Georgina Lawton, RACELESS

Georgina Lawton, RACELESS

In this moving interview, Georgina Lawton talks with Zibby about the emotional toll of uncovering the long-held secret that explained her black racial identity, despite being born to two white parents.


Zibby Owens: Welcome, Georgina. Thank you so much for coming on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books.”

Georgina Lawton: Thank you for having me. Really excited to be here. I’ve listened to a few episodes already. An honor to be here.

Zibby: Aw, that’s so nice. I loved your book, oh, my gosh, Raceless: In Search of Family, Identity, and the Truth About Where I Belong. I felt like I could not put this down. I was zooming through it. Then I kind of wanted — well, I won’t even talk about the ending. Anyway, it was really great. I’m so glad you shared your experience in memoir form for everyone else. Could you just tell listeners a little more about what this book is really about?

Georgina: It’s my story. It follows me reflecting on my life growing up with a white family, two white parents, and always having questions as to why I didn’t look like them, why I wasn’t white as well. I didn’t have any answers for that. It was a really nice childhood. I had really fantastic parents, but race just wasn’t addressed. They found it really hard to talk about my identity. I always had questions from other people. Why are you black? Why are your parents white? Why is your brother white? I’ve got a brother with blue eyes. My mom is of Irish background. My dad’s English. It just wasn’t getting answered. We sort of alluded to this story that I might be this genetic throwback, which is something that came from my mom’s side because she’s from the west coast of Ireland. There was some Spanish migration. There was a story about the Spanish Armada getting wrecked off the west coast of Ireland and darkening the Irish gene pool. It’s actually really ahistorical, not facts, but it was something that we clung onto. It’s something that I would repeat as a child because my parents had told me to repeat that.

It was a really happy childhood, but it was mired in a lot of confusion. Finally when I reached sixteen, I was like, this can’t go on. This doesn’t make sense. People were saying, you look biracial. You look mixed race. I was like, what does that mean? What is my mix? How would this happen if my parents are my parents? I write a little bit about growing up in the book. Then I go into what happened when my dad got sick, which was when I was at university. That was sort of the catalyst for finding out more and for going on this big journey which I describe in the book. I go off and live in different black communities and try and unpack the secrets at the heart of my family and try and learn a bit more about who I am whilst also talking to other people who have had to unpack similar sorts of secrets around identity or parentage. That’s the book in a nutshell. There’s more. I don’t want to tell everybody the end. There’s quite a lot online as well.

Zibby: I have to say, your opening scene alone was like watching a movie or something, the suspense. Can I just summarize your opening scene? I feel like I’m not really giving it away because it’s right in the beginning. Although, I’m tempted to give away the ending, but I won’t. When you open it up, you see your mother in the hospital room. You describe both of your parents and their backgrounds. Then she gives birth. She looks down, and her child looks nothing like her. In fact, her child looks like you and has dark brown hair and dark eyes and darker skin. There’s a moment in the book where she’s just holding the baby and is like, what is my husband going to say about this? You paint them as being very in love and happy. No one says anything. The nurse actually intervenes and says, this is probably why. Then there’s the sigh of relief from your mom. Then it never gets brought up again. This is, I’m sure, how you imagined that scene. Insane. You grow up. Then you say in the book, I was a child. You put it all in italics. I didn’t question it because I was a child. This is what children do. Their parents tell you something, and that’s what it meant. I don’t want to go into your conversations with her, but that actual scene, is it how you imagined it could’ve been, or did she ever actually tell you about that moment?

Georgina: After I spoke to her at length, I had to go back and revisit my parents’ lives and unpack exactly how and why this secret could fester, this hidden truth, because everybody could see that I wasn’t white. It was also a secret because it wasn’t getting spoken about. I had to go back and talk about this with my mom. I wrote a lot about this in the book, but we actually went through lots of therapy after I came back from all my travels. We went through a lot of therapy. I had to ask her, what actually happened in the moments that I was born? Why didn’t anybody ask you if you’d had this affair or why I looked so different to you? She said that my dad never questioned her. He never asked her to justify my parents and justify herself. Then that sort of codified the secret. It codified the silence. Then everybody else took their cues from my family after that. It really came from my parents not addressing it in their own marriage the second I was born. The nurse gave them this little seed that then grew into the whole tree of our family. It was not something that they addressed, ever, between themselves. It was just not spoken about.

