Mixed Up: 'Don't tell me to pick a side – I am mixed-race, so I am both'

Shakayra’s mum is Jamaican and her dad is Austrian, but that’s not quite the full story.

‘My mother’s father was also Panamanian and my Dad also has a Jewish and Czech family tree,’ she explains.

‘Pretty much everyone was against them getting married,’ says Shakayra. ‘Both of their parents said they were crazy, and my dad’s mother was in shock when he revealed he would be marrying a black woman.’

Her parents met in Mexico, while her dad was on holiday and her mum was studying. They fell in love and somehow Shakayra’s dad persuaded her mum to get married and move to Europe – despite never having been there before.

‘They married against the odds and my mother started a new life in Vienna, knowing not a single soul and thousands of miles away from her family in Jamaica and the States.’

Shakayra says that being mixed-race is complex, yet beautiful. She likes the idea of being a ‘bridge’ between cultures but recognises that being in that position is not without its challenges.

‘It took me a lot of soul searching and trying to fit into both my white Austrian and black Jamaican community to find that I simply do not fit in either. I am bang in the middle,’ she explains.

‘I cannot choose because there is nothing to choose.

‘Whenever I tried to fit into the white, Austrian community I was treated like a fraud – as if I am an imposter with curly hair who just happens to speak fluent German.

‘Then, whenever I used to visit my Grandad in Jamaica I was called “the white girl” and people stared at me as if I was an alien. I explained that I was also Jamaican, again no one believed me.

‘I don’t see the point of trying to fit into a box I simply do not belong in. I am mixed. I am both.

‘Now, as an adult, it makes sense to me why I had to face all that rejection; I was forcing myself to be someone I am not.

‘That being said, the rejection from the black community was never blatant racism like it was from some people I came across in Austria. But still, that sense of belonging was always missing.’

Shakayra says that she has always struggled to fit in, ever since her school days. She attended a private Catholic school in Vienna, picked out by her white grandmother.

‘My mother had no say back then,’ says Shakayra. ‘She just thought that it must be the best option as it was expensive. The truth is, the minute I started school I was made to feel like an outsider.

‘I would get picked on by my classmates almost daily. To them, I was always just the black girl with funny hair.

‘My mother had to take my brother and I out of school to fly us to Jamaica for her dad’s funeral and the principal of the school said to us: “Yes, of course, you can go back to Africa”.

‘I was only 12, but I was very well aware that Jamaica was nowhere near Africa. Why did this supposedly educated man not know where Jamaica was?

‘That was the first time where it dawned on me that a lot of people in Austria could not care less if you were half white. And that was hurtful. Not because I do not want to be black, but because he denied us our identity and did it in so swiftly that we did not even know how to respond.

‘What do you say when someone in authority is racist? My mother just smiled and walked away.’

There was another incident in a P.E class where a teacher refused to believe Shakayra was Austrian, and actually got angry with her when she couldn’t explain where she was from.

‘The teacher looked at me and said; “you cannot possibly be from here, where are you from?” I was 10. I did not understand what she meant so I said; “I am from Vienna.”

‘The teacher looked at me in disbelief and started raising her voice – enraged – and told me that I cannot possibly be Austrian with a name like Shakayra and that I ought to tell her where I am really from.

‘I will never forget the embarrassment I felt in that moment.’

Shakayra has experienced these kinds of incidents from all sides. She feels that it isn’t only her white side that is questioned, people have denied her black heritage too.

‘Recently I was dating an African-American guy and I was shocked at the deep issues about race that are clearly still alive and kicking in some black men.

‘He would tell me on the regular that I had better “step up” and start learning to cook like a “real black girl”, and that the way I act is “way too white.”

‘Whenever I tried to explain I am actually mixed, I was met with a long lecture about how being mixed is just a recent social construction, that it is not real.

‘Your genes mean nothing to ignorant people. They will always pick and choose what they see you as and run with that narrative regardless of the evidence and what you tell them, and that is so tiring sometimes.’

Shakayra was bullied regularly at school. Kids told her that her nose was too wide, that her hair was weird and unpleasant to touch. But the worst of it was the reaction to her childhood crushes.

‘One boy went so far as to humiliate me in front of the whole class. I wrote him a love letter and he laughed loudly in my face in front of everyone.

‘The girls in my class would make fun of me and sometimes even get into physical fights with me. Teachers would typically defend them and ask me what I did to agitate them.’

And the racist hostility that Shakayra faced extended beyond the classroom as well.

‘Once, when I was waiting for my train in Vienna, I was casually called the N-word by a random stranger. This was not a one-off,’ says Shakayra.

‘Many times I would overhear conversations on public transport where other people would say that they are tired of these “n*****s” and would look in my direction. They assumed I did not speak German.

‘I once had tomatoes thrown at me on the street, and another time I had a bucket of water poured over me from a house window while I was walking, minding my own business.’

