My Parents Made Me Think I Was White My Whole Life

Her Voice

I am probably black.

That statement in itself might look ridiculous to anyone who doesn't know me. To anyone who has stumbled across this article, seen a couple of my photos and thought:

Is this girl crazy? She's very clearly not white.

But for me, it sums up life as I've known it to be because for the longest time I grew up believing that I was.

White, that is.

And as unbelievable as that sounds, this went on for most of my life.

It wasn't until I lost my Dad last year, that I began to unravel the strange story that I'd grown up believing.

Because there's a lot about myself that I'm trying to find out, the story is still very much unravelling. But in order to stop myself from unravelling, I am traveling.

I'm growing through travel.

I am staying on the move.

Because my life was thrown into a permanent state of flux. So why not embrace the chaos?

I've decided to do it all on my own terms.

Growing Up White

Growing up, the word “black" was never used to describe me. I was never properly black, because I didn't talk black and I had zero cultural ties to anything considered black by the few black people I knew. To some, my features weren't black enough. To others, my very presence among white people all the time, was enough to negate my blackness.

But with a green-eyed Irish Mother, a white Father and a brother, who only had to step outside for 10 minutes to see his freckles multiply by the dozen, my own default was set as white, too.

My parents and I

I was told by my parents that I inherited my dark skin and curly hair from a distant ancestor on my Mother's side of the family.

And unless I probed my parents for answers (and I did so each and every time someone else reminded me that I just didn't look like I belonged) we just didn't talk about the likelihood of this story being true.

We got on with our lives. And I learned to bury my insecurities.

But as most non-white people will tell you, other people ask you justify your existence in a world where the default is set to white, ALL THE TIME.

So when my protective bubble of whiteness was popped with probing, persistent questions from strangers, it stung me because I never had an answer for why I was black.

On holiday as a kid, the reminders that I stood out like a sore thumb in a family where Factor 30+ sunscreen)was always a necessity in anything hotter than 64 F, always hit me like a freight train.

Was it possible I'd been adopted? How was I related to these people? Where did I get my hair from? Was I mixed, or Eritrean or just in denial?

Sometimes it was comical. Surrounded by white people on both sides of my family, I used to think my appearance in Christmas photos was funny. But I grew up never posting pictures of my family online because I cared too much what people thought.

My younger half-brother and me

When we visited my Mum's tiny town on the West coast of Ireland each year for my summer holidays (where you'd be hard-pushed to find anyone a shade up from milk-bottle-translucent, for miles) and I was told to “go back to Africa" — I wasn't particularly amused.

When aged seventeen, a teacher asked me in front of the whole class why I was marked down on the school system as “white-British" (not the smartest move from my parents, admittedly), I just didn't know what to say.

Looking back though, racial issues didn't take up too much of my headspace. But then again, that's because white people don't give too much thought to their whiteness unless they absolutely have to.

Unless they're forced to square up to their whiteness in the mirror and address how this sets them apart and above, other groups.

Not to mention, up until around the age of 16, I really believed I was white, too.

Not necessarily white in appearance, but more in the cultural, ethnic sense. I wasn't blind but I didn't believe I was black, either.

Mainly though, race was something I didn't think too much about unless other people asked me to explain myself.

My parents were ticking boxes that said I was “white-British," so to anyone who asked me, I was that too.

Luckily, I was surrounded with the kind of love from two parents that was so thick, so unwavering and so real, that sometimes I felt smothered by it. I never felt unloved. And I never felt like an outsider among the people that loved me.

But unfortunately, my family home was not a microcosm for the real world.

I did — and still do — get asked “where I'm from" around five times a month. I still don't know what to say.

On the rare occasions I heard ignorant friends or family members speak about blackness as an illness — as a concept that made people more threatening, or less attractive, or less palatable and then turned to me and said something like:

“Oh well, you're not black so it doesn't matter,"

or, “Yeah, but I'm not talking about you, am I?"

…that was alienating. THAT made me feel less than human. And so, I overcompensated. I grew louder and more confident than anyone else, because I felt I had no other option.

The Catalyst

But then two years ago my Father got really sick – and then last year he died. Like so many people who lose a parent from cancer, I found myself unable to function. My life and the life of my family was drained of colour. Things went grey, bleak, desolate.

I also felt extremely disconnected from who I was, or should I say, who I thought I was.

So when I reached rock bottom, I started to dig myself out. I started digging because my Father's death was the catalyst for change and I felt that I didn't have anything left to lose. Half of my story had died with him, after all.

And so I did a DNA test in Easter 2016 and discovered that I'd never actually been related to the fantastic, funny, blue-eyed man who raised me — in the biological sense, anyway.

There's some material online about how to put yourself together after losing a parent. But the manual into how not to implode when you realise that parent was never related to you in the first place?

That one's unchartered territory, unsurprisingly and the news hollowed me out from the inside.

When I found out via email one afternoon at work in London that half my family weren't actually related to me, that I wasn't able to call my Dad my own anymore and that I probably had a whole other life waiting for me in a not-so-distant universe, it nearly broke me.