I was raised in a lot of love, but I was also brought into this silence. That was confusing at times. I had to go back and ask my mom, why did it happen? but also understand her position as someone that was brought up in Ireland as a Catholic in the sixties who held so much shame and so much guilt with this secret and how that manifested itself in our relationship. We had to do a lot of work together. At times, it felt like it was all me because I was having to question everybody. It felt like I’d uncovered a family-wide conspiracy, almost, that everybody was playing a part. Nobody had ever brought up my race because they’d all taken their cues from my parents. Then when I got old enough, it just became this maddening sort of performance. I was like, why is no one talking this? I’m getting racialized as black. Why can’t my family just say that word in our house? It wasn’t even said. The word black was never attributed to me by anyone on my mom or my dad’s family. It was just unspoken about.

Zibby: Then in the book, you say how your mother was sort of like, it doesn’t really matter. It doesn’t matter what race. We loved you. We love you so much. That’s it. You’re our daughter. You’re like, this colorblindness is not really helping me out. You’re leaving out an enormous piece of my own identity. Tell me a little more about that part.

Georgina: I think my mom’s view at the start of discussing all these things was very indicative of this wider issue that I think whiteness has, which is, if we address race in any way, shape, or form, it’s going to lead to something bad, so let’s just not address it at all. In our family, I had to tell her how insane that was because I’d been growing up being racialized by other people for my whole life. For my mom not to take that part of my identity into consideration, it was willfully ignorant. It was coming between us. She wasn’t able to fully understand me and where I’d come from and my experiences because she was trying to make me into something that I wasn’t, basically. She found that really hard to understand when we went to therapy. We had a therapist who spelt that out for her. I felt like that, but I was like, can I criticize my mom? Am I able to criticize my dad? To have a therapist spell it all out was really, really enlightening. It gave me a lot of permission to continue writing about these kind of things and to continue talking to other people. I needed those words to legitimize the experience that this was a colorblind upbringing and it shouldn’t have been because I am not a white child. It needed to be addressed. People saying they don’t see color, it’s well-meaning, but it’s also incredibly harmful. I think my mom had to understand that. It took quite a while through our therapy sessions.

Zibby: I think it’s like any big piece of who you are. If there’s any piece of who you are that gets ignored, then you can’t feel completely loved and appreciated. If somebody doesn’t address that — I can’t think of a good corollary.

Georgina: It’s like a lot of people struggling their identities. I got lots of emails when I started writing about this online from people who had grown up gay and they hadn’t come out to their parents and other people who had been misled about their parentage even without the racial aspect. If you’re not fully seen and you’re not fully heard by the people that love you, then it puts up a barrier between you and your loved one. It means that you can’t fully connect. I think it kept us more distant from each other than we needed to be. I had such great parents. My dad was so hands-on. My mom was always there for me. With this issue, they just couldn’t bring themselves to discuss it which meant they couldn’t fully connect with me in that way. Again, that was really painful going back and explaining that to my mom. There’s part of my life that she’d missed out on and that she deliberately shut herself off from. She couldn’t address her own shame and her own guilt around why I looked the way that I did because that had come from her having an affair.

Zibby: One of the sad pieces of this puzzle is that your dad passed away before you had any of these conversations with him. It’s so funny, I don’t even know why this is on my desk, but I have Dani Shapiro’s Inheritance right here. Then I have your book. These are both about the deep love of a daughter for a father despite the secrets that were kept. How much did the dads know? What do you do when the person who loves you the most was keeping something from you, or did you not even feel like — it honestly seemed from the anecdotes you related in here and even his conversation with his friends, that he never acknowledged it in his own mind, a denial of sorts. Is that how you feel, or do you think he — what do you think was going through his mind?

