Mixed Up: ‘Being half Filipino makes me a more palatable black woman’

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Mixed Up: ‘Being half Filipino makes me a more palatable black woman’

Welcome to Mixed Up, a series looking at the highs, lows and unique experiences of being mixed-race.

Mixed-race is the fastest-growing ethnic group in the UK. It means your parents hail from two (or more) different ethnicities, leaving you somewhere in the middle.

Alongside the unique pleasures and benefits of being exposed to multiple cultures, being mixed comes with complexities, conflicts and innate contradictions.

Mixed Up aims to elevate mixed narratives and look deeper at the nuanced realities of being part of this rapidly growing ethnic group.

Fashion blogger Nicole Ocran is half Filipino and half Ghanaian. She grew up in the States, but she has been reconnecting with her black British family since moving to London eight years ago.

Mixed Up - Lifestyle - Natalie Morris

(Picture: Jerry Snyder for Metro.co.uk)

‘I grew up in Virginia, just outside of Washington DC and Alexandria. My parents still live there now. I moved to London to do my Masters, I was actually planning on going to New York, but it was cheaper to study in London,’ Nicole tells Metro.co.uk.

Mixed-race identity has always been a big issue for Nicole. Living an ocean away from her British Ghanaian relatives, she had to navigate a space where she was perceived as black but was physically, so far removed from her black heritage.

‘I feel like it’s one of those things that has been a big factor in my life – even up until now. Growing up, I was much more preoccupied with being black than with being mixed,’ she explains.

‘I grew up with the Filippino side of my family. My mom and her sisters all emigrated to the US together, so that side was much more prominent in my life, and I felt a lot closer to them.

‘When I was a kid, it was really difficult for me because they all look so different to me. They had that closeness. And it wasn’t that I didn’t feel that too, it was more that I was very aware that I didn’t look like them, and people who saw us out together wouldn’t get the fact that I was with them.

‘Now I am here in London. My dad has a lot of sisters who live here.

‘I have reconnected with this black British side of my family, and I feel very much like the odd one out here too, because I didn’t grow up with them, I didn’t grow up with much Ghanaian food, so it’s not really my taste – and there are all these really conflicting things.

‘It’s a lot of re-learning stuff for me, to find all this newness now as an adult. It’s a bit of a dichotomy. There are definitely lots of emotions involved.

Little Nicole with her parents Picture: Nicole Ocran/Metro.co.uk)

‘It’s so funny because the two cultures in my family are actually really similar.

‘Both sides of my family are big – both parents are one of five or six siblings. But I’m an only child, so having a big extended family has always been really cool, but also it’s just like loud and overwhelming at times.

‘Food and family are both big, big features for the two sides. A really strong respect for elders is a really big thing in both of these cultures. Religion is a big thing. Both sides of my family are Christian.

‘My mom and dad talk about it a lot, and they find it so interesting that there are so many similarities between the two families.’

Growing up in the US gave Nicole an entirely different perspective on race and racism. Racism in the US is public, brash, violent and frighting. In the UK, it is equally frighting, but often it is more insidious. It’s hidden and systemic.

But from what Nicole has seen over the eight years she has spent in London, that gap is closing. UK racism is becoming louder and worryingly emboldened.

‘Especially now, because of Twitter and social media, there are a lot of those viral videos of people being really outwardly racist towards people, being really aggressive and sometimes violent – which I feel like we’re seeing happen here in the UK more,’ Nicole tells us.

‘Those videos used to go around in the US a lot, particularly last year when the Black Lives Matter movement was really strong, all those awful clips of police brutality.

‘But I feel like we’re seeing more of it in Britain now.

‘With things like Brexit, we’re finding that there are a lot more of those people here – like we saw in the Brixton McDonalds video.

‘I don’t want to say it’s a trend, like racism is trendy, or like it ever went anywhere – but I definitely think people in the UK have become a lot more comfortable in expressing those feelings.’

Nicole says it comes down to education. When she speaks to her British cousins it’s clear to Nicole that there are stark gaps in knowledge about the history of race in this country.

‘I think there is often a lot of focus on American racism, American history and American civil rights, and what I gather is that people know more about what happened in the US than the history of black people in the UK.

‘Even here in London, people tend to look at racism through an Americanized lens.

‘I feel like a lot of black Brits struggle with their history. I don’t think people really know about the UK’s involvement in the slave trade for example. I don’t think the education is there.’