I must have left around five dents in the walls in the house I grew up in, whilst screaming at my Mum for an explanation, which came about slowly and painfully when I begged for it.

My Mum doesn't know much about this man (who I'll never call a Father), other than the fact he was “dark" and spoke with an Irish accent.

So I'm also coming to terms with the fact that I may never have that missing piece of my ethnic jigsaw puzzle either.

And after 23 years of saying I was British/Irish and something else unknown, I don't really know what I am.

And more than anything, I would love to know WHERE my blackness comes from.

Travel and Identity

So to overcome all this; the death, the lies, the awkward conversations, the lack of closure over my heritage and the near-collective family silence that has ensued since I've told everyone the truth — I've decided to travel.

To some, it might look like I'm running away from a series of painful experiences back home. To me, I'm delving head-first, arms wide, legs akimbo into my great unknown (read: non-white spaces) to see how that's going to help me define my own identity.

Because after 23 years, I've decided that my identity is going to be on my terms.

Whilst “blackness" is something I felt I could never really lay claim to, I also know there is no one-size-fits-all approach to being black.

And if I don't want to identify as black, I guess I don't have to.

There's still a part of me that feels as if I'm denying my Father, though (the one that raised me) by exploring this unknown part of my heritage.

I'll never want to replace my Dad, but I also feel a bit guilty that all he did for me wasn't enough to quell this deep-rooted desire within me, to find out where I come from, ethnically.

But then again, doesn't everyone deserve to know that?

At the moment, I guess I still don't really consider myself any different to the person my parents raised me to be. But after 23 years of not knowing why I look the way I do and finding out all this crazy, weird information, I feel…a shift in mindset.

And I plan on doing a DNA test to shed some more light into where my ancestors may have come from.

To be raised white when you're black is to feel like you're in a permanent state of flux with your identity; it's chaotic and confusing and so, I've chosen to embrace the chaos.

Adapting to white and black company growing up means I can feel at home almost anywhere and at the moment, the journey is my home.

Traveling helps me find out more about where my ethnic origins lie. It's the obvious and only way to facilitate my journey of personal growth, so I'm not going to stop.

Right now, I'm traveling to find out who I am and where I come from.

I'm traveling to shape myself into the person I want to be.

And I'm traveling to find my own identity – whatever that is.

Because I think I'm (probably) black.

Georgina Lawton is a 24-year-old writer, travel-addict and good eyebrow enthusiast from London, currently exploring Nicaragua, Cuba, & Mexico. She is also xoNecole's new Travel Editor! Read her ramblings on identity and travel at: www.girlunfurled.com and stalk her Instagram photos: @girlunfurled.

ACLU By ACLUSponsored

Over the past four years, we grew accustomed to a regular barrage of blatant, segregationist-style racism from the White House. Donald Trump tweeted that “the Squad," four Democratic Congresswomen who are Black, Latinx, and South Asian, should “go back" to the “corrupt" countries they came from; that same year, he called Elizabeth Warren “Pocahontas," mocking her belief that she might be descended from Native American ancestors.

But as outrageous as the racist comments Trump regularly spewed were, the racially unjust governmental actions his administration took and, in the case of COVID-19, didn't take, impacted millions more — especially Black and Brown people.

To begin to heal and move toward real racial justice, we must address not only the harms of the past four years, but also the harms tracing back to this country's origins. Racism has played an active role in the creation of our systems of education, health care, ownership, and employment, and virtually every other facet of life since this nation's founding.

Our history has shown us that it's not enough to take racist policies off the books if we are going to achieve true justice. Those past policies have structured our society and created deeply-rooted patterns and practices that can only be disrupted and reformed with new policies of similar strength and efficacy. In short, a systemic problem requires a systemic solution. To combat systemic racism, we must pursue systemic equality.

What is Systemic Racism?

A system is a collection of elements that are organized for a common purpose. Racism in America is a system that combines economic, political, and social components. That system specifically disempowers and disenfranchises Black people, while maintaining and expanding implicit and explicit advantages for white people, leading to better opportunities in jobs, education, and housing, and discrimination in the criminal legal system. For example, the country's voting systems empower white voters at the expense of voters of color, resulting in an unequal system of governance in which those communities have little voice and representation, even in policies that directly impact them.

Systemic Equality is a Systemic Solution

In the years ahead, the ACLU will pursue administrative and legislative campaigns targeting the Biden-Harris administration and Congress. We will leverage legal advocacy to dismantle systemic barriers, and will work with our affiliates to change policies nearer to the communities most harmed by these legacies. The goal is to build a nation where every person can achieve their highest potential, unhampered by structural and institutional racism.

To begin, in 2021, we believe the Biden administration and Congress should take the following crucial steps to advance systemic equality:

Voting Rights

The administration must issue an executive order creating a Justice Department lead staff position on voting rights violations in every U.S. Attorney office. We are seeing a flood of unlawful restrictions on voting across the country, and at every level of state and local government. This nationwide problem requires nationwide investigatory and enforcement resources. Even if it requires new training and approval protocols, a new voting rights enforcement program with the participation of all 93 U.S. Attorney offices is the best way to help ensure nationwide enforcement of voting rights laws.

