judged on my ability and effort.

“However, this isn’t an exclusively ‘white’ phenomenon. Black people themselves afford lighter-skinned black people priviliges also. It’s still not unusual to hear black people discuss their preferences for lighter-skinned children with ‘good hair’. Sadly, for me, as a result of systematic conditioning under colonialism in Africa and slavery in the Caribbean and the Americas, black people have internalised and now perpetuate these preferences and privileges and, in so doing, contribute to our own persistent struggle and demise.”


SUAVE: Gus as a child

Considering how he defines his own racial identity, Nwanokwu says: “I think I’m more philosophical about things now. Identifying with my black side, in part, helped me get through my teens and earlier adult life. However, more recently, I like to think that I’ve matured to the point where I’m now more able to consider my white side in a more balanced and positive manner, especially when I see social service adverts appealing for foster carers who ‘must’ be of a certain colour to care for parentless children of the same colour. My experience and understanding is that love is the most important factor when raising children, followed by support, advice and encouragement.”

Reflecting on what drove him to share his experiences, Nwanokwu says it was the desire to enlighten the younger generation of his family that led him to pen Black Shamrocks.

“They say you don’t know what you’ve got until it’s gone, and when my parents’ passed, I realised the number of questions I regretted not asking them. The further realisation that we, the first generation, are the next to pass on, left me thinking that I really must write an account for my children, nephews and nieces, in order for them to understand some of the experiences we endured and enjoyed as first generation post-war mixed-race children.

“These ‘notes’ seemed to take on a life of themselves and, after much encouragement by a few readers, I was eventually persuaded to write it as a book.

“I’ve spent the overwhelming majority of my working life in education in the hope that I can have a positive impact on disadvantaged young peoples’ lives and futures, regardless of their racial backgrounds. I hope my book conveys the message that we are all equal and, as such, equally deserving of respect and access to opportunities in life.

Nwanokwu adds: “I know this is not the case, but this shouldn’t mean that children and young people from disadvantaged backgrounds should just give up. Life is competitive and we must strive to achieve our goals in every walk of life, and we shouldn’t allow ourselves to be deflected from achieving our dreams and potential in life.”

Black Shamrocks is out now, available through Amazon. For more information, visit www.blackshamrocks.co.uk

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