Georgina: I replay it so much. I go over and over it. I still don’t know. I don’t think I’ll ever know. I feel in my heart of hearts he knew that it wasn’t a logical conclusion that I must be his, but he hadn’t even admitted that to himself. Therefore, he just continued with his marriage. He continued raising me. He showered me in so much love. I can’t describe to you how hands-on he was. I think I put it in the book. When I needed a pair of shoes after a night out, he would drive to me. When I said, “Dad, my heels are hurting,” he would drive from our home to the club and drop me off another pair of shoes at two AM or whatever because my feet were hurting. I was so spoiled by him. I never thought that we weren’t related. Therefore, when I found all this out after he’d passed away, it was like losing him again. I felt extremely grateful and extremely saddened because I hadn’t been able to thank him for raising me despite the fact that he probably suspected we weren’t . Everybody kept saying, there’s not many men that would have stuck around when they could see that the baby wasn’t theirs. There’s not many men that would’ve stuck around and not questioned your mom. I had to stop and think, of course, yeah, there wouldn’t be many men that would do that. At the time, I didn’t think. He was just my dad. I was just happy to be spoiled by him. He was happy to go above and beyond for me in every way. He’d always stick up for me in family arguments. He always had my back. That was just how my dad was. I took it for granted. If he was here, there’s not enough words that I can think of to thank him for sticking in this situation that a lot of people would’ve walked away from, basically. It’s so difficult to talk about even now. It was so much. It was just so much. There was so much love from that relationship. It’s hard to even describe how much love there was and go over it again because he’s not here and we never got to talk about it. Sorry.

Zibby: No, I’m sorry. Losing a parent and someone you love alone is a lot. Having all of this layered on top, that’s such a level of confusion in your grief, I’m sure. I’m sorry. I’m sorry to have it even triggered.

Georgina: I love talking about him. I loved illuminating these memories through the writing that I’ve produced, but it’s still so hard because there’s so much that remains unanswered. There’s so much that I still go over in my own head. Did he know? Did it bother him? How bothered was he if he did know? It’s still difficult.

Zibby: He sounds like an amazing man. Then your caretaking of him at the end, you were like, “Why aren’t you mad?” He’s like, “This is my lot. I’m not going to be mad. This is my lot in life.” He seemed okay. Then you describe watching someone so strong and who clearly was so doting on you and just such a lifeforce diminish. That is so hard too. This is a lot to go through, really.

Georgina: A lot happened in a short space of time after a relatively normal upbringing with some strange racialized incidents in my childhood. It was pretty suburban and quiet. I talk about growing up in the book and going to Catholic school and it being pretty steady apart from the questions from strangers every couple of months. Why don’t you look like your family? Then a lot happened in a short space of time when my dad got really ill. That was so hard, as anyone knows who’s gone through looking after a parent with cancer or watching somebody wither away through a long-term illness. It’s just completely devasting. You can’t escape it. It’s there every day. They’re living with it every day. Even my friends, I talk about that in the book, they had to support me a lot because I was falling apart watching my dad fall apart. It’s like a knock-on effect. That was very, very traumatic. It just didn’t seem like the right time to delve into this family mystery. I tried to a little bit. I talk about that. I asked my dad, “Why don’t we look like each other? Can I get a DNA test?” He said, “Yes, that’s fine.” I couldn’t bring myself to process it when he was so sick because that was really the priority. His priority was looking after us and making sure that the family was taken care of and that any outstanding things were signed off. That was his priority. He was really focused on making sure me and my mom and my brother would be fine once he was passed away. I just couldn’t unravel this twenty-three-year-old family mystery in the middle of all that. It just didn’t seem like the right time. Then that’s something I still grapple with. Should I have pushed for answers?

Zibby: You did what was right at that time. Don’t look back now. That’s what you had to do. I’m sure you were right. Otherwise, you would’ve done something else had it felt at all right. Also, just because there’s no biological paternity doesn’t have any impact on his immense love for you. Even if he had known, it wouldn’t have changed anything. Same for adoptive parents. You can love and love and love, and it doesn’t have to be somebody from your blood. That’s only one thing.

Georgina: It raises that strange question about nature versus nurture. I know that I wouldn’t be half the person I was if I hadn’t had his love surrounding me. I think we always underestimate how much love can do for a person and what people turn out like when they don’t have that love in those early years. It just gives you so much self-confidence and a sense of self and the ability to love other people and the ability to pursue something that you love. Having so much love in my life at the beginning but then having it taken away was very difficult. It’s something that I’ve tried to portray in the book. He’s always going to be my dad regardless, of course. It’s just having to deal with the shock of that information and then process a new identity because of that. It was very bizarre and very difficult. It’s funny that you have that book because I feel like there’s a lot of people going through similar things right now. I get lots of emails about how the DNA testing world is democratizing things for a lot of people but also drawing skeletons out of closets that haven’t ever been taken out. It’s a very interesting time to see how the industry is impacting people’s families and family secrets and how that changes our perception of how we love one another. Will it change our perception? I don’t know. Some people cut their family off when they find out these kind of things. Everybody deals with it differently. I’ve definitely gone through my own process of being extremely angry and then being very reflective and then being very confused. It’s a whole process.

