As a woman of mixed heritage, my sobriety felt surprisingly easy… until working on a TV series about slavery forced me to re-assess my light skin privilege.
Six months after I stopped drinking, I began working on a TV series about the history of slavery. Up until then, stopping drinking had been surprisingly easy for me. Once it had clicked in my mind that alcohol was the cause of feeling so low, it made sense to remove it from my life. But unearthing the stories of slavery after I became sober opened up a part of me I’d kept suppressed.
Unearthing the stories of slavery after I became sober opened up a part of me I’d kept suppressed.
Before sobriety, as a woman of mixed heritage, I was of course aware of the sordid history of the Transatlantic slave trade. It was made clear to me growing up that, like many Black people in the UK, my ancestors were forcibly taken from Africa to the small Caribbean island of Grenada, which was first a French and then a British colony. However, I never thought too deeply about the experiences of enslaved people — it was something that had happened a long time ago, something to which I was not directly connected. It felt, in the 21st century, irrelevant to my life.
But with the fog of alcohol lifted, the accounts I read about the treatment of enslaved people took on a new meaning. For the first time, I found myself critically engaging with what their lives would have been like. One thing that kept occurring, time and again in my research, was the obsession with racial heritage. After the abolition of the trade in enslaved Africans to British colonies in 1807, British government officials kept slave return registers and labeled the race of those “lawfully enslaved.” African meant born in Africa, Creole meant born in the colonies, Mulatto meant one white and one Black parent, Sambo meant one Black and one parent of mixed ancestry, and on and on we go.
I saw my identity mirrored in these registers. I have features that people associate with having a mixed heritage background — light skin and corkscrew curls. Sometimes, white people feel they can comment on my appearance as a person of color. I’ve had my fair share of comments such as “you’re pretty because you’re light-skinned,” and “your features look European”. While I was drinking, I brushed off any underlying sense of unease on hearing these comments, quickly deflecting them and not interrogating the underlying message behind them — that you’re seen as more desirable because you’re closer to the dominant Western ideal of white beauty. (This is bull shit, by the way.)
Without drinking as a crutch to lean on, my thoughts and feelings about slavery and racism came to the surface.
Six months previously, after a hard day’s work, I would have kicked back with a glass of wine. Using alcohol to destress, numb out uncomfortable feelings and to ignore that I would be a Quadroon or a Terceron according to 19th century racial categorization. Without drinking as a crutch to lean on, my thoughts and feelings about slavery and racism came to the surface. It dawned on me that the legacy of colorism is very much alive and kicking and I benefit from it. Don’t get me wrong. Navigating the overwhelmingly white TV production industry in the UK is tough if you’re not white, but it’s easier if you have lighter skin, as you literally don’t stand out as much as someone with darker skin.
Racism in the UK is insidious. The excuse “we’re not as bad as the USA” is rolled out each time the conversation lands on this topic. Yes, racism might look different in the UK but it still exists and it’s draining for people of color to have to constantly justify their experiences. I’m sure I’m not the only one who has felt their skin burn and heart hammer when my observations and experiences of racism have been brushed under the rug.
Yes, racism might look different in the UK but it still exists and it’s draining for people of color to have to constantly justify their experiences.
When I was drinking with my peers, all the little digs and exclusions they made about Black people came up. The time my white ex commented on my “exotic nipples” and I didn’t dare call him out, as who wants to be the stereotypical aggressive Black woman? The time a close friend with a darker skin tone was repeatedly asked if she’s the receptionist. The time my sister’s colleague touched her afro and called it “funky”, to hearing comments like “I don’t mind mixed-race people, I just don’t like Black people” at bougie house parties.
The combination of working on a series about slavery and the clarity that has come with sobriety lifted a lid inside me. Kirstin Walker, founder of Sober Brown Girls says, “I feel like there is such a lack of compassion for the Black community. Our pain is being silenced and in some cases ignored.” I feel in sobriety an anger I’d never felt before, stoked by the injustices Black people face and still continue to face because of slavery and colonialization, and it grows and grows in the pit of my stomach. Without the tempering effects of alcohol to distract me, before I sat back passively. Now I’m angry.
As I was wrestling with a reassessment of my identity and thinking about how I wanted to show up in the world as a person with Afro heritage, the Black Lives Matter movement went global, sparked by the brutal murder of George Floyd. When I attended a march in London and chanted the names of people who died because of the color of their skin, it was both cathartic and deeply upsetting. I was fully present during the protest and recognized that the tension I had felt by being both Black and British was previously dulled by alcohol.
I was fully present during the protest and recognized that the tension I had felt by being both Black and British was previously dulled by alcohol.
Part of the reason I drank was the belief that I wasn’t good enough. As a person of color, I was constantly told I didn’t belong because I didn’t fit into the white narrative. I drank to fit in, to squeeze into spaces not built for me and to avoid thinking of the continued trauma facing Black people. Alcohol kept me small and tempered, and caused me to act in ways that didn’t align with my values.
Sobriety to me means the gift of self-awareness. By choosing not to drink alcohol, I’m now fully present with my feelings and also with my actions. Sobriety gives me energy and confidence to take action. I’m part of a diversity task force group to improve representation in TV production, as people of color need to be editorially shaping the stories that are about us.
I’m grateful for the timing of working on a series about slavery coinciding with being sober. It’s still causing me to dig deep and look at my background with new awareness. It sounds so simple but I now realize that I can define what my Afro ancestry means to me. My resilience and pride now come to mind. The atrocities of the Transatlantic slave trade were propped up by the invention of race — a social construct and part of a story used to justify the dehumanization of Black people. Now we are crying out for a new story.