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By her own admission, broadcast journalist Charlene White doesn’t often find herself overcome with emotion.
Instead describing herself as someone brimming with “fight” and “resilience”, the ITV News and Loose Women anchor says she has long dealt with online abuse in the only way she knows how.
“With humour,” says White with a smile. “It’s going to sound awful, but I have been faced with social media racism for so long – oh God longer than a decade now – that I’ve had to build an armour against it. I shouldn’t have to build an armour, but I have done, in order to be able to survive and enjoy the side of social media that I love.”
An all too regular occurrence brought to the fore by recent events including the Euro 2020 finals – when a number of England footballers were subjected to a torrent of online racial abuse after losing to Italy on penalties – White describes the need for “broad shoulders” to deal with an increasing number of trolls and negative online commenters.
However, it’s the anchor’s latest on-screen project, Charlene White: Empire’s Child that unexpectedly saw her stoic facade slip, giving way to emotion, and raising questions about her lineage she could never have seen coming.
Yep… for the first time ever, my sis @_CarinaWh and @Joshadw1 will join me on @ITV later this month - as we search for our family’s roots, in the documentary “Empire’s Child”. It’s *very* exciting!!! https://t.co/OM6QyI9rJn
— Charlene White (@CharleneWhite) October 5, 2021
Commissioned as part of ITV’s celebration of Black History Month, the one-hour documentary sees the presenter delve into her ancestry and its links to the British Empire investigating what it really means to be black and British.
“I’m a journalist, my heart tends to be cold most of the time,” White initially jokes when asked about the emotional impact of the revelations.
“But there’s one point in the film where it suddenly just hit me in a way I wasn’t expecting, without me wanting it to. And that’s when I realised actually, it means so much more than we realise to gain more of an understanding of home.”
Retracing her roots across the British Empire, White’s journey unearthed a number of shocking revelations linking the shadowy history of the Empire to the fundamental shaping of her own family tree.
Recounting how the lighter skin tone on one side of her family paired with an old photograph of her uncle – who according to the journalist was “obviously of mixed heritage” – had always led to the assumption her great-grandfather William Stanbury was white, the need for new information saw her venture to the south coast of England in search of answers.
“Through the process of looking for him, I travelled down to Devon, and Devon does have a lot of links where slavery is concerned and the Empire,” says White, 41. “So, I was really excited, saying ‘yes, I have found him!’ – only to realise that actually, he’s not English at all, he was born in Jamaica And that’s when the fear sort of set in.”
Describing how new evidence pointed her towards an altogether more sinister side of the British Empire, White recalls the moment she conceded a direct link to slavery was increasingly likely.
“I really hoped brutality and violence weren’t involved within my lineage, and then I realised at that point that it definitely was, and it probably went back a lot further than I had anticipated.
“To not be able to know what this man was capable of, or how he came to be able to have two children by black women in Jamaica, it does leave a bit of a horrible feeling there.”
A revelation that marked the start of a long journey aided by researchers and historians, White describes the deep-dive into her family’s past as a “pretty big moment”.
“There are so many of us, as immigrants, who live our life being so displaced and trying to find exactly where home is,” says White.
“My lineage crosses three continents; it crosses Africa, it crosses the Caribbean, and it crosses Europe. So, you sort of have these three continents – but where within that do I sit and where within that do I belong?”
Calling the programme a “rare opportunity” to uncover her ancestry, White describes its timing as “synergy” given the recent fruitless research efforts made by her Aunty Eleanor.
A journey that culminates in a transatlantic voyage in search of answers, White says that despite regularly returning to the island of Jamaica, the filming trip was the first time she had ever truly “felt at home”.
“There is something wonderful about stepping foot in a country where you aren’t the minority, where you are the majority and that does fill my heart,” says White.
“I don’t feel any less British because I’m black. I won’t allow anybody to take that away from me at all. In the same way that I am no less Jamaican because I’m born here.
“As a result of doing this programme, I definitely feel like I know more about me,” says White, “and I think it’s made me stronger.”
Charlene White: Empire’s Child airs on ITV on Thursday, October 21