Zibby: It’s a lot. It’s something that, at the time whenever you were born, I’m sure your mother was just not even — they could never have imagined. Like so many other families, the option was not to discuss. How would they possibly have been able to imagine the science advancing to this point so quickly? It’s really mind-blowing. Now this is going to make me sound like a stalker or something, but after I read your book, I was like, I really want to see what her parents and her brother look like. What do they look like? You alluded so much to these pictures and the visuals of the whole thing. There were a lot of pictures you posted, or not a lot, but a handful of your dad on Instagram or wherever. I haven’t found any of your mom. Then I was wondering, why not? Was that on purpose? Then I was wondering, what does your mom — she’s still alive, as far as I know, right?

Georgina: Yeah.

Zibby: What does she make of this whole thing? Does she want to be a part of your story? She seems super private. Yet here’s this book, so tell me about that.

Georgina: Interesting question. I think at the beginning, it was really hard for her to understand why I was putting our private lives in the public hemisphere in such a huge way. I was writing online in The Guardian. I had a little family column, which is how this book actually got created because I got contacted after the column did quite well and asked to write a book. My mom and I were going to therapy whilst I was writing the column. We would discuss my writing in the therapy session. That would be a whole session. She would say, “I’m very annoyed this week. Georgina’s writing about our family. Everybody can see it. I’m not happy with how this is panning out.” We would discuss that in therapy. The therapist would try and make her see that this is my way of expressing myself. I’ve got this creative outlet. I need to understand what’s gone on over the years in order to process it and move forward. My mom doesn’t work like that. She doesn’t have the same creative expression. Even in therapy, I would always talk and talk and talk. She would be a lot more reserved and a lot more reluctant to speak. Sometimes there would be long silences where the therapist would have to prompt her and say, “What do you think of this? How would you respond to this?” I think a lot of it came from her feeling really guilty. A lot of it also came from just us being really different. I really need to speak and talk and write in order to process the world around me.

Whereas my mom, she was raised on a farm in Ireland in the 1960s. She didn’t have time for hugs. She didn’t have time for reading and those kind of pleasures. It was a hard life where she had to help out a lot. Then once you were old enough, you moved to Dublin or you moved to London to be a receptionist or to be a teacher if you were smart. Those were the options. That was it. There wasn’t really a lot of time for play and telling your family that you loved them. It just wasn’t like that. They’re quite stoic as well, my Irish family. She found it really hard. Even when I was writing in The Guardian, I didn’t do this consciously, but people would point out that I wrote so much more about my dad and I left out a lot of bits about my mom. In the book, I really tried to illuminate more of her personality. I look back at my writing in The Guardian, I think I was still quite angry and I didn’t want to write anything negative about my mom because I love her. I ended up not writing as much at all about her. I was writing on how my dad helped me with my hair growing up and our relationship. I wrote a lot about that, but I didn’t write a lot about my mom because I didn’t want to write anything that I would regret. Then I ended up not writing loads in that column. In the book, I tried to shine a bit more of a light on my parents’ marriage and what that was like. It was quite happy. I never really heard them arguing about much. I tried to portray what it was like for us and how our relationship changed once I started asking questions about race and identity. That definitely was something that I felt. I hope that answers your question.

Zibby: That does. Also, the pictures, did she not want her picture…?

Georgina: At first — again, this was years ago now at therapy. This was 2017, ’18. It was really quite tough. I had to ask her permission to put her picture in any of the articles in The Guardian that I wrote. Then over years, she’s become so much more open. I remember we had a really good breakthrough session where the therapist said, “Georgina’s going to be doing a podcast. She’s going to be doing a book. Do you think you’ll be able to talk to her and be interviewed for this? Would you be happy with her writing about it on an even bigger scale than an article in the paper? This will be a book. This will be a long-term thing.” My mom was like, “Yes. I feel like we’ve come such a long way. I really want you to understand more about yourself. If you think an interview with me will help you, I’m happy to speak. I’m happy for you to continue talking about this for as long as you need.” I remember turning to her and being like, whoa. The therapist was like, “This is a big moment for you, Collette.” That’s my mom’s name. “I think you should have a hug.” We stood up and we had this big hug. We were crying. It was just a really big moment for me because she never used to be that open to me communicating to others about our family. That was lovely. Now with the UK version of the book, there’s a photo of my mom, my dad, and me as a baby on the front.