Nicole says that her perception of the UK has changed pretty dramatically from when she first moved here as a student.

‘I think people from other countries tend to look at the UK as this kind of racial utopia, where nothing bad ever happens – I even thought that when I moved here.

‘It was on a UK TV show where I first saw a mixed race couple in the media, and I just thought that is so bizarre – because that’s just not what we do in America. So when you see things like that you get a certain idea of how the UK is with race.

‘But now that I’m living here, it’s a completely different story.

‘The racism here is less obvious, there are a lot of microaggressions for sure.

Nicole spent most of her childhood with the Filipino side of her family (Picture: Nicole Ocran/Metro.co.uk)

‘I got married in Virginia last year – and that was the same year the girl in Charlottesville died. It was just a couple of minute’s drive away from where we were having the wedding,’ explains Nicole.

‘I picked that venue because it’s so hard to find a wedding venue in Virginia that wasn’t a plantation, but I know my husband was quite nervous to go there after what happened just down the road.

‘So in America there is that level of open racism that is outward and hateful. Which isn’t the same here.

‘Here, you get Britain First marches that barely bring out a crowd of five people – and I think that is where the difference between the two really lies.’

Despite spending much of her youth thinking of herself as black, Nicole has only really connected with the Ghanaian side of her family since moving to London.

Nicole’s dad has three sisters who live in the capital, so Nicole has suddenly found herself surrounded by dozens of Ghanaian aunties, uncles and cousins.

‘Even just learning about my family has been so eye-opening,’ she tells us.

‘Obviously, growing up with my dad I knew things about the culture – we went to Ghana, I went to see my grandparents. It was kind of there… but my friends and cousins and my mom’s side were all Filippino, so I never felt like my Ghanain heritage was something I could ever really talk about.

‘Since I came to England, I have spent more time with them, learning the simple things like how they spend their days, and also just building those relationships that I never got to experience because I was so far away – it has been interesting for me.

‘They understand the different dialects, they understand Twi, Fante, Ga, all those other things. I don’t understand any of it, my parents spoke English to me because they didn’t even speak the same languages – that was the common language between them.

‘Being able to see things from their perspective has not only helped me come to terms with being a black woman, but being a black African woman, and how important that is to us and our family.

‘My grandfather was part of a presidential committee in Ghana – he was quite a key figure in African history. And it’s so good for me and my cousins to be able to talk about that. We found out he wrote books on it – and that was just something I hadn’t known anything about!’

Nicole and a Filipino relative Picture: Nicole Ocran/Metro.co.uk)

Nicole has seen both sides of the effects of colourism. At home, surrounded by her Filipino family, she is dark, closer to black. Here in the UK with her Ghanaian relatives, she has the privileges that come with being light-skinned.

‘My Filipino side is not the same as being white, at all, but there is a much closer proximity to lightness, and that makes it an entirely different experience to being black,’ explains Nicole.

‘People see my Filipino side as this amazing, great thing in my life, which of course it is – I love being half Filippino. But no one ever has the same reaction about my African side. No one is like – “oh my God, you’re half Ghanaian, that’s amazing.”

‘Being half Filipino brings me that little bit closer to whiteness, which allows people to find me more palatable.

‘Whereas, on the opposite end of the spectrum, being in the UK and being closer to the African side of my family – it has made me much more aware of how that colourism really exists.’

Nicole wants people to understand that being mixed-race is more than just skin-deep.

She says she has noticed that some people feel like they have the right to cherry pick the more appealing elements of blackness – but it doesn’t work that way.

‘There’s a thing that really bothers me at the moment where so many people are talking about how they really want mixed-race babies.

‘My husband is white, and everyone goes on about how beautiful our kids are gonna be. I just think there’s nothing that makes mixed-race people better than other people – it’s that simple really.

‘I also think there is this real issue with people wanting to be black in a way that’s more palatable to white people.

‘So many people want to be black, but nobody really knows what that means. They want to be able to pick and choose the elements of blackness that they like, without taking on the whole package.

‘It’s not that simple.

‘There are so many layers to being mixed-race that I don’t think people really understand.

‘Not necessarily difficulties or hardships, but it’s so much more nuanced than just being about the way you look – so when people fixate on that or say that they want “beautiful brown babies”, they are totally missing the point.’

Mixed Up is a weekly series focused on telling the stories of mixed-race people. Next week we speak to George who is half Indian, but looks like a completely different race to his brother. 

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