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Jessica Lightbourne laughed when she was called “white honky” and “blacky” as a child; the bizarre words didn't match her identity. Joanne Wohlmuth's black parents were considered “odd” because they had three “white” children.

They shared their experiences as part of the Department of Community and Cultural Affairs' Bermudian Heartbeats series last week.

The series of talks, organised by Kim Dismont Robinson, are designed to explore Bermudian identity.

Jessica Lightbourne was taught to think of herself as biracial.

The 38-year-old daughter of a white English woman and a black Bermudian man grew up thinking “she had the best of both worlds”.

And so when a black friend called her “white honky” and a white friend called her “blacky”, she laughed.

“That's not how I identified,” she said.

It wasn't until she left Bermuda that she “became conscious of racial divisions”.

“I would have probably been oblivious to it all had I never become friends with African Nova Scotians.

“Even though I self-identified as biracial, mostly everyone else in the community viewed me as black.

“I began to identify as black because in that environment that's how I was treated.”

She said the experience taught her to “assimilate”.

And so when she was having trouble finding a job, the young lawyer took advice received from a mixed-race friend to heart: “You either need to straighten your hair or cut it off.”

She cut it off and got a position.

“I prepared a lot for my interviews but it makes you question,” she said.

“I grew up in a space that accepted me, but you get hard knocks when you're in a place where you don't have advocates.

“I don't think you can prepare your child for all of the hurts that are coming.

“I grew up in a household where members of my family had disabilities, so there was always dialogue about inclusion, dialogue about barriers. I realised that my experience as a Bermudian mixed-race person was completely different from those that grew up in the United States. A lot of people there were growing up in white spaces where they were the only ‘other' and had to deal with not feeling worthy because of the way they looked.”

It was only after someone explained that “race was a social construct” that she came to grips with her situation.

“I realised that more than being biracial, I was multicultural. I started thinking less in terms of race and my individual identity and more in terms of what my culture is.

“Culture is also a social construct that evolves and changes. If we can grasp onto that as a Bermudian community and start looking at those cultural things that we all share rather than looking at the various shades of colour, we can go a long way.”

Che Barker didn't consider himself biracial as a child.

For years he felt like a “sore thumb”.

“There was no designation. You had to tick black or white or other. My whole life I've felt like an ‘other'.

“I had white friends, black friends and a black family, but I never felt fully accepted. I carried that with me for a long time.”

He eventually found his home in the theatre.

“The theatre community and arts community is just a group of outcasts. I think I got to that biracial point that you're talking about. It didn't matter any more. I knew I was OK.

“And that's how I live my life today — accepting that everyone is different.

“If you're going to base it on colour or sexuality, you're missing the point of being human. You're isolating yourself like I was doing.

“You're cutting yourself off from the world.

“I'm hoping that through discussions like this, we don't end up with people like me who feel like they don't fit in.”

Joanne Wohlmuth calls herself black but her family portrait might indicate otherwise.

She had three ‘white' siblings, children from her father's first marriage.

Although she also called her father black, he was in fact biracial.

He was born in 1905, and raised by his white grandfather and black grandmother.

In 1924 he married a white, Scottish woman and “had three children who looked very white”.

When his first wife died he married Mrs Wohlmuth's mother, a black woman.

“My parents are black. My mother is black and my father is black,” she said

“So there were two black people with three white children in Bermuda — and then they had three others. So, in my family there was a big range of looks and we were constantly the talk of the town.”

She went to all-black schools in a still segregated Bermuda and then moved on to renowned black college Howard University.

Entering the US in the midst of the Black Power moment, she was passionate about the cause.

“I was right there in terms of wanting to be black and dealing with racism, but at the same time I had difficulty with disowning my white brother.

“I couldn't reconcile that, so I ended up leaving. I went up north and went to NYU. There I disappeared. Nobody saw me, nobody knew me.

“I was wrestling with these things inside myself

“I had to learn to love myself and treat myself with the greatest dignity and respect.

“When I came back I was a pretty angry, black woman.

“[In my family] we were always trying to work out how we could be as one and love as one, but there was all this other stuff that came from society in the context that society had made it difficult for us to do that.”

Mrs Wohlmuth has an Austrian husband and two biracial daughters.

“I realised it didn't matter who I was going to marry as long as I had someone that I knew I could relate to and could have a loving relationship with me.”

She felt her lighter siblings were “the ones that were valued” by society when they were children. she said.

“That was the beginnings of this thing going on inside of me — that there's something not quite right about the way we treat each other.

“They were really given credence in terms of self-worth.”

She said it was her French teacher, a white, English man who helped her to feel her worth.

“He introduced me to black books so I could learn about myself, to make me feel and understand who I was.”

She said the recent immigration protests in Bermuda dredged up a lot of those feelings.

“Understand who you are, know who you are and move into this place of non-dualism knowing also that you have a rightful place like anyone else.”

Grace Edwards will never forget the time she and her mother crossed words on immigration.

She spoke out against allowing foreigners into Bermuda — sentiments that she'd heard expressed by her peers. Her Filipina mother slammed on the car brakes, paused and reminded her daughter where she came from.

“That's what put me in my place,” said Ms Edwards, whose father is black. “I learnt that I'm not completely native to where I believe I'm native to.

“My right hand side is Filipino and my left hand side is Bermudian.”

The 22-year-old shifted from public to private education in high school and “that's when all the changes started happening”.

“I came out of the closet. Being Filipina, black and openly gay has created so many different barriers for me. One minute someone is complaining about foreigners and I'm sticking up for foreigners, the next minute someone's complaining about Bermudians and I'm sticking up for Bermudians.

“And the next minute, Everybody's hating gay people.”

It's made life challenging at times.

“It's hard. I never considered myself as biracial simply because I never knew the word existed until this point.

“One thing I'll never forget is my primary school prefect. She said ‘Your hair is so pretty. You're so cute. You're so pretty. You must be Indian'.

“I said, ‘No. My mum's Filipina'. And she said, ‘Well that's why you're so pretty'.

“I'll never understand where this idea came from that if you're part Asian — or part anything that does not have nappy hair — you're gonna be pretty.”

Andrew Simons believes it's impossible to have a discussion about race without looking at class.

The 34-year-old went to black-dominated Berkeley Institute, a New England boarding school and then Stanford University.

People here knew where he fitted. His father was Gerald Simons, a UBP MP who married a white woman; out in the world people struggled to “place” him because of his fair skin. He'd often have to answer “searching questions” as they tried to establish his ethnicity.

“People constantly project different racial identities onto me. It's always something close to what they're familiar with, but not them.

“As people grapple with a sense of identity, people so often don't read me as black, so by some measure I ‘pass', unwillingly.”

His teachers at Berkeley and beyond encouraged him to read black literature.

“That was important. I can't have all of these experiences and so we read. That's how many people learn about different people and places. Those influences matter. That's been preparation for my experiences.”

Mr Simons recognised that he might have been unprepared for life's challenges had he grown up similarly as a “brown person in America”.

He said: “My experience is different; it is informed by privilege.”

Tackling race issues: from left Andrew Simons, Joanne Wohlmuth, Grace Edwards, Jessica Lightbourne and Che Barker spoke about their mixed-race experiences as part of a lecture series exploring Bermudian identity organised by the Department of Community and Cultural Affairs
Jessica Lightbourne
Joanne Wohlmuth
Che Barker
Grace Edwards
Andrew Simons

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Published June 22, 2016 at 9:00 am (Updated June 22, 2016 at 9:20 am)

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