A mixed-race educator’s view of race, identity, and the everyday work of being Black

Grace Francis on the problem with labels and why there is hope for the future

Black and white photo of Grace Francis on a multi coloured abstract background
Grace Francis
(Image credit: Future)

In this mini-series, writer Laurie O'Garro talks to inspiring, marginalized women about the everyday hurdles they face. She reveals how they overcome them, and their aspirations for a more inclusive future.

Grace Francis is the founder of DramEd, an education company that uses performing arts to explore the early years and primary school curriculum. She was born in London to an African-Caribbean mother and an English father. 

I met Grace in a West London café for a conversation about life after Black Lives Matter and its impact on people’s understanding of racism. I wanted to know what she thought about concepts like identity and inclusion.

Grace on how the movement helped find the right words...

“Before George Floyd, there was a lack of vocabulary to understand what was going on.  This movement has given me that vocabulary. You’re hearing terms for experiences I’d found hard to put into words, experiences I saw my mum struggle to articulate when I was growing up.”

Grace is referring to white fragility. A phrase popularized by the book White Fragility’ written by Robin diAngelo. I understand. Reading it reminded me of when I was a young teacher. I learned then that reactions to complaints of discrimination—like white women’s tears and focusing on the messenger rather than the message—were not unique.

Typically, the darker your skin tone the more challenges you are faced with. We’re all human beings.

Grace Francis

Grace on labels and notions of identity...

As a mixed-race child, Grace often felt confused: “I identified with my mum and her side of the family, but I struggled with how the outside world saw me. Some people told me I was mixed race, some told me I was Black. As an adult, I’ve come to learn that a White person will never see me as White, whereas most Black people embrace me as a Black woman. At the same time, I acknowledge that our experiences are different in lots of ways. I’m still trying to figure out the labels.”

Grace is married to a British Caribbean man. Their children have their own notions of identity. “The world as I know it, has [historically] turned such a natural process of being born in the skin you’re in into an opportunity to give one group of people a much easier ride through life than others. Typically, the darker your skin tone the more challenges you are faced with. We’re all human beings. When you remove language, what do you have? Just people and culture. But you’ve got black and white and others in between who are identified according to their nationality. Why do we do that? To me, it’s a power thing, and I can’t help thinking how much it holds humanity back. No one is really black or white. These are boxes that create polar opposites so we can fit into an inferiority and superiority agenda.”

It’s easy to see us as thieves because of the color of our skin, so let’s make their job easier by making sure they can see our hands at all times

Grace Francis

Grace on the everyday work of being Black

Moving on from identity, Grace and I discuss the emotional labor involved in being a person of color: “When we go on holiday, my husband is always a black man, but I could be Spanish or Moroccan.” There are, however, advantages to being ‘racially ambiguous. “If we’re not sure how we’ll be received, I’ll do the talking. It’s an unspoken rule that we have, but I’ve started to look at that a lot."

“My children and I have been in shops and seen white children walking around, picking things up, but I have said to my sons, ‘Don’t touch. I don’t want people thinking we’re up to no good.’ I’ve seen how saying this has affected my oldest son, and I feel guilty. He had as much right as any other child to want to touch and feel, but my programming was always, ‘It’s easy to see us as thieves because of the color of our skin, so let’s make their job easier by making sure they can see our hands at all times’. I may as well have got them to walk around shops with their hands up. I don’t do this anymore; I have become more aware of my programming and can pinpoint similar experiences from my own childhood.”

Asked about how she was affected by the killing of George Floyd, Grace said she found it emotionally draining. “It took until July for me to feel better. I had lots of conversations with people in my support network.  Sometimes we’d meet up and hardly speak. It was a heavy time. That’s what happens when you feel like the world is out of control and you’re tired of fighting.

“But I’ve found a sense of purpose. I’ve made a promise to myself to have conversations with people which, in the past, I would have avoided. We have to take personal responsibility if we want to change things.” But she’s quick to admit that conversations about racism aren’t always easy. I’ve recently had conversations with white identifying people who are a lot older than me, and I can see the many ways in which racism manifests itself and how deeply ingrained it is in our social structures, but it seems hard for some to see because they can remember a time when British pubs would say ‘no Blacks, No Irish, No dogs’. It’s frustrating, because although that kind of discrimination is illegal, that doesn’t mean discrimination has disappeared, and that’s not okay. None of it is or ever was okay, and everyone should take responsibility. No one is excluded from the discussion about how we move forward.”

Grace on where we go next...

As our conversation draws to a close, I ask Grace how she sees the future.

“The only thing I can do is remain positive. These conversations are mainstream now, so people will start to educate themselves, take action and make improvements that are more than just superficial.”

As the founder of DramEd, Grace is well placed to inspire young minds: “I’m doing what I can through my work. An anti-racist workshop I’m currently producing will hopefully give children food for thought. I’m excited about creating theatre that looks at issues of race from a child’s perspective. One of my pieces was inspired by a conversation I had with my son while I was plaiting his hair. In it, the character recalls occasions when children and teachers took it upon themselves to put their fingers through his hair. Through my work, I hope to show how certain comments and actions affect a child’s self-esteem.”

Grace is already seeing signs of change: “My son’s school has already started decolonizing its library, adding books that are representative, and that gives me hope that the world will be a different place for my children in ten or twenty years’ time.  We have made a little progress, but we still have a long way to go.”

Contributing writer

Laurie O'Garro is a conscious parent, teacher, String Artist, poet, writer and would-be author. She lives in London.