Isabelle Costigan – Colombian-English mixed heritage – not fake tan :)

My mother is Colombian and my father is English.

Although I grew up speaking both English and Spanish, the culture in my household was predominantly British.

Roast dinners were a frequent meal and watching British TV channels was a daily thing. I mostly only connected to my Colombian side when we would take trips to visit our family members living in Colombia, and if there were times a Colombian tradition slipped into our routine back in England, it was always a pretty ‘western’ perceived activity, like listening to Colombian Christmas carols.

I should note; Colombia is a culturally western country.

Which is why I found it so disorientating when in primary school, other children often mistook me for being Asian.

As an adult, I acknowledge that I look racially ambiguous and I don’t expect people to guess what my heritage is based on first appearance. As a child however, I felt that I was being denied my British identity because I had darker skin than my white classmates. Where I lived in South-East England, there were large British-Indian and British-Pakistani communities, so second and third generation south Asians were the biggest minority group, and people often assumed that because I didn’t look white enough to be British, then I must be Asian.

Some of my first ever friends were British-Indian and I feel lucky that I was exposed to new cultures at such an early age. As a result, I’ve definitely developed a strong sense of comfort and familiarity around south-Asian cultures, however despite this appreciation, it still bothered me that the white kids at my school mistook my identity and treated me like I was different to them.

Two main problems began distress me; the first one being that it wasn’t really accepted that I was English, even when people were introduced to my white dad, they would be in disbelief that we were related.

The second problem was that no one knew what Colombia was and therefore it did not exist. I distinctly remember explaining to a girl in my class that countries outside of Spain also speak Spanish, which she shut down as untrue immediately.

So, I was essentially simultaneously trying to prove to people that I am not Asian, I am just as British as they are and that the reason I have darker hair and skin is because my mother comes from a place called Colombia. When you break it down, I was basically trying to explain that I’m not white but still Western and would like to be accepted as such – All before the age of 10!

I hate to admit this, but I did grow up disliking my skin colour and I blamed this for the reason why I felt so detached from my own identity. Years passed and my mindset changed; I stopped wanting the validation of my fellow classmates and did a complete 180. I embraced my Colombian side to the point where I stopped telling people that I was mixed race.

I just became fully Colombian. Looking back, I think I did this for two reasons. The first one being that I realised on a very subconscious level that the first thing people saw when they looked at me was my brown skin. I guess I was trying to beat them to making any wrong interpretations of what my background would be, by making being Colombian one of the first pieces of information I give to people about myself. The second reason was that I was fed up of everyone around me having a lack of awareness of the existence of South America. It was forgivable during primary school, but as a teenager I did not shy away from giving people a brief geography lesson.

I’m very proud of my Colombian heritage, I love my mother’s home country and I no longer wanted to tolerate Colombia being such a mystery. It was during this time of my life that I started to love my tanned skin and dark hair. I embraced everything about me that made me different. I connected with my Colombian side more than I ever had done before, but something was still not quite right. I am glad that I put an end to disliking my complexion, but only as long as it was known that I am Latina.

It was almost as if, I didn’t mind being darker than everyone else, as long as people weren’t mistaking me for something other than South American. Only years later am I able to understand why this was.

Growing up, it was impossible to not witness some racial discrimination between students of different ethnic groups, inside and outside of school. In my experience, I saw a lot of this directed towards Asians. Sometimes I was on the receiving end of this and I viewed being known as Latina as an opportunity to dodge racial slurs and insults.

Somehow, being Latina had these connotations of being exotic and desirable, which led to a whole different set of issues for another day!

The point is that I thought that claiming my Colombian heritage could help me avoid the mocking and stereotyping that other darker skinned people were being subjected to. I can’t believe it took me so long to realise that the behaviour I had been witnessing was in fact real life racism.

Not something to try and hide from, but something we must collectively face. Intolerance should always be challenged. In a bizarre turn of events, as a young adult I started getting assumed to be completely white British.

That’s the funny thing about being mixed race, it feels like certain physical features take turns on a daily basis between standing out, and between being less noticeable.

I remember at around 18 years old, I was shopping for a new foundation and the shop assistant asked me if I wanted a shade to match my natural skin-tone or the fake-tan I was wearing. I stumbled over my words in surprise when I told her I didn’t have fake tan on.

This may have been the validation I was seeking at a very young age, but I’m at a point in my life now, and have been a for few years, where I love being “dark” and I love being Colombian, but I do not care to make it known for the same reasons I once did as a teen.

I love my racially ambiguous appearance and I actually have come to relish in being mistook for different ethnicities.

It’s a conversation starter, it has helped me find diverse circles of friends and it has served as comfort to people I’ve met who see something in me that reminds them of themselves. While working a retail job, a Turkish couple came to my counter and asked me when I was from. They had said they came over because they thought I looked Turkish and the answer I gave didn’t disappoint them but was met instead with curiosity and interest.

A similar thing happened when an Arab man asked me for directions to the Egyptian embassy in Frankfurt because he thought I too was Arab. My appearance has opened up doors for me to get to know new people from different backgrounds and I have so much empathy for all cultures.

I love that my face cannot be pinned down to one specific ethnicity and I would like to think that when people see me, they see someone that they feel will accept them and understand their experiences.

We might not always be the same, but I bet there is something we can both relate to, and if not, then I am always ready and open to learn something new.

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