“My teacher’s methods were most definitely trash, but that day she taught me a valuable lesson about race,” Georgina Lawton writes in her memoir Raceless: In Search of Family, Identity, and the Truth about Where I Belong. “She let me know that whiteness is a wholly exclusive racial category based around notions of racial purity, and as such would never allow admittance to anyone like me.” While Lawton’s teacher had drawn boundaries around whiteness that excluded Lawton, her white, Anglo-Irish parents stubbornly insisted that their darker-skinned daughter was white like they were.
In her memoir, out now from Harper Perennial, Lawton describes her family’s silence around her racial identity, their refusal to acknowledge her difference, her own experience with racial reckoning, and the detrimental effects of growing up in a color-blind household. “As a child I spent a very long time trying to work everything out for myself before eventually becoming invested in upholding the story my parents told me: I was theirs and that’s all that mattered,” Lawton writes.
As her father is dying of cancer, Lawton and he briefly speak for the first time about the potential that their DNA is different. After her father’s death in her early twenties, Lawton embarks on a journey of self-discovery, traveling to and living in predominantly Black communities in the United States, the Caribbean, and Africa, in a bid to understand and claim her own identity. The memoir, though, is not solely about Lawton’s childhood and journey. She talks to sociologists, psychologists, and others who, like her, had a part of their identities obscured, to understand how identity is formed and its relationship with race.
I spoke to Lawton recently about the challenges of writing a memoir about a story her family would rather not confront, the necessity and value of family stories, and the lasting impact of silences.
The Rumpus: You were raised as a white girl and your family refused to acknowledge your racial identity. But from a young age you weren’t satisfied with that narrative. When did you first become aware that something wasn’t right about your family story?
Georgina Lawton: At five years old, I was first aware of my difference. From what I’ve gathered, that’s on par with a lot of kids and this idea of racial reckoning. But with children of color it is generally a bit later. We often pick up on the fact that there is something negative about having to claim a racialized identity. I remember trying to scratch myself white with a girl on the playground and her running her nails over my skin. We must have been having a conversation about me wanting to be like her. I remember going home around that age and asking my parents why I had skin of this color and why everyone around me, including mom and dad, had white skin. I can’t remember what my mom said at that early stage. But it was dismissive, something we didn’t need to talk about. It wasn’t important—I accepted that as a small child. But then my questions became increasingly urgent as I got older.
Rumpus: Family lore is a powerful thing. How do these kinds of family stories define how you see yourself?
Lawton: When I was older and dissatisfied by us not talking about it, I remember that my mom offered up the fact that I was dark-skinned, not Black. And I was dark-skinned potentially because my mom comes from a place on the west coast of Ireland called Spanish Point. It was there that the ships belonging to the Spanish Armada fleet were wrecked. The Spanish sailors apparently darkened the Irish gene pool and that was potentially where I inherited my dark look. So, we anchored me into this Irish mythology. It is not actually fact; there wouldn’t have been enough sailors to darken the Irish gene pool. But this story connected me to a section of Irish mythology and therefore into my mom’s family history. That’s the story I’d repeat as I got older, about the “throwback” gene.
It gave me a reason for how I looked. We need family stories to work out who we are. We need them to tell others who we are, and to give our lives purpose and pride and belonging. They help us relate to one another. That’s what my parents did in telling me that story, and that’s what I would then repeat to others. The story encouraged them to relate to me as somebody, yes, with dark skin, somebody who is Black, but as someone with two white parents, with an Irish mother who could trace her lineage back hundreds of years.
Rumpus: Your book had me thinking about the silences in family stories—what goes unsaid.
Lawton: Silence is definitely a big theme in the book because it was hugely influential in my life. As a child, when you pick up on the absence of something that’s really quite obvious in your family, you begin to see it as bad. I thought, Nobody is talking about this thing. It must be negative. Let me also keep quiet.
But that thing was related to who I was. It is a fundamental part of who I am. And staying silent on something as big as someone’s racial identity, your parentage, is detrimental not just to the person with whom the silence starts but to everyone involved. The silence can warp relationships and distort reality. It keeps people distant from one another when they should be close and it stops people from being fully heard and seen.
Rumpus: You wrote, “Belonging is everything. It is paramount to our happiness as human beings; it places us in a story, a history, and colors our lives with purpose and meaning.” How has this journey to discovering your roots, changed your sense of belonging?
