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This is what it's like to have black heritage but look white

Ifama's new short film uncovers the identity of white-passing people

Being white-passing – a person of colour with black, Asian or another ethnic minority heritage who most people assume is white – is a topic ripe for exploration. It gets to the core of why the concept of race is inherently flawed, but also forces us to remember the very real pressures that society puts upon people to fit their racial identity into neat boxes.

Two is a documentary introduction to conversations around the complex nature of multiracial identity. The film features two white-passing young women who have similar heritage but racially identify differently, one as white and one as mixed-race. The intention of the piece is to present the intricate experiences of the subjects and not to show their identities as being "right" or "wrong".

We spoke to Ifama, the director of the documentary and gal-dem's video editor, about the project, and why we're still so far away from being in a post-racial society. Watch the film below.

Why did you become interested exploring what it means to be white passing? 

Ifama: I'm friends with someone who's in the same situation as the girls in the film. She and her sister are 100 per cent biologically related, fully sisters, and share a black grandfather. But they racially identify differently, even though they look very similar and grew up together. I was interested in how that can happen.

And it turned out this was a common experience?

Ifama: Yeah. As I spoke to more people it seemed that there were quite a lot of white-passing, mixed-race people in similar situations. They're either viewed as white or call themselves white, but their heritage says otherwise.

So how is that narrative explored in the film? 

Ifama: The first woman has a black grandfather, but grew up assuming she was white. She didn't realise that it might be a topic of discussion in her family until, as she says in the film, she went on holiday and they were filling out their visas. She ticked the category for white, and her mum was really surprised.

With the second woman, her mother is Jamaican and somewhere along the line there's a Chinese great-grandfather, I think. But her dad is white French, and she identifies as mixed-race. She's had conversations with her mum and asked, "what should I be ticking on forms" and she'd said, "of course you're ticking black Caribbean and white, you're a mixed-race person".

“If you're living in a situation where you look white and the racialised side of your identity isn't spoken about, it makes sense then that it's not something you feel connected to” – Ifama

That's interesting they've made such different choices

Ifama: If you're living in a situation where you look white and the racialised side of your identity isn't spoken about, it makes sense then that it's not something you feel connected to. On the other side of it, if you've grown up around family members who do talk about their black, or Indian heritage, it make sense that you would identify with that. There's not really any rules. Both women really do recognise the privileges that come with being white-passing, or being white, but there is such a complexity that goes with it when people don't immediately know your heritage.

Why did you make the choice not to show their full faces in the film?

Ifama: When someone's talking about their identity we're very quick to assign labels to them. We naturally want to work out where someone's from, or their heritage. Because these two people are white-passing I didn't want it to be a talking heads thing where you could see them straight away. One of the women in particular said that when people find out she's Jamaican she can feel them studying all of her features and judging her blackness. Race isn't just down to physicalities. I wanted to keep people listening to what they were saying before forming any opinions. 

As a mixed-race person did you feel as though you could understand what they've gone through?

Ifama: Yeah, I'm really interested in the multiracial experience in general. I know what it's like to not know that much about a side of you and feel uncomfortable talking about it. But I suppose the difference is that, on first-meet, no-ones going to ask someone who's white-passing about it, whereas if you're racialised as black, like me, you're always going to have those questions put to you.

How have people in the TV and film industry treated the idea of the doc?

Ifama: They would always would refer back to Rachel Dolezal. It's such fucking bullshit and it's such proof that most white people don't have to think about experiences of race and get to dodge all the conversations around it. They reduced it down to the idea of "choosing" your race. And there's an element of mixed-race people doing that – it's a fluid thing. But Rachel Dolezal is a liar. Her parents are white, and she chose to be deceptive. These girls aren't choosing, it's actually about their heritage. It undermines your whole experience by saying because you look white, you are white. Just because somebody is white-passing, it doesn't mean that they're white. 

“What does mixed-race even mean? It's not anything concrete that anyone can tie themselves too. There's not a mixed-race culture” – Ifama

That comes from the black community as well though – how do you respond to people who don't think that mixed-race people should identify as one or the other? 

Ifama: There's a lot of public figures whose work I really like and then they'll say something about how mixed-race people aren't black if they've got a parent who is white. I do understand why someone would feel that way, it's just obviously not how I feel. Varaidzo, gal-dem's arts and culture editor, wrote a really good piece about how you can be racialised as black before you're mixed race. And what does mixed-race even mean? It's not anything concrete that anyone can tie themselves too. There's not a mixed-race culture. 

If I'm mixed-race with a black dad and a white mum, and I've lived with my white mum for the whole time I'm not the same as someone who's Pakistani and Jamaican and has lived with their Pakistani family the whole time. So there's no clarity. Someone who's mixed with white and black and is light-skinned – we're perhaps the most vocal and common. And the privileges that come with being a light-skinned black person blur the mixed-race conversation. What I'm talking about is the complexeties of being between two races all the time. That's a mixed-race issue but not a light-skin issue.

What do you think we should take from your film about white-passing privilege? 

Ifama: What I want people to take from it is that if you're a white-passing person you certainly do have privileges and you should be reminded of that, but there's a whole lot of stuff that comes with it. The amount of mixed-race people is continuing to grow in the UK and some thought needs to go into the fact that there are children that are caught between all of these racial barriers. For me, as a 22-year-old, it seems like there's currently a lot of encouragement to talk about racial politics, but some white people are raising these children and not doing the talking.