Zibby: Is there? I have to go look that up.

Georgina: She’s on the front cover now. I thought that would be a battle, but she was quite happy with it now. She’s come a really long way.

Zibby: I wonder why they didn’t do it here.

Georgina: With the different publishers, they’ve all got different ideas about what looks best. The US were very keen to have no photos and have a typography front, but the UK really wanting to have a photo.

Zibby: It’s a very cool cover regardless.

Georgina: Yeah, I really like the US one.

Zibby: Wow. So where do you go from here? You have this book coming out, podcast on Audible. Do you still do your column? What happens next for you?

Georgina: It’s a weird one because I’m now doing all these interviews about Raceless. It’s a story that I started talking about when I was traveling in 2016, ’17. It’s followed me all this time up to 2021 because there were delays with the book. It was supposed to come out in 2020, but corona. I’m going to carry on talking about it for a while because that’s the book circuit. You need to keep talking. It’s really weird because it’s sort of like emotional time travel. You go back and you relive memories. Some of them are quite painful. You want to keep talking about the book. Also, you want to try and work on the next thing. I’ve got a travel guide coming out which is for black women. That comes out this year. That’s focused on all my travels. Then obviously, Raceless is coming out in February. I’m now in the process of writing articles about things in the book to draw attention to that. I don’t have the column in The Guardian, but I’m doing another big piece about my family and how getting a dog during lockdown actually helped me and my mom come back together a little bit. Just bits and bobs like that to try and move the story on and draw people back to it in ways that are new and interesting. The podcast as well, that came out in November. That’s got some interviews with my mom on it. That was amazing to get her to open up and have recording equipment there. I never thought I would be able to do that. She’s come so far. It’s brought us a lot closer. I just wish I could have my dad here as well to see how our relationship has changed and to see how this thing has come out of the closet. We’re all so much more open because of it in a way.

Zibby: Do you believe that he knows now? Is that part of your belief system, or not so much?

Georgina: I feel like he’s always with us and if he was here, nothing would really change for him. I really believe that. I feel like he’s definitely been with us in moments that have been super testing and super trying. If he was here, he would be supportive. I think he would’ve probably helped us through it in a way that is very him. He was always putting others before his own feelings. I feel like it wouldn’t have really altered how he views my mom or how he views me. There were times when I definitely thought that might be the case. It’s nice to hear other people’s opinions and reflect on how much of a great person he was as a father, as a husband, just as a human. He was a standout.

Zibby: He sounds like a really special guy.

Georgina: Yeah, he was.

Zibby: Do you have any advice for aspiring authors?

Georgina: For aspiring authors, gosh, no one’s asked me that. No one’s asked me that before.

Zibby: Great.

Georgina: Writing your truth is super important, and writing in a way that’s authentic to you. That can take a while to develop your own voice. I would say try and work on your craft. Read widely. Also, remember that whatever you write and whatever comes from you is going to be individual. It’s going to be unique. Nobody else can copy that. It sometimes can take a while before you feel like you’ve got your authentic voice, as people call it. All you can do is practice to get there. I remember some of the stuff that I wrote for the proposal for Raceless. It’s not half as good as what I’ve written now. That’s just because I’ve been writing all the time, nearly every day for years. I’m really pleased with the final product, but when I look back at my drafts and my proposal, it was not half as good because I was still working on my craft. I just think read really widely and write as often as you can. Then you’ll find your own lane and your own voice.

Zibby: Love that. Thank you. Thank you so much for this conversation, for this fantastic book that was interesting on just so many levels and really was a love story to your dad, essentially, on top of everything else. Thank you for sharing. Now I want to read your piece about getting a dog.

Georgina: That’ll come out in The Guardian soon. That’s about me and my dog Jasper. He’s new. He’s a greyhound.

Zibby: I wish you the best of the luck for your launch and everything.

Georgina: Thank you so much. Thank you for having me. Honestly, it’s been amazing. Sorry I’ve been on camera.

Zibby: Do not apologize. I’m used to it. It’s fine. I cry all the time myself, so no worries.

Georgina: It’s healthy, honestly. I tell everybody, have a good cry at least once a week. It helps.

Zibby: Oh, good. Do we have to limit it to once a week? Thank you, Georgina. Have a great day.

Georgina: Thank you. I can’t wait to listen to this back. Take care.

Zibby: Bye.

Georgina: Buh-bye.

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