What’s your full name?
Affly Johnson but I was born Affly Ngoala Ilbrey. My mum’s maiden name is Ilbrey and N’goala was my birth father’s family name. My mum and step-dad changed my name when I was about 8 after my step-dad adopted me.
How old are you?
28. I’m a Virgo.
Where were you born/brought up?
I was born in Kentish Town and lived in North London until I was about 10. Then my family moved to the countryside in Surrey. So I was brought up with both rural and urban experiences.
What do you do for a living?
I’m the Marketing Manager at Flowers Gallery. I’m also a poet although that doesn’t really pay the bills, I recently started a poetry salon called Say It Back with my partner in crime Eliza Legzdina it’s every month at the Amersham Arms in New Cross.
What’s your ethnicity?
If I was filling out a form I would check the box mixed, white British and black African [mum is British and dad is Ivorian].
How did your mum and dad meet?
My mum and dad met in London in the late 80s at a party. My dad was a drummer, he had recently moved to the country from Cote d’Ivoire to London via Paris.
How old were you when you became conscious that people saw you differently? What impact did that have on you?
Probably 11 or 12. I vividly remember ordering pizzas in a restaurant with my family and the waitress went round the table asking my mum, step-dad and sister (who are all white) what they wanted and then turning to me and asking ‘and what would your nanny like?’ She couldn’t compute that they were my family. I spent a lot of my teens and twenties feeling as though I didn’t belong anywhere. I was too tall or too shy etc etc. In part that was probably a result of the process everyone goes through in realising who you are but it definitely didn’t help that occasionally other people challenged or questioned my safe spaces.
Describe your most memorable moments when you were made aware of being mixed race.
I had a job once where it was announced to me quite proudly that I was ‘a diversity hire’. Yes it’s a good thing that work spaces are beginning to recognise that people of colour need to be included in the work force but it felt really grim knowing that I wasn’t hired purely on merit because I WAS qualified for the job.
Do you feel your parents prepared you for life as a mixed race person?
I don’t think they could as neither of them are mixed. Although objectively they would’ve known that interracial relationships were perceived a type of way I don’t think they knew how to translate that to my experience. It was always complicated by the fact that my birth father was abusive to my mum. I always felt that I didn’t want to press her to talk about him or the Ivory Coast because I didn’t want to make her relive her trauma. I also think not speaking about it was a way of protecting myself from that trauma too. I learnt about him and the village he’s from as an adult and found comfort in knowing a bit more about a part of where I come from. I always had great POC role models though which I credit my mum for providing, from musicians and authors to women in her own friendship circle. Because of that I had surrogate aunties and knew how to look after my hair and I grew up believing POC could be and do anything. I’ve always been grateful for that. I knew I could write because Zadie Smith sat on the shelf next to Jane Austen. Had my only reference point been my birth father I think I would have had a strange view of black men in particular. Although people often questioned my presence in ‘their’ space I never felt I shouldn’t be there.
What do you wish people who aren’t mixed-race understood?
That my mix is complicated and not really a story I want to share with a stranger. In the way that a child of divorce probably doesn’t want to get into it at a conference.
Do you think mixed race people/families are well represented in the media?
Mixed race families - not at all. There are much more mixed race people in the media now but they tend to be pretty vanilla, like smiling in an Argos catalogue or tentatively invited onto a panel as the token POC. I think this taps into the idea that mixed race people are a ‘palatable’ type of POC. They’re ‘inoffensive, safe to have as the face of a brand’ etc. I think this is a dangerous trope and an example of the effects of colourism that pervade our culture. I really hope that in my lifetime we begin to dismantle the notion that people with darker skin tones are ‘dangerous’ or ‘not beautiful’. On a personal level it can really harm my relationships with other black women because my experience in the same scenario can be different simply because I have lighter skin.
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 think it would be naive to say that it wasn’t easier as we are no longer criminalised. It is permissible by law to have mixed race children now. Racism is punishable as a hate crime. People are afraid to be racist or afraid to be CALLED racist. But racism still underpins our culture and society. I don’t know if it has become more subtle or if we have just found ways to continue living with racism in spite of the law. Racism still underpins and affects all of our structures, education, government, work, sex, relationships, the law, gender etc. etc. People are still vilified for speaking truthfully about the prevalence of racism. It’s a strange time to be mixed as people continue to appropriate black culture and bodies.
Is being mixed race a burden or a blessing for you?
I am and will only ever be mixed. Some days wearing this skin can feel heavier than others but if I had to pick one I’d say it’s a blessing, it means that I am the mix of two cultures and so opened me up to lots of experiences and I think that’s a good thing.
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?
People have often asked me to choose a ‘side’ or which ‘side’ I identify with. I’ve never felt comfortable with this binary. I don’t exist in two neat parts that could be severed. I’m simultaneously both. It’s a different question to ‘are you more like your mum or your dad’ which side are you is like asking ARE you your mum or your dad. I never know what the right answer is or why it matters. It feels strange to me to choose a parent to define you. I’m the product of my parents but at this point in my life, I feel like I’m the maker of myself. It’s also painful for me because I didn’t get to hear about my Ivorian heritage from my dad which is a deficit I can never make up for. It wasn’t my choice to live in a predominantly white area during my teens or not to have contact with my dad’s family, I don’t know where they are. I think people are really asking are you one of us or one of them depending on their perspective. If the question means are you Ivorian or British then I obviously identify more as British because this is where I live and I was raised by a British woman. But if you’re white, it shouldn’t be a victory for you that I feel British, it’s purely circumstance and in no way speaks to my character. I resent the fact that people use the ‘side’ they think I’m most like as a shorthand for who I am. ‘Ah you identify more white so you must be x’. Yes, I like gravy but that’s not the end of the story.
What advice would you give to your younger self?
I still feel like I need advice now! But if I could give 15/16 year old me some reassurance, it would be that one day I would look in the mirror, like what I say and get on with my day.