Raceless: in search of family, identity, and the truth about where I belong, by Georgina Lawton. Harper Perennial, 2021. 304p bibl index, 9780063009486 $17.99, 9780063009493 $11.99
Ed. Note: Choice considers racial justice a cornerstone of its mandate to support academic study. Accordingly, Choice is highlighting select racial justice titles through the creation of long-form reviews such as the one featured here. Though the scope of these reviews will be broader than those applied to our standard 190-word reviews, many of the guidelines regarding what to focus on will remain the same, with additional consideration for how the text under review sheds light on racist systems and racial inequities or proposes means of dismantling them. Our intent is to feature important works on racial justice that will be of use to undergraduates and faculty researching racism and racial inequalities from new perspectives.
The quest to be seen, heard, recognized, acknowledged, and appreciated as we are symbolizes the core of human existence. In Raceless, Lawton uses her lived experience as the baseline to unravel the complex story of how she came to have “half a story, half an identity, and in many ways, half a life” (p. 18). Raceless is her journey to piece together her Black heritage, which had been deliberately obscured from her by her parents. Born out of infidelity resulting from her white mother’s one-night stand with an unidentified Black man, she shares with readers her inner search for identity in the 21st century, a time when identity and belonging are of utmost importance. Currently host of The Secrets in Us podcast, Lawton is a journalist who has written for such outlets as The Guardian, VICE, and The Times (London), focusing on topics that deal with travel, culture, and identity.
The experience of being a Black person raised in a white household and neighborhood is nothing new. White/Black interracial families and their mixed children have been on the rise since the late 1960s. What is bewildering is that Lawton’s white parents deliberately misidentified and treated her as if she were white, leaving her unprepared for the external realities of racial prejudice. Certainly, Lawton’s mother wanted her child, but she specifically wanted a white child. As a result, her mother’s insistence on not “seeing” Lawton’s color or accepting that she is mixed race conveyed to Lawton that her mother refused to engage with all parts of who she was, leaving her essentially invisible. To Lawton, not seeing racial differences was not only destabilizing and depressing, but part of a broader pattern of white privilege, racial hierarchy, and inequality, and a demonstration that there is something wrong with others who live with a racialized identity.
Lawton argues compellingly that colorblind parenting “is a form of identity theft” that is damaging to mixed-race Black children (p. 89). Saying that one does not see a Black person’s race is both a comfort and a discomfort, love and rejection all intertwined at once as an individual’s appearance (including their color) must be acknowledged before any interaction. For instance, Lawton recounts how her own “[B]lackness walked into every room before [she] did” (p. 66). As the author highlights, a more appropriate form of color blindness must not mean color indifference, but rather a recognition and appreciation of the diversity of human colors with equal and equitable avenues for progress afforded to people of every color. Doing so would nurture the ingenuity and talents of every individual, strengthening society as a whole. Lawton is not arguing for a raceless society or a raceless future. Such a society would “mean the elimination of [B]lack people” due to the overwhelming political, military, and economic power of white people (p. 278). Instead, she is advocating for a future where all races are acknowledged in their diversity, where whiteness is decentered and white supremacy deconstructed, and where collective efforts are made to identify and dismantle the structures that have helped normalize the denial and erasure of minority groups and their identities. It is only when each race is valued, Lawton argues, that society can reach its greatest potential, a faint reminder of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s 1963 “I Have a Dream” speech.
Within the educational system, where future generations might learn these progressive ideals, Lawton laments the absence of racial discourse. She points out that in Britain, discussions of race are ignored “in the hope that either they will go away[,] or we can simply overlook them” (p. 277). In the US, the rejection of Black identity and refusal to acknowledge Black contributions to building the foundation of this nation can be seen at various levels, such as by the refusal of some conservative school districts to observe Black History Month in February or their choice of history textbooks that teach little about minority contributions. At present, this rejection can also be seen in the uproar within conservative circles against the inclusion of simplified versions of the 1619 Project and critical race theory within K–12 school curricula. These rejections mask underlying fears that acknowledging Black Americans’ contributions will expose the US’s racist past, making white people feel uncomfortable about their role in subjugating Black identity, and forcing white students to draw inconvenient conclusions about racism’s roots.
