Sophia Leonie

What’s your full name?

Sophia Leonie

How old are you?

35

Where were you born/brought up?

North London, Crouch Hill.

What do you do for a living?

Actor and writer, former English and Media Studies Teacher.

What’s your ethnicity?

Mixed race (Mother white - half English and German, Father Zimbabwean.)

How did your mum and dad meet?

Through my nan (mother’s mum), who was involved in civil rights and activism when she moved to the UK from Germany in the 60s.  My nan introduced her daughter to my dad in the 70s and my mum and dad eventually married and had me and my brother in the early 80s.

DSC_0496.jpg

How old were you when you became conscious that people saw you differently? What impact did that have on you?

Very small. I remember thinking I wanted blonde straight hair in nursery - there’s that definite moment when you realise you're not white and you don’t know why - it doesn’t feel fair because everyone you see on TV, in the media etc. is white and white clearly equals pretty.

 

 

Did you want to change your appearance when you were a child?

Yes, I wanted straight hair. Then when I saw Nenah Cherry on TV, I was super proud that I looked like her and wanted my curly hair out just like her - but my mum, who could do afro hair brilliantly, kept it in small plaits or cornrows which I hated as I was called Medusa.

Describe your most memorable moments when you were made aware of being mixed race.

Going to Cornwall on holiday with my mum and another child asking if I was coloured in. Being acutely aware I looked different from all the other children.

Do you feel your parents prepared you for life as a mixed race person?

Yes. My mum tried her very best to do just that – as a single mum she taught us a lot about our Zimbabwean history - took us to South Africa, Zimbabwe and Botswana when I was 8. She took us to anti Apartheid rallies; we watched the news, questioned what we saw on TV, watched Roots at a very young age. Most importantly we talked a lot about race, prejudice and politics at home.

What ignorant comments have you heard about being mixed-race that really rile you?

That we are confused. Yes, some people may be confused about their identity - but it is largely society that is confused about us, and that is the problem.

What do you wish people who aren’t mixed-race understood?

Ah so much! We don’t have to choose a side – being mixed race is 100% valid.

Similarly, it’s ok for mixed race people to identify differently. For example, I am totally comfortable identifying as a black woman who is mixed race – and it’s fine if other people are not. That said, it doesn’t mean I’m not aware of my light-skinned privilege, and understand that a dark skinned woman’s experience will be totally different to mine. My job, and anyone with any privilege,  is to listen to people’s experience of oppression and work to make changes to make things better.  

And asking where we are really from before you get to know us, can feel uncomfortable and alienating.

Using terms like ‘lighty’ and fetishising over us is not complimentary. Music video representations, which often show mixed race women in the male gaze and sexually objectify us, only serve to fuel racial stereotypes, promote sexism and fuel rape culture ideology.

 Do you think mixed race people/families are well represented in the media? Not at all - although that it slowly changing, which is great. It is also worth noting that our lighter skin makes it easier for white mainstream culture to see us as an ‘acceptable’ face of ‘black’ and so all shades of black should be represented in the media. I’m glad we are being represented more, but we should not be used to simply tick the box for representing all black people. Do you think mixed race people/families are well represented in the media?

Not at all - although that it slowly changing, which is great. It is also worth noting that our lighter skin makes it easier for white mainstream culture to see us as an ‘acceptable’ face of ‘black’ and so all shades of black should be represented in the media. I’m glad we are being represented more, but we should not be used to simply tick the box for representing all black people.

DSC_0570-3.jpg

 

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?

It is much better these days, and as cultures continue to mix things will get better - but that will inevitably leave some racial groups feeling they want to ‘protect’ their identity and race - hence Brexit and Trump. That is just part of the process of progress. Of course racism still exists and it is much more subtle. I think it’s important to call it out every single time, even to family members and co-workers and never worry about being called ‘sensitive’. It’s too important, and we avoid getting to a point when calling someone ‘racist’ is seen as worse than actually being a racist.

 

Is being mixed race a burden or a blessing for you?

A BLESSING!

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?

As an adult I feel very secure with who I am.  In school I did struggle with my identity more - but it was how other people treated me - rather than a confusion within myself. When I first went to secondary school I was accused of being ‘too white’ at times by black girls which was hurtful and confusing. However as I got older I learnt to love being mixed race and felt less like I had to fit into some stereotype of being ‘black’.  Also with the emergence of music channels and music videos in the mid – late 90s I saw myself represented a lot for the first time in these videos  - mixed race girls seemed ‘pretty’ and ‘desirable’.  Of course I soon learnt that this was a fetishization rather than complimentary.

At University I made two very good mixed race friends - Rosie and Serena - and we shared experiences of being mixed race for the first time - coming from similar backgrounds - Londoners, with white mothers, black fathers, who were working class but educated and critical thinkers - we became like sisters, and we were inseparable - they are both still my good friends today. These days I have friends of many races, don’t feel pressure to choose a side. I am happy there are many more mixed race people out there representing us and our complex backgrounds.  

What advice would you give to your younger self?

You’re beautiful; you're smart and your opinions are valid.

DSC_0621-2.jpg