The New Bohemians’ Creative Mama, Justina Blakeney
Justina and Ida, Los Angeles, California
If you’ve been online for any amount of time or you’ve followed the #facethefoilage tag and account on Instagram or she’s turned you into a pattern and plant coveter or you love interior design or at least didn’t know you did until you bumped into her, you’ve heard of Justina. The woman behind this design empire is the instantly recognizable Justina Blakeney, who not only pens the incredibly popular design blog, The Jungalow and authored the New York Times bestseller, The New Bohemians, but she is a wife to an incredible husband and mother to the sweetest daughter, Ida. Recently, I had the opportunity to have an intimate conversation with her. So, grab your morning tea and read through our interview below as Justina shares her unique and refreshing take on motherhood, sisterhood and weaving creativity through it all.
I identify as belonging to the human race. Ethnically, I identify as being multi-racial. I am black, Native American, and of Eastern European Jewish descent. The African side is from my dad’s side of the family. Both of my grandparents on his side of the family were part African American and part Native American and there’s also some French and Irish blood in there.
My mother’s family is of Eastern European Jewish descent. I was raised Jewish. My dad converted to Judaism when he and my mom got married. My mom’s family migrated to the east coast at the turn of last century. She was born in NJ and moved to LA when she was around 12 or 13.
Where were you born and where have you lived?
I was born in Northern California. My parents were teaching at Sonoma State University. We moved to Oakland when I was just a few weeks old. Then we moved to Berkley until I was 13. When I was 13, we spent a year living abroad in Switzerland. It was a really formative year for me. I learned so much. I learned that I love traveling, learning different languages and living in different countries.
When we went back to Berkley, I decided I wanted to do a year abroad, so I went back to Switzerland when I was 16 I lived with a host family. I came back and finished HS in Berkley and moved to LA to attend UCLA in LA. I left again during my junior year and studied abroad in Florence, Italy. I loved that experience and came back in 2000 and graduated from UCLA and moved back to Italy in 2001. I lived in Italy for 6 years and then moved to NYC and stayed there until 2008 (Williamsburg, BK) then moved back to LA.
Why do you live where you are currently? Did race factor into your decision?
I currently live in LA. Race wasn’t so much a factor. While I loved living in Italy, I definitely grew a little bit tired of the lack of diversity there. It was always very refreshing to go to places like NY and LA because it’s so diverse and I really like being in a mixed crew. It feels even more mixed in NY than it does here in LA. I think that had something to do with why I moved to Brooklyn from Italy. I wanted something that was a polar opposite of where I’d been and that was it.
Primarily, my husband is from here. We were in a long distance relationship when I was in NY and I moved here to be with him. I love it here– work wise, this place has been really very good to me. The weather is amazing. I love being so close to the ocean and the desert and the mountains. There’s a really great creative community here in Los Angeles and I think I’m here to stay.
How did your families respond to you being in an interracial relationship?
My husband is also of mixed European descent. His father is Eastern European Jewish and his mother is Irish Catholic. Our families get along really well. Nobody tripped at all about the racial stuff. Maybe we’ve had a few hiccups along the religious lines. I was raised Jewish and my husband is an Atheist and I think that has probably caused more issues than any racial thing that he and I have had to deal with, but it is all handled with grace.
Do you know many other multiracial families? Is your community mixed?
I know a lot of other multiracial families. I would say that my community is fairly mixed. When we all hang out together, you can look around and there’s a lot of brown babies running around. It’s a really mixed crew. We love it.
Have you explained to your child what her racial makeup is?
We haven’t. I think that racial identity is so deep and we want her to identify however she chooses. We don’t want to put any kind of identity on her. We’re very mixed in our family and she hasn’t started asking about it yet. So once she does, we will talk about where people come from and why people are different shades of brown.
Have you ever had negative reactions to you being her mother publicly?
I wouldn’t exactly call this negative. The only kinds of things that used to happen is because I am a brown woman walking around, oftentimes in affluent neighborhoods, especially when she was little and I was out with her Bugaboo stroller and she has fairer skin, a few times I was mistaken for her caretaker as opposed to being her mother. So, if we were at the park or I was walking her around I might say, “beunos dias” to a caretaker and I had another caretaker ask me “Para quién trabajas?” (who do you work for)”? I’d respond, “no this is actually my daughter.” Other than that, I don’t think I’ve had any negative reaction.
What was your experience growing up biracial from two very different cultural influences? What have you adopted into your own personal brand of mothering?
It was fun. I was pretty lucky growing up in Berkley, California. It’s a very forward thinking place. There were a lot of mixed kids and a lot of people who identified as being multiracial or biracial. I definitely got into stupid shit in high school. If I had any issues at all, it was with being accepted by African American women. A lot of the time I would get teased by the black girls at school with things like “ohh you talk white” or “your hair is this” or “you think you cute”. I dealt with a lot of that and I felt pretty ostracized I think from the black girls at my high school for the most part, so I ended up being a little bit of an outsider and hanging out with mostly the art geeks.
Our art geek crew was also a very mixed group of kids and were just a little bit weird and doing our own art thing. That was probably one of the biggest challenges I faced. I think also the different religions was definitely an interesting kind of point of interaction. The bringing together of cultural foods and cultural songs. We grew up with all of that. My parents were really great about being inclusive of both cultures as opposed to exclusive and I really appreciated that. Although for the most part we were raised Jewish and we didn’t even celebrate Christmas like a lot of more secular families do. We celebrated Hanukkah and the Jewish holidays but we also had my dad’s side of the family over for those holidays. So we’d have a big mixed crew of black, brown, white and Asian people at our Passover dinners and stuff like that. That was kind of how we rolled.