These assistant U.S. attorneys should begin by ensuring that every American in the custody of the Bureau of Prisons who is eligible to vote can vote, and monitor the Census and redistricting process to fight the dilution of voting power in communities of color.

We are also calling on Congress to pass the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act to finally create a fair and equal national voting system, the cause for which John Lewis devoted his life.

Student Debt

Black borrowers pay more than other students for the same degrees, and graduate with an average of $7,400 more in debt than their white peers. In the years following graduation, the debt gap more than triples. Nearly half of Black borrowers will default within 12 years. In other words, for Black Americans, the American dream costs more. Last week, Majority Leader Chuck Schumer and Sen. Elizabeth Warren, along with House Reps. Ayanna Pressley, Maxine Waters, and others, called on President Biden to cancel up to $50,000 in federal student loan debt per borrower.

We couldn't agree more. By forgiving $50,000 of student debt, President Biden can unleash pent up economic potential in Black communities, while relieving them of a burden that forestalls so many hopes and dreams. Black women in particular will benefit from this executive action, as they are proportionately the most indebted group of all Americans.

Postal Banking

In both low and high income majority-Black communities, traditional bank branches are 50 percent more likely to close than in white communities. The result is that nearly 50 percent of Black Americans are unbanked or underbanked, and many pay more than $2,000 in fees associated with subprime financial institutions. Over their lifetime, those fees can add up to as much as two years of annual income for the average Black family.

The U.S. Postal Service can and should meet this crisis by providing competitive, low-cost financial services to help advance economic equality. We call on President Biden to appoint new members to the Postal Board of Governors so that the Post Office can do the work of providing essential services to every American.

Fair Housing

Across the country, millions of people are living in communities of concentrated poverty, including 26 percent of all Black children. The Biden administration should again implement the 2015 Affirmatively Furthering Fair Housing rule, which required localities that receive federal funds for housing to investigate and address barriers to fair housing and patterns or practices that promote bias. In 1980, the average Black person lived in a neighborhood that was 62 percent Black and 31 percent white. By 2010, the average Black person's neighborhood was 48 percent Black and 34 percent white. Reinstating the Obama-era Fair Housing Rule will combat this ongoing segregation and set us on a path to true integration.

Congress should also pass the American Housing and Economic Mobility Act, or a similar measure, to finally redress the legacy of redlining and break down the walls of segregation once and for all.

Broadband Access

To realize broadband's potential to benefit our democracy and connect us to one another, all people in the United States must have equal access and broadband must be made affordable for the most vulnerable. Yet today, 15 percent of American households with school-age children do not have subscriptions to any form of broadband, including one-quarter of Black households (an additional 23 percent of African Americans are “smartphone-only" internet users, meaning they lack traditional home broadband service but do own a smartphone, which is insufficient to attend class, do homework, or apply for a job). The Biden administration, Federal Communications Commission, and Congress must develop and implement plans to increase funding for broadband to expand universal access.

Enhanced, Refundable Child Tax Credits

The United States faces a crisis of child poverty. Seventeen percent of all American children are impoverished — a rate higher than not just peer nations like Canada and the U.K., but Mexico and Russia as well. Currently, more than 50 percent of Black and Latinx children in the U.S. do not qualify for the full benefit, compared to 23 percent of white children, and nearly one in five Black children do not receive any credit at all.

To combat this crisis, President Biden and Congress should enhance the child tax credit and make it fully refundable. If we enhance the child tax credit, we can cut child poverty by 40 percent and instantly lift over 50 percent of Black children out of poverty.


We cannot repair harms that we have not fully diagnosed. We must commit to a thorough examination of the impact of the legacy of chattel slavery on racial inequality today. In 2021, Congress must pass H.R. 40, which would establish a commission to study reparations and make recommendations for Black Americans.

The Long View

For the past century, the ACLU has fought for racial justice in legislatures and in courts, including through several landmark Supreme Court cases. While the court has not always ruled in favor of racial justice, incremental wins throughout history have helped to chip away at different forms of racism such as school segregation ( Brown v. Board), racial bias in the criminal legal system (Powell v. Alabama, i.e. the Scottsboro Boys), and marriage inequality (Loving v. Virginia). While these landmark victories initiated necessary reforms, they were only a starting point.

Systemic racism continues to pervade the lives of Black people through voter suppression, lack of financial services, housing discrimination, and other areas. More than anything, doing this work has taught the ACLU that we must fight on every front in order to overcome our country's legacies of racism. That is what our Systemic Equality agenda is all about.

In the weeks ahead, we will both expand on our views of why these campaigns are crucial to systemic equality and signal the path this country must take. We will also dive into our work to build organizing, advocacy, and legal power in the South — a region with a unique history of racial oppression and violence alongside a rich history of antiracist organizing and advocacy. We are committed to four principles throughout this campaign: reconciliation, access, prosperity, and empowerment. We hope that our actions can meet our ambition to, as Dr. King said, lead this nation to live out the true meaning of its creed.

What you can do:
Take the pledge: Systemic Equality Agenda
Sign up

Featured image by Shutterstock

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