What It Was Really Like Growing Up As A Mixed-Race Kid In The 60s


When novelist Kit de Waal was six weeks old, her parents decided to move out of the bedroom they all shared with her older sister, Kim, in the Birmingham suburb of Small Heath. His Irish mother, Sheila, told him that his black father, Saint Kittien, Arthur, might buy them a house around the corner, but he “had better things in mind”.

But when they went to estate agents to inquire about properties advertised for sale, they discovered that everything was suddenly and mysteriously unavailable. Her father decided to play racist at their own game and sent Sheila alone to see the house they finally bought in September 1960. “Oh, you should have seen the faces of the neighbors when your father arrived!” Sheila laughed later. “Oh yes! It was too late then!”

Within months, “For Sale” signs appeared outside homes on either side of theirs. Sheila used to put on a Brummie accent to mock their shock: “Go see the real estate agents, Maureen, I don’t live near black people.” They will play the drums morning, noon and night, you look!

Sheila and Arthur knew the drill, because they were racists themselves. They had left Small Heath to “get away from Indians, Pakistanis and Africans”. In De Waal’s childhood memoir, everyone struggles (and mostly fails) to get away from something or someone. Arthur O’Loughlin moved away from St. Kitts to earn enough money in England to return home to glory. Sheila O’Loughlin got away from her loveless mother by running away with a black man. Both were trying to get away from their poverty and discrimination and the relentlessness of working class jobs.

But within a few years, Arthur and Sheila were mostly trying to get away from each other. Sleek and controlling, Arthur spent his money on clothes and impressing his loved ones. He escaped to cricket and television, expecting his six children to sit quietly on the couch watching classic films. He expected them to “notice what he noticed” and grilled them on the actors’ biographies. A cough and his silent laser gaze would chase a child away from his presence.

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