What’s your full name?
Nomsa Marsha Fulbrook-Kagwe
How old are you?
Where were you born/brought up?
Addis Ababa, Ethiopia.
What do you do for a living?
I look at private sector investment in emerging markets at the UK’s Development Finance Institution.
What’s your ethnicity?
Greek, South African, British.
How did your mum and dad meet?
Through a political initiative in Ethiopia. My Dad was in exile from the apartheid regime in South Africa and my mum was volunteering with an initiative that worked with political exiles in Addis Ababa.
How old were you when you became conscious that people saw you differently? What impact did that have on you?
I was relatively young and it was in the UK. I was confronted on my appearance in such an abrasive manner which left me feeling quite shocked. For a long time, I had a fear of people looking at me and assessing me based on my appearance. A fear of not being good enough and being different. But on the other hand I also remember a day when I came home from school and my mum told me that there was younger boy at school who was struggling with his identity and being mixed race. She asked if I could talk to him about and share my experiences. That was an empowering feeling to know that I wasn’t the only one trying to find an answer.
Did you want to change your appearance when you were a child?
All the time. To be honest it has been one of my biggest struggles in life. I also grew up in a context that could fixate on a woman’s beauty and the constant pressure to align to certain standards.
Describe your most memorable moments when you were made aware of being mixed race.
I was 8 years old, around the time that I had living memory of my summer trips to the UK to see my mum’s family. I remember a bunch of boys shouting names at me and telling me to go home. People had stared at me before, but this was the first time I experienced explicit confirmation that I looked different, and not in a complementary way. Having grown up in a country where everyone looks like me (Ethiopia), it was such a stark contrast. My childhood experience and perception of the UK is something that I struggled to shake even as an adult, and I have had to overcome my level of mistrust for being called out for being different.
Do you feel your parents prepared you for life as a mixed race person?
Not really. My mum has always been the ‘tough love’ kind of person. So whenever I faced an issue or people would stare or call me names, she would tell me to be strong and to go out and face the world because that was reality. In the long run it has helped me be strong and has forced me to process things and come to my own conclusions, which is great, but it was a hard lesson. Having said that my experience is slightly unique as I was brought up by Ethiopians, and to be surrounded by people who never questioned your sense of being and identify helped a great deal.
What ignorant comments have you heard about being mixed-race that really rile you?
That mixed people are confused, that mixed-race girls are stuck up …
What do you wish people who aren’t mixed-race understood?
That it does deserve its own narrative and has its own set of complexities.
Do you think mixed race people/families are well represented in the media?
This has been a bugbear of mine for a while, particularly when I see ‘mixed-race’ families on TV in the North American and European context. A lot of the time it’s evident the families can’t be related or it’s not an accurate reflection of a mixed race family. Having said that I do think that the media is getting better in portraying families. I don’t think that the discussion around the mixed-race experience is represented at the moment.
Back in the late 19th century/early 20th century being mixed race held a stigma, as it was clear proof of interracial relations which was seen as an affront to society’s morals. Do you think it’s easier nowadays to be mixed race or is it more that racism has become subtler?
I definitely think it is easier to be mixed race given that we are the largest growing ethnic group in the UK, and will be the largest by 2020. Seeing yourself reflected in society is a lot more common nowadays. It’s funny I feel like we have made progressive steps in this regard, but there are so many more mixed people but none of us are talking about it with each other.
Is being mixed race a burden or a blessing for you?
Have you felt a struggle with your identity? If so, how did you deal with it and if you are now at peace with who you are, how did you come to a place of self-acceptance?
Yes, definitely especially growing up and into my teenage years. I had to actively voice who I believed myself to be, and not have the fear of being challenged by people. I had to also allow myself to overcome the fear of being rejected and understand that my sense of belonging did not come from the colour of my skin, the texture of my hair or what my parents looked like. I also realized that I am the first and only mixed person in my family, and so I have the right to create my own definitions.
What advice would you give to your younger self?
Gosh so many things. Key ones would be: ‘be ready for society to challenge you, that’s ok’, ‘don’t try to fit into people’s boxes or labels. Be confident and know that you have equal claim and authority over your own legacy and identity.’ And lastly ‘write your own damn story’.