Eva Verde always felt like an outsider in her white family. Now the author reveals how she reconnected with her lost roots for the sake of her young daughters
All my life I’ve carried an in-built sixth sense attunement to being the oddity. It’s a feeling that grows whenever I find myself as the sole brown face; a subliminal recognition of not belonging. I’m as ordinary and commonplace as you get, a stay-at-home mum of three London-born Essex girl – yet an outsider, even though I’m not. I’ve no connection to my black ethnicity, have learnt to be me without any hereditary foundations.
This seemed unimportant when I lived in multicultural east London, but life changed when my mum married and we relocated to mid-Essex, an area as white as my new family. It marked an instant separation I was clueless how to navigate. The sudden awareness of my brownness flicked something deep fully awake and came with another realisation – how my skin could be the very last thing on my mind, but the very first thing on other people’s.
Time fogs my memory of then, but certain moments remain – those vividly recalled: a boy hitting me with sticks and slurs as I walked home from primary school. But also the tiny happenings, comments I never understood until I replayed them later. A girl, shielding my developing body with her towel as we changed for PE, asked what it’s like being adopted, because all brown kids were. A friend’s mother, behind my family in church one Sunday, muttered on a loop under her breath; poor, poor Eva. With no one around who looked like me, that might’ve helped me feel proud of the skin I was in, I had instead this warped pity.
These small, strange assumptions became part of who I was, judging myself through the prism of other people’s pigeonholing, first impressions and prejudices. They made my skin my problem, stuck me with labels I’m cross I’ve not quite recovered from. Behaviours I feared I’d pass on to my own children.
A manifestation of similar feelings surfaced in 2008 when I was pregnant with twins. I’d worried that this identikit-two-peas-in-a-pod duo would exclude my firstborn, but it’s been my greatest delight how very different all my daughters are, inside and out. One mirrors her white father, the other is my own personal mini-me, and our dear eldest – resembling us both – bridges them beautifully.
I can’t overestimate how wonderfully restorative it’s been to have created these little people, and see myself in them so very clearly, yet I can’t deny still carrying all those old othered emotions. And scenarios. It took five years of school runs before some mums cottoned on that my eldest child was mine – presumed ‘the help’ as I’d been in my teens too, when looking after my little sisters.
I began writing Lives Like Mine in the aftermath of 2016 Brexit referendum. Reborn was a certain type of confidence, and the flooring vulnerability for anybody deemed unworthy of belonging. Replaying old moments was like picking at scabs; all those times I’d compromised myself for the benefit of certain friends, colleagues, even family – my own blood-ties slate black footballers, say their takeaway funds the Taliban. There’s been a bigot at my dinner table, repackaged as a godfather. The times I’d smiled, looked into the middle distance. Buried it deep. Around my white van white man husband, some customers presume safe footing for their cesspit opinions. He’s caught between wanting to call them out and wanting to be paid at the end of his jobs.
But then we thought about the kids. Worried how my mindset might display itself in my daughters, I challenged my past habits, exorcising the demons by writing about them – and made peace with myself. Proof comes from mini-me’s early self-portraits, that show a child embracing her brownness wholeheartedly, because her mum is at last proud of hers. My potentially white passing children are connected to their hidden roots too, as sisters and as allies, and because together we value and cherish all that we are. Anyone’s problem with my mixed family can stay just that. Their problem.
Ignorance is easily buried, but it never truly lies easy. To overlook denies me of my experiences. It denies me my hurt. It’s a bizarre and most curious thing; sparing the feelings of those who never once considered mine – yet even as I write this, I’m anticipating theirs – an exceptional show of the insidiousness that is racism.
* Eva Verde’s debut novel, Lives Like Mine, publishes in all formats on June 10, RRP £12.99