Shakayra says she will always love her home country and says she feels a deep affiliation to Austria. She even made some solid friendships with more diverse students after moving schools, but the racism she feels there and has felt in the past, will always make her relationship with her birthplace more complicated.

‘It is a toxic place to grow up in as a person of colour,’ she tells us. ‘It does not matter if you are mixed-race. The older generation in particular, and that is including my own grandmother, still have a deeply entrenched hatred towards black people.

‘My white grandmother, up until this day, cannot stand my mother, her only reason is because she is black. She thinks her son brought shame to the family by marrying a black woman.

‘My brother and I were treated as the “golden children” by her. We received love and were shown off by her, but now as an adult, I wonder if that was just because we were lighter than my mother.’

Shakayra knows that not all Austrians feel the same as her grandmother. Case-in-point – her grandfather, her dad’s dad.

‘My grandfather took my mother in as if she had always been his daughter and fought every battle for her you can imagine,’ says Shakayra. ‘From helping her learn German, to putting a good word in when she was looking for work.

‘He showed me the warm, genuine and caring side of older Austria.

‘I just wish our parents and grandparents knew how much immense pressure mixed children deal with and prepared us for it more.

‘It often feels like you’re some type of bargaining tool to keep the peace.

‘Being mixed-race is not a magic card you can flaunt that exempts you from racism.

‘In many cases, you will face difficulties simply due to your skin tone, regardless of how well-spoken you are, or how “pretty” your curls are.’

But Where Are You Really From? Extract

Shakayra has recently published a memoir about being mixed-race. Here’s an extract about navigating the corporate world:

Whenever it came to job applications I was simply ‘the black one’.

Now as a woman I adore that my mother gave me such a unique name but without a doubt every single job interview I would be asked: ‘Where are you from?’ and questioned as to why and how I’m bilingual.

I was always treated as a fraud by default.

The funny thing is that whoever interviewed me would never voice their ignorance upfront; that someone who looks like me, speaks German would be strange to them.

It was always sentences like: ‘So where did you learn German?’ ‘How come you don’t have an accent?’

I remember once working on an ad-hoc German project and a guy from East Germany having an argument with me whether I have an accent when I speak German.

I explained to him several times that this was my mother tongue and I couldn’t possibly have an accent because that’s where I was born and raised and spent my first 18 years of life. He never said it but all he saw was a black girl pretending to speak German.

It made me angry to defend something that was crystal clear to me yet so alien to him.

But Where Are You Really From? Shakayra Stern

Shakayra says that the microaggressions she now faces since moving to London are a minefield to navigate.

‘I work in corporate environments a lot and people would ask: “So, where did you learn German?” To which I always reply; “I am Austrian, there is no need to learn your mother tongue.” Then comes the blank stare.

‘To a stranger, this may seem like a normal question, but would you ever ask a Caucasian woman with blonde hair why she speaks French with no accent? No.

‘What is so mind-boggling is that we would never do the same to others but we are always on the receiving end of the questions. Curiosity is not always the reason.

‘Stereotypes about mixed-race and black women are often embedded in the black community too.’

Shakayra says this is most apparent when she politely rebuffs ‘romantic’ advances.

‘It happens sometimes with black guys; if I don’t want to give them my number they tell me I must think I am “too nice”, or they say I am a typical light-skin girl; stuck up and arrogant. It can be mentally exhausting.’

Shakayra loves celebrating her Caribbean heritage and takes part in Carnival every year. She says it helps her piece together who she is.

‘Carnival has given me a missing piece to my ever-evolving identity puzzle,’ says Shakayra.

‘Being in the middle of two or multiple heritages teaches you to not judge a book by its cover, and it broadens your horizons from birth as you see the world from two or more different cultural lenses.’

Shakayra wants it to be easier for people to identify as mixed-race without people making assumptions or snap judgments about their deeper intentions.

‘Declaring that we are mixed-race does not mean we are segregating ourselves from anyone, it simply means we are embracing who we really are.

‘We do enjoy privileges as we are seen as more “palatable”, but we still face discrimination and stereotypes like our darker-skinned brothers and sisters.

‘It would be great if society started to understand that fetishizing us does more harm than good and that it can create insecurities within us which we may never heal from.’

Mixed Up

Being mixed-race is so much more than just black and white (Pictures: Jerry Syder)

Mixed Up is our weekly series that gets to the heart of what it means to be mixed-race in the UK today.

Going beyond discussions of divided identity, this series takes a look at the unique joys, privileges and complexities that come with being mixed-race – across of variety of different contexts.

The mixed-race population is the UK’s fastest-growing ethnic group, and yet there is still so much more to understand about the varied lived experiences of individuals within this hugely heterogenous group.

Each week we speak to the people who know exactly how it feels to navigate this inbetween space.

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