Lawton’s own struggle to contend with her racial identity is similarly fraught, though her hunt for her heritage and biological father is nothing new. When children of closed adoptions come of age, they often seek out their birth parents. However, what is striking in Lawton’s personal account is that her family never acknowledged the clear differences in her physical appearance, relative to their own. Desiring to reduce her rage and sadness, restore emotional and psychological balance, and better understand and believe in who she is, Lawton walks readers through her gradual transformation from believing she was white as a child to questioning this, seeking the truth about her heritage as an adult, and then progressively bringing her family onboard, encouraging them to accept and be proud of her as a mixed-race Black woman. Lawton explains that she knew she was different as early as age five, but her immediate and extended family told her otherwise. This denial intensified after her father’s death, propelling her to seek the truth elsewhere.
Because Lawton’s parents failed to truthfully explain her Black identity, she sought answers from psychologists, sociologists, and genomic sciences, learning from DNA testing that she is 43 percent Nigerian. When Alex Haley’s novel Roots was published in 1976, it popularized the use of DNA testing, which has since opened a new door for those searching for identity and belonging. By resorting to DNA testing, Lawton knows that she is treading a path followed by many African Americans, whose ancestors were uprooted from Africa and transported to the Americas by Europeans to be enslaved. She points out that the global obsession with DNA testing is a window into increasingly heightened racial discourse and offers people in the African diaspora an opportunity to relocate themselves in a personal and historical narrative that has been hijacked by others who should not be telling Black stories. Lawton keenly observes that the increase in testing is tied to a growing search for personal history and belonging, greater accessibility of providers and affordability, “the rise of Afrofuturism,” and an embrace of the concept of sankofa, from Ghana, which suggests invoking the past to create a better future (p. 252). However, as she cautions, genetic ancestry DNA tests have also been exploited for nefarious ends by insurers and government institutions.
Going back even farther, European powers have used race as a social construct to weaponize, discount, and diminish the realities of minority ethnic groups since the 15th century. Throughout her travels in countries such as Vietnam, Nicaragua, Cuba, and the Dominican Republic, Lawton observed that the forces of colonialism and imperialism, executed by Spanish, French, Portuguese, American, and British authorities, have impressed their cultural norms upon local populations, “leaving emotional wounds and economic scars that are embedded, bone-deep, in the bodies of these places” (p. 174). She bemoans another depressing reality in the disparaging way in which Black bodies are treated when compared to white bodies in interconnected ways both big and small. This includes, as an example, the perception of Black women’s hair by white hairdressers as too “difficult” to handle in its natural state and needing to be “tame[d],” which relates back to a larger impetus to control Black women and deny them “autonomy over their own bodies” (p. 187).
Lawton succinctly analyzes the trauma she and her mother faced after the death of her father: her mother from a privileged white point of view and herself from the perspective of having a lost identity. Both were forced to seek help from a therapist, she writes, noting that the healing power of therapy is best be achieved when participants stay true to their authentic selves. Lawton acknowledges that within these judgment-free sessions, she and her mother were able to converse about inequality and their racial differences, eventually coming to understand, acknowledge, and accept each other as they are. Readers might ask whether British and American societies need a similar therapy session: truth and reconciliation commissions on race to facilitate genuinely open discussions on their racial histories.
Belonging goes beyond shared cultural background. As Lawton opines, middle-class white people still cling to racist feelings that “[B]lack skin comes with the weight of loaded assumptions that class and accent and education can never eradicate” (p. 200). She observes that some mixed children, attracted by the advantages that come with being white, are willing to pass as white when circumstances allow, thus denying their Black identity. Lawton rejects this idea of passing because, in addition to being exhausting, it embodies deception. It illustrates that white racialized identity is so omnipotent that we should all aspire to it. She stresses that we cannot escape our identities as they shape who we are, whom we seek out, and how we connect with one another for the betterment of all.
White people have functioned for so long as though whiteness is the normative touchstone of all humanity and have expressed anger and defensiveness when reminded that there are “others.” These “others” want to be seen, acknowledged, recognized, and accepted for who they are: human beings who belong to this world just as much as anyone else.
Summing Up: Highly recommended. All levels. Interdisciplinary Subjects: African and African American Studies, Racial Justice Subject: Social & Behavioral Sciences
Zacharia Nchinda Nchinda, Ph.D. teaches History at Milwaukee Area Technical College. His work focuses on immigrant families.