Raceless: In Search of Family, Identity and the Truth About Where I Belong

Author: Georgina Lawton

(Harper Perennial, 2021)

An exclusive Authorlink interview by Diane Slocum

Georgina Lawton grew up in England with white parents, a white brother and white everyone else. No one wanted to talk about why she didn’t look like the rest of them. The only story was that her brown skin and full, tight curls must have been from a “throwback gene” many generations before when Spanish ships sank off western Ireland. Both her parents raised her with love and devotion as if there was no more to discuss. But for years, Georgina felt there was. A part of her was missing. As a young woman, after her father died, she had her DNA tested and learned there was no doubt she had a parent who was African.  This set her on an odyssey to learn who she was and the truth about the family secret.

AUTHORLINK: What led to your decision to write a book about your search to understand yourself?

LAWTON: Growing up with little to no explanation for my appearance and heritage in an otherwise loving home was destabilizing at times. I started writing about my search for self and the DNA testing industry online in The Guardian and other outlets in around 2017-18 and found the response to my writing to be overwhelmingly positive.

AUTHORLINK: Did you struggle about publicizing stories that your parents had hidden even from you all your life?

“Initially I struggled with managing everyone else’s feelings around this.”

LAWTON: Initially I struggled with managing everyone else’s feelings around this. I’d carried the weight of their secrets for so long I was concerned at how my family and extended family would react. But once I freed myself from that worry and started to write online about identity erasure, race and transracial families, I found it to be incredibly freeing. As others reached out to share their stories, I found that it legitimized lots of my own experiences. So, I carried on – and it became a book! My family had no choice but to meet me at the standard I had set for all of us. Writing attacked stigma and dismantled shame.

AUTHORLINK: Do you think that your parents’ reluctance to talk about your race was significantly based on a reluctance to bring up your mother’s infidelity which your father chose to ignore?

LAWTON: Yes, absolutely. I talk about shame and silence a lot in the book and it’s clear that my mother’s refusal to address my heritage was linked to her shame over her affair with a Black man. Unfortunately, that bred a lot of internalized anti-blackness in me as a child which I worked to eradicate. Travel, reading and talking about all this helped me de-colonize my mindset and accept my true self.

AUTHORLINK: You waited until after your father died to test your DNA. Do you wish you could have shared this openness with him?

LAWTON: I wish we’d spoken more openly about the true nature of our relationship when he was around.

AUTHORLINK: When people describe you as “a Black woman raised in a white family,” it sounds as if you were adopted and obscures your white ancestry. Does this feel as if it is leaving off a part of you as well?

LAWTON: I don’t think it does – that was the reality. We can expand the meaning of the term ‘transracial’ to ensure it covers family set-ups like mine and not just those who were adopted.

AUTHORLINK: You write about your hair being another aspect that set you apart. How is hair an issue?

LAWTON: For Black people, hair is an allegory for liberation. Our hair is an extension of ourselves, so when it is ridiculed in white spaces or discriminated against, that absolutely comes from a place of racism. We see how certain textures are stigmatized in white societies, how styles that keep our hair neat and tidy have been banned from workplaces and I’ve come across many cases of white caregivers who didn’t know how to look after their child’s hair. I write a lot about how both my parents did my hair, despite never having come across a texture like mine before. I see my father helping me with my weave as a teenager as an act of love. I see my mother taking me to Black hair salons, despite us never acknowledging where my texture came from, as something similar. Through my hair, my parents engaged with the reality of raising a Black child without fully engaging with the truth. This serves as something of a metaphor for much of my upbringing: it was both love and denial.

AUTHORLINK: How did writing this book help you in your search for identity?

“I managed to speak to many others who have battled with forging identities…”

LAWTON: I managed to speak to many others who have battled with forging identities in the spaces between which validated much of my own experiences and foregrounded the idea that blackness is not monolithic. I also talk about the literature I read on my own journey and look at research from scientists and sociologists on topics related to hair, DNA, transracial families and racism. All of that has helped me come to a greater understanding about who I am, and how I identify, but it also speaks to the fragility of personal identities overall and how damaging racial categories are as a whole.

AUTHORLINK: Do you see your story as an example of how trying to hide inconvenient truths can be damaging to families?

“The silence can warp relationships and distort reality.”

LAWTON: Silence is a big theme in the book, and in writing Raceless I’ve found that many families are adept at hiding their own secrets. But when you stay silent over something as big as someone’s racial identity, your parentage, it 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.

AUTHORLINK: What are you working on now?

LAWTON: I have a travel guide for Black women due out soon and I’m also working on my first novel!

About the author: Georgina Lawton grew up in English suburbia where few people looked like her. She is a journalist, speaker, writer and host of The Secrets in Us podcast. She has written for The Guardian, VICE, Marie Claire, The Times (London) and many more publications. She writes about identity, travel and culture. Raceless is her first book. Sh