Lawton: At first, I was very afraid that reaching more into the part of my heritage that had been obscured would distance me from my mom, or from my white family and friends. I worried a lot about this years ago, with the DNA test results and with the truth. But I did a lot of reading, not only of fiction, but also of sociological and psychological articles. I came across sociologist Jayne O. Ifekwunigwe, who talks about additive Blackness, which is basically for mixed individuals who are unwilling or unable to break ties with their white families. She suggests that you should add culturally and socially to what you already know. So, instead of breaking away from everything that you’ve been brought up with, educate yourself on what you also need in your life and form a synthesized identity. I never wanted to cut out my mom or remove myself from the white culture that I grew up with. I just wanted to add to it and allow myself to do things I had been afraid to do.
Rumpus: Part of this process of uncovering your identity involved traveling to various cities that were home to Black communities. How did that experience change your perception of race? Of yourself?
Lawton: It really grounded the idea to me that Black people are not a monolith. There are so many ways to be Black. Now I see the construction of Blackness as something quite different depending on the community and the context. I discovered that there are definitely scenes that unify us throughout the diaspora and there’s this whole vibrant innovative community that I can see myself being a part of. But it also showed me that there is not one or several biological components that make us Black. There is no essential Black kind of genetic code. That’s something that I found to be very much true as I traveled through Black spaces.
What I did find consistent, sadly, was the effect of colonialism on so many amazingly vibrant Black communities and seeing how that ripped through generations, depending on what country you were in.
Rumpus: Another part of the process was coming to terms with how you viewed race and some of the prejudices you had internalized. Tell us about that experience.
Lawton: Let me preface this: I don’t think that being raised in white spaces leads to this sort of internalization of anti-Blackness. But for me, not having my race acknowledged meant I couldn’t celebrate what it meant to be a Black child, what it meant to be a Black female. Because of that I wasn’t looking for a lot of Blackness in my childhood. I wasn’t reading books and listening to music and thinking, “I wish there were more characters like me.” For a long time I really didn’t look for it because I was encouraged to identify like my parents. I definitely internalized negative ideas about my body shape, my hair, and skin color, of course.
I remember going on holiday and feeling like so much more of an outsider when I tanned because I was never white-passing and the more tanned I got, I was more obviously Black. I hated that feeling because my family were all pale and I wanted to look like them. I wanted straight hair like my mom. Although my family always told me I was beautiful and they would help me do my hair and slather me with sunscreen just like my brother, you always get the feeling that you are a little bit lesser than, just because everybody looks different than you and it doesn’t get talked about.
I was definitely unkind to myself, not because my parents or my community had been but because the silence weighed heavily on me and I wanted to fit in more. I wanted answers. I was tough on myself when it came to how I treated my body. I was always trying to diet, trying to shrink myself, trying to change my hair into something that just wasn’t what it should be. I was always trying to lighten it, straighten it, anything that I thought would bring me closer to that European aesthetic, but of course it never did.
Rumpus: Reading your memoir, I couldn’t help but think about children who are adopted and whose identity is erased when they are folded into their new families. Do you see any similarities between your story and theirs?
Lawton: Absolutely. Seeing my own therapist once a week, a Black lady in South London, she pointed out a lot of these similarities to me. It definitely made me feel less alone. Even the word transracial, which I mention in the book, is a word that came about in adoption circles in the 1950s and it literally just means children who are raised by caregivers who are of a different cultural or racial background. It’s usually children of color raised by white families. That’s a transracial family.
I guess the difference is that I never had to deal with rejection in the same way a lot of adoptees have to deal with it. I was fully accepted by both parents. We didn’t talk about our differences but I never felt like I wasn’t part of the family. I was always a part of my family in Ireland and my family in the UK. I haven’t had to worry about the feeling of one parent rejecting me like a lot of adoptees do worry about. It was a different sort of dislocation perhaps that comes from the cultural side of not having your race acknowledged.
Rumpus: How do you view your own story in the context of “passing”?
