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Leyla Reynolds

Mixed Other: on being black and Turkish

Black British culture was beyond my reach in the white suburb in which I grew up. But having always been assured of my mixed-ness there was no urgency to seek out such things. Brought up in East London, the child of a Turkish father and a mixed white English and black Carribean British mother, my mum and I moved to a culturally monolithic East Anglian town when I was eleven. One of a handful of children of colour at my school, from a young age, I was hyper aware of a difference in attitudes towards multiculturalism between the two places I’d called home but saw no need to slap a label on myself. I was a lot of things, how could subscribing to arbitrary boundaries help?

And yet despite the firmness of my conviction that I could be summed up under that banner of ‘mixed’, blackness was inevitable. It was how the world saw me and it was how I fundamentally saw myself. I quickly came to embrace the banner of black, not just because of the implicit one drop rule, the kind which prevents Obama from being seen as the first bi-racial president, but because, as Writers Glock Blog so eloquently puts it, ‘African culture has been so warped, changed, diluted and destroyed by European forces’ and I stand for the love of my lost African ancestry. There is a solidarity to not dissecting my parts. And yet it doesn’t take away from the knowledge that I feel cheated by the inability of the western gaze to accommodate more than one preconceived notion  of certain identities. The rigid racial categories within which we operate provide no room for vastly differing regional variations, for groups like the Hui or the Kurds who with their blonde hair and dark features seem outliers to the checklist of racial tick boxes.

The one drop rule – the social and legal principle of racial classification that was historically prominent in the United States asserts that any person with even one ancestor of sub-Saharan ancestry should be considered black. In 2011 Halle Berry was recorded telling Ebony magazine of her daughter, the child of a half black, half white mother and a white father, “I feel she’s black. I’m black and I’m her mother, and I believe in the one-drop theory”.

Another mixed race individual

However to reduce my identity to one origin I know is to make it more palatable – especially when the other element of that identity is not one that is readily accepted in western society either. Breaking down the notion of one kind of ethnic category is essential in disrupting the flawed and scientifically devoid concept of race. For as long as I have been aware, my Turkishness has oft been rendered unimportant, irrelevant by this variation of the one drop policy.

But this erasure demonstrates an assumption that non-western cultures are ethnically homogenous and propagates the notion that categories such as Turks and black people are mutually exclusive groupings, which a little bit of research proves immediately to not be the case. The assumption was recently reaffirmed to me when I was asked to expand on my visibly non-white heritage. Starting with my dad’s side I began the long winded tale. ‘That’s mad!’ he exclaimed ‘You look mixed race.’ I reassured him that I was. But he had assumed the presence of only one ‘foreign’ identity. He had also used mixed race as a blanket byword for black and white, a common usage.

One year in Turkey, on a visit to Kozahan market in Bürsa a man stopped to ask if I was an Arab. Confused, I muttered something about being British and hurried off wondering what had prompted the question. Google, obvs, would give me the answer.  Whilst searching the history of black people in Turkey online I stumbled upon the answer: What Turks now call Arapi are the descendants of those who were traded as part of the Ottoman slave trade. They had also been referred to as Afrika kökenli Türkler, a name which would hide historical status, due to the shame associated with it. It was a revelation and a kind of validation, that the historical afro Turks demonstrated what I’d suspected – that national ethnic narratives were far less linear than assumed. The ‘one or the other’ mentality was symptomatic of a society which views race with a clouded lens. Black people have existed throughout society and across the world, the hidden history of afro Türks is testament to that. In 2006 renowned Afro-Turkish writer Mustafa Olpak founded the first officially recognised organisation of Afro-Turks, frikalılar Kültür ve Dayanışma Derneği, with the principle aim of promoting the studies of oral history of Afro-Turks.  Now I claim the entirety of my heritage.  It’s a long answer to ‘Where are you originally from?’ but that, as we know, is a flawed question.

You may also like Mixed Other: on being black and Turkish and Mixed Other: on being black and Turkish