Fariba Soetan, an Iranian-British woman tells the story of her mixed race family’s journey to find home.
I didn’t set out thinking what being in a mixed family would be like. Like any pregnant woman who finds love, interracial or not, love that spans cultures and countries, I was focused on one thing. Having a healthy baby. But we were definitely aware. Partly because my own upbringing spanned continents and cultures with a British Mum and Iranian father, we emigrated from Iran when I was quite young.
Being mixed race and with multiple cultures to contend with, I have always been aware, more than most, of the complexities and richness that comes with ‘belonging’ to multiple identities. Meeting my now husband who is Nigerian added yet another path in my own sense of identity and in our future children’s sense of who they are. Although they say organising a wedding is always a mini precursor to what it will be like in your marriage, I still don’t think either of us were prepared for what having multiracial children would mean for both us and them.
A rainbow of identities
Fast forward eight years and we have three smart, amazing daughters aged 8, 6 & 4. From an early age, my daughters have all been aware of our differing skin colour. From chocolate to caramel, butterscotch to vanilla, we’ve all been allocated a flavour. Skin colour is to them as hair colour is to others. It just is. To the point that grandparents are referred to as ‘brown’ grandma and ‘white’ grandma. Hey, why not?
The shock on your face as you read this is about us, not them. But as they’ve grown, as early as 4 years old, my daughters have also become conscious of all that our society associates with straddling the race divide. “Your Mum is a different colour. She can’t be your Mum.” “How come your Dad is black and you’re that colour?” “How come I don’t have straight hair like you, Mummy?” The last one is said through tears as my then 4 year old tugs at her curls in frustration about why her hair grows ‘up’ rather than down. Why she can’t just wash it and go like her friends and why her hair takes ages to detangle and style every morning or night.
Our children DO notice difference, yes. ALL children notice difference. But instead of ignoring these differences, instead of suppressing them and making our children feel ashamed for pointing them out, my partner and I have taken a different approach. As a mixed family, we recognise that difference is what makes our family unique. We make a point of talking to our children about what makes us ‘different’ everyday. We talk about where Bababozorg is from, where Daddy was born, why we eat jollof rice, why Mummy loves to make the rice crunchy at the bottom of the pan, why Grandma has an accent- all of the different cultures and identities that make up who they are. It’s not always a healthy rainbow of diversity though, we’ve also had to contend with the negativity. ‘Why do you want straight hair?’, we ask. ‘Why can’t you be a princess?’, ‘ Who said you can’t be beautiful?’
We know that much of what our children see in the many books, ads, shows and places they visit don’t reflect a healthy diversity of beauty and representation. And of course it has an effect. Why wouldn’t it? Since then, we have made a choice to be intentional about the books our children read, the movies they watch, the singers they listen to and the places they visit. Representation matters. It matters a LOT.
Finding the right home
We chose London as our home after spending 3 years exploring where we’d live. Just after giving birth to my second daughter, my partner and I embarked on what would be a life changing move, to finally explore our childhood homes, Canada and Nigeria, as a potential home for our growing young family. We set out on our mixed race family’s journey to find home. What we realised from living in both countries was that diversity IS important. A sense of belonging to the society we’re living in is essential.
In Canada, where we went first, we settled in my childhood home, a small town outside of Edmonton where diversity is still a growing concept. We struggled to find families like our own. The battle to show our daughters that there is beauty if all kinds of people and families was rampant where there seemed to be only one model around us.
To Nigeria we went, where colourism defined our experience. My daughters wanted desperately to identify with their Nigerian roots. They were constantly associated with being ‘foreign’. They were afforded privileged status and, as we soon became aware, would perhaps never be fully accepted into a country with such strong economic disparity.
London has been our home ever since and it hasn’t disappointed. Diversity more or less walks the streets of London. I talk to my daughters about being leaders, not following the crowd, expressing themselves in every way they can. And what they see visually everyday are examples of just that. Women with pink hair, men wearing platform shoes and man bags, women with huge afros and men with impossibly long dreadlocks.
Diversity is in the DNA of London culture. And when my girls ask about it, they know the answer before they hear it said back to them. “Because they can and because they are who they are”. One third of my oldest daughter’s class is mixed race. That’s 10 out of 30 kids. I think that’s a pretty high number. It means that for her, being mixed is not strange or uncommon but sort of normal, as is a Muslim family or a single parent family in any diverse neighbourhood. She has also fallen in love with her curly hair. Because through effort on our part, we intentionally point out beautiful curly haired black women we see everyday. We knew that naturally she would look to me, her Mama as her biggest role model but with straight hair and vanilla skin colour, showing her diverse role models in her daily life is important.
Feeling at ‘Home’
Seeing as many mixed race families as we do everyday sort of makes us un- unique. We are many. But what I love about it is we are also normal. And just for that, when I travel out of London and get the looks, the stares and the questions, “are they all yours?”, I know why we live in London. And though our obscurities are many, our skin colour is not one of them.
As a mixed family, I’m grateful that my children’s sense of who they are is so enriched by the different cultures that make it up. I never envisioned on that cold day in March when my eldest was born, how much identity would form such a big part of who we are as a family. Or how much our future would be defined by it.
But our mixed race family’s journey to find home doesn’t stop here. As our daughters grow, we will continue to instil in them a sense of pride and literacy in knowing that there is beauty in difference, hoping that they emerge proud of their multiple identities. Where and what home looks like for them may vary but at least they’ll know what to look for.
About the author: Fariba Soetan is a Canadian/ Iranian writer, journalist and blogger living in London, UK with her husband and 3 kids. She writes about raising mixed kids and mixed race identity at Mixed Race Family.