Lawton: I’m really interested in passing and how it’s depicted in American literature. I’m thinking of new books like Brit Bennett’s The Vanishing Half and that they’re making Nella Larsen’s Passing into a film, which I’m excited to watch. When I was doing research for Raceless, I also read a book called We Wear the Mask: 15 True Stories of Passing in America edited by two American writers. These stories talk about racial passing, but also passing with gender and disabilities. I think passing is something that a lot of people of color can relate to just because of the flimsiness of racial barriers. We see ourselves passing in terms of nationalities when we go abroad. We may pass for a local when we are actually from another country; that’s something that a lot of Black travelers are starting to acknowledge and write about as well.
But passing for me wasn’t racial because everybody could see that I was not white and I’ve never been white-passing. Culturally I definitely passed as white, but racially and visually that wasn’t possible. But somewhere along the way, I think the two kind of got muddied.
Rumpus: When did you know you wanted to write about your experience?
Lawton: Once my dad passed away it really gave me permission to seek out the truth. I had been very much afraid to ostracize my family when he was here. I think deep, deep down I knew I was going to get an answer that I wasn’t going to be happy with. When my dad got sick in 2015 it kind of ignited something in me to find out more. We spoke at length when he was sick about if I was going to do this DNA test and if I should look for more when it comes to my ancestry. He said, “I know that you are mine and I know that you are my daughter.” And that was enough for me at the time, because he was so ill. I didn’t want to make things worse or upset anyone further.
But a year after he passed away I got these DNA results processed, and it was like an outpouring of emotions of the past twenty years came rushing to the surface. I knew that I wanted to continue talking about this but also reach out to others who were in a similar process. At the time, I just went off straightaway to get some space between me and my mom. I was very much in the headspace for wanting to create a dialogue about this sort of thing. In 2017, I first started writing about it. That was online at The Guardian, and from there, agents and publishers and lots of other people who had also suffered around identity in the same way reached out. That gave me the confidence to write a book.
Rumpus: As writers, we often struggle with how to tell a story, how much to reveal. How did you go about deciding what was your story to tell? Was that a struggle for you?
Lawton: Yes, it definitely was. At first my mother was angry at being exposed, at having her dirty laundry hung out in public. She comes from an Irish Catholic family, a farming background. She was taught from a young age that you don’t talk about your family business like that. She was definitely shocked when I started writing. I asked for her permission and she said she wasn’t happy but I went and did it anyway. It was a way of reclaiming some of that silence and putting an end to it. That was tough at first, but we went to therapy where we spoke about the writing I was doing and how that was impacting both of us.
With my writing, I was feeling more and more free and in control of my narrative. For my mother, that simultaneously meant her letting go of that control she had wielded over me for so long. She found that really difficult but I was adamant that I wasn’t going to stop. I’d had twenty-something-years of having my identity being dictated to me, in a way, by my mom. I knew that I’d keep going. I just had to bring her to a point of understanding why it was now my time to speak and to reclaim who I was.
Rumpus: Was the strain on your relationship with your mother the hardest part of writing your memoir?
Lawton: The most challenging was writing about my dad. I was reliving a lot of trauma in therapy and then I had to relive it and put it down on the page. At the heart of all this, I miss my dad. He was such a great man, and the more I talk about him with other people I realize that he really was one of a kind. It’s not normal that a white man would see a Black child and stick around and raise her as his own without question. That’s what my dad did. That’s a testament to his character and how much he loves my mom and how much we all loved each other. That’s the hardest part—reliving my past without my dad here. I think he would be happy with the place my mom and I have gotten to. Of course, it always makes me sad that we didn’t get to speak about differences, our relationship with one another, and I didn’t get to thank him in a different way for being my father.
Rumpus: What was the most rewarding part of writing the book?
Lawton: Being able to eulogize my dad’s memory. That means a lot to me. And, getting to a point of reconciliation and understanding with my mom that’s definitely given me so much in terms of grounding me back into my family and making me fully seen and fully heard.
And also meeting other people along the way who have reached out to me and told me their similarly strange stories of not fitting in, or discovering something that’s always been there in their family through DNA tests. I knew that writing about myself seemed to interest people but I wanted to make it a little bit more than just a straight memoir and I didn’t want my childhood to be rehashed in salacious headlines for the next few years. I wanted to broaden out the conversation. Connecting with all those people has made me feel less alone and it was a real privilege to make space for their stories in this book.
Photograph of Georgina Lawton by Jamie Simonds/Loftus Media.