I think that inclusion is something that I really try to offer my daughter instead of carving her out different things about our different cultures I try to expose her to as much as possible so that she might be able to make her own decisions about what kind of person and what kind of mother hopefully one day she would like to be.
What are your thoughts on the saying “mixed raced children are so beautiful”? Do you feel it is a compliment or does it bother you? Why?
There’s definitely something about it that rubs me the wrong way and you can imagine I’ve heard that my whole life. Of course it’s flattering when somebody says that you’re beautiful, but at the same time there is a stigma attached to being biracial. I felt alienated by the community of black women at my high school and I think that the whole like paradigm that somehow having lighter skin and having bigger bouncier curls or whatever is more beautiful is not true. It’s offensive to me because I think we are all beautiful. There are so many different brands of beauty and to categorize any specific group of person like “these people are more beautiful than these other people” I think is messed up.
How do you teach your daughter about her ethnicity or heritage through traditions and customs?
So definitely through music. We do that a lot. My mom does a lot of the traditional Jewish stuff with her so she knows all the prayers and the songs and dances. I think as far as food goes, we’ve always had a very mixed food tradition in our homes. I definitely grew up eating soul food with Jewish food. Collard greens with matzo ball soup. Those traditions carry on. But we also eat foods from everywhere, so sometimes Ida says, “let’s have sushi. Let’s have Mexican!” This standard of race and culture being so divisive is really starting to break down. Everything is becoming so much more fluid and there are so many more mixed people (at least in this community) who don’t identify as x or y but as x and y or x and y and z. We’re just trying to expose her to as much as possible from all different cultures.
Do you find you consciously lean to one side more than the other?
I definitely identify as being multiracial. I think there’s always some element of code switching that’s always going on. When I’m hanging out with black people I might talk differently than when I’m hanging out with white people. I think a lot of mixed people do that. I have moments when I feel more one way than another way. I identify with being a minority and I feel that way very often. At UCLA I remember so many times feeling like I was the only person of color in the room. I still feel that way very often. It can be alienating sometimes.
How does your family aide in developing ethnic identity?
I think we just help her become a good person with strong morals. That has to do more with her moral identity. Her ethnic identity will just develop over time and encompass all the different beautiful cultures and races and religions that she is a part of and will be introduced to on the way.
What have you learned from the women in your life that directly impacts you today in raising your daughter?
I think the most important thing is to instill her with a sense of self-confidence with a little dose of humility as well. Being self-confident, and I learned that from my mom, and being a good person with integrity. My mom, my sister and grandmother and so many of the strong women in my life have instilled that in me and I’m trying to bring that to Ida as well.
What impact has your own tribe of girlfriends had on your mothering?
It’s interesting. I’ve got a lot of girlfriends and we are all such different moms and I love that. Some of them are sham and spend all their time figuring out amazing activities to do with their kids and I really respect that. How much patience and time and effort and love goes into being a full time mom. Sometimes I feel a little guilty that that’s not my path. That’s not what I’ve chosen. I think that I also have a lot of friends who own their own businesses or have high-powered jobs who are amazing moms too. I think we just support each other however we can. We remind each other that we’re all doing a really good job and we’re all doing the best we can and that we’re really among the first generation of women to be growing up to be these high powered business ladies and also moms and that we’re forging a path for our kids and we’re doing great.
What other aspects of your life do you find being a mother has changed you?
I think being a mother has changed every aspect of my life. My priorities are completely different. My schedule is completely different. When I’m not working, I’m hanging out with her and I think that’s how it should be and that’s how it is. Having said that, it’s exhausting, it’s draining. I don’t really feel like I have me time—like personal me time—ever. My armpits get hairy and nails don’t aren’t done and that’s just how it’s going to be for a few years and that’s okay.
What has your daughter taught you about yourself? About motherhood? About womanhood?
Ida has taught me what it means to be a mom, firstly, obviously. She’s taught me that being a parent is the most important job in the world. She brings out the best in me and also shows me gently how I can be better. She does something and I start to feel impatient, I recognize gosh I’m really impatient. I really need to work on that. She’s so frank and honest and so raw and true. She’ll tell it like it is and she’s the only person in my world who really does that and I love her for it so much. She’s so pure and kind hearted and funny and smart and I already learn so many things from her. The way that she observes things, it’s really astonishing. Her little word play and the way that she combines ideas and turns them upside down…she’s the most creative person I’ve ever met in my life. It’s really amazing being a mom.
Physically, motherhood has taken a bit of a toll on me. I had a fairly easy pregnancy, but I got crazy stretch marks and had an emergency c-section and I’ve got the scars from that and my belly is completely changed and I breastfed for 16 months and my boobs are super saggy, you know. But in the morning she’ll come in and climb in our bed and she’ll rub my belly or lay on my breasts and say, “mama, you’re so cosy. You’re so comfy. You’re the comfiest pillow”. She’ll say things like that and it just reminds me that besides the magic that it is that I created Ida in my own body, it still serves that purpose of comforting her and she feels so soothed and so at home around me and my body and physicality. It reminds me that I need to have that kind of self-love, no matter what. No matter what.
What’s one aspect of your character you’d like Ida to recall when thinking of you when she’s an adult?
I hope she recalls the laughter—all the laughter that we share and our funny stories that we tell and all the imagination and funniness that we share. The moments where we just lay on the floor and geek out and laugh for days.