On being mixed-race

I grew up thinking of myself as equally English and Pakistani, writes Samira Shackle. Was I wrong?

When I meet people for the first time, it's not unusual for them to ask, "Where are you from?" If I reply, "London," they say, "Oh, no, where are you from from," or, "Where are you actually from?" It's a polite way of seeking an explanation for my colour. Most of the time, I don't find it offensive - I am half Pakistani and half English and look racially ambiguous.

If you are mixed-race (as one in ten British children now is), you don't slot neatly into racial or national categories. The conversation above tends to continue, "Do you go back home often?" - which feels strange, as until now I have visited Pakistan only as a baby and "home" is Queen's Park in north London. Having one English parent makes you as much English as anything else - arguably more English than not, if you live here - yet most people's default position is to define you by your difference.

It isn't necessarily a bad thing to show interest in someone's background. It becomes corrosive only when it is tied to a non-inclusive sense of Englishness that is hostile to "the other" and suggests that, because you have a mixed heritage, you cannot share ownership of the place where you live.

It was not until I went to university that I encountered the idea that Englishness is bound to ethnicity. I was brought up to think of myself as equally English and Pakistani, taking pride in both traditions and spending time with my extended family on both sides. Though I pass easily for European, I have always been happy to identify myself as Pakistani, too. This idea of mixed or multiple national and racial identities developed as I grew up in the borough of Brent in north-west London, which is the most ethnically diverse area in England and Wales. According to the Office for National Statistics, there is an 85 per cent chance that any two people chosen at random here will be from different ethnic groups (there is just a 2 per cent chance in the least diverse town, Easington, County Durham). In Brent, immigrants from across the world do not live in cloistered communities but use the same schools and shops.

It was quite a jump to go from here to Oxford. At university, I was suddenly exposed to white people who had only known other white people and made it clear that they perceived a difference between us. Mostly, this wasn't out-and-out racism and it was quite minor: a friend would constantly mention that I was Pakistani, which suggested that he couldn't get it off his mind; another friend rounded on me for saying that I wasn't keen on popular names, such as James or Rachel - "Those English names are my heritage," she snapped, which felt like a slap in the face because that English heritage was mine, too. Another friend affected a Peter Sellers-style Indian accent when talking about my dad, even though my father is English. It was painful to realise that, while I took my own Englishness for granted, others - close friends - called it into question because of my mother's birthplace.

Mixed-race Britons are all over billboards, buses and the TV as the acceptable face of diversity. They represent the fastest-growing ethnic group in Britain (young people are six times more likely than adults to be mixed) but they are frequently left out of serious discussions on race. Clearly, many still struggle with where to place us. My mum used to hate filling in forms that made her define her children as "other". Perhaps the newer category of "mixed: white and Asian" means that the parameters of what it means to be English are expanding.

Home truths

In 2002, an Ipsos MORI poll found that 86 per cent of Britons disagreed with the statement that to be truly British, you have to be white. Most make a distinction between "British" and "English" - the former is considered more inclusive and less tied to ethnicity. For me, Englishness is inclusive, too. Nearly all of my closest friends as I grew up were from either mixed backgrounds or different ethnic groups. Our parents might have cooked different food or worn different clothes but our upbringings were largely the same. It never felt like a big deal to have family from Pakistan, Guyana, Egypt or Zambia, because the similarities between us far outweighed the differences: we shared a language, an education, a self-deprecating and sarcastic humour and a powerful identification with London. Class background - a very English thing - also came into it.

My brother's wife is half Portuguese and half Irish, which makes their children doubly mixed. Their nine-year-old daughter finds this confus­ing. She once asked whether she was Portuguese or Pakistani, because a kid in the playground had told her that she couldn't be both. Why shouldn't she be able to identify as English if she wants to, despite having only one grandparent who is ethnically so? Neither she nor her parents have ever lived anywhere else.

Growing up somewhere makes it home. It is highly likely that you will share in the cultural identity of a place even if you haven't consciously taken it as your own. I know mixed-race people who have had less positive experiences than my own and who choose to define themselves by their non-British heritage.

Yet the two need not be mutually exclusive. Difference can form a strong part of your self-identification - a Populus poll in February found that Asian and black Britons are significantly more likely than their white counterparts to define themselves by ethnicity and religion - without it detracting from your Englishness or Britishness.

Samira Shackle is a staff writer for the NS

Samira Shackle is a freelance journalist, who tweets @samirashackle. She was formerly a staff writer for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 04 April 2011 issue of the New Statesman, Who are the English?

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How can Labour break the Osborne supremacy?

The Conservative hegemony is deeply embedded - but it can be broken, says Ken Spours.

The Conservative Party commands a majority not just in the House of Commons, but also in the wider political landscape. It holds the political loyalty of expanding and powerful voting constituencies, such as the retired population and private sector businesses and their workers. It is dominant in English politics outside the largest urban centres, and it has ambitions to consolidate its position in the South West and to move into the “Northern Powerhouse”. Most ambitiously, it aims to detach irreversibly the skilled working classes from allegiance to the Labour Party, something that was attempted by Thatcher in the 1980s. Its goal is the building of new political hegemonic bloc that might be termed the Osborne supremacy, after its chief strategist.

The new Conservative hegemony is not simply based on stealing Labour’s political clothes or co-opting the odd political figure, such as Andrew Adonis; it runs much deeper and has been more than a decade the making. While leading conservative thinkers have not seriously engaged with the work of Antonio Gramsci, they act as if they have done. They do this instinctively, although they also work hard at enacting political domination.

 Adaptiveness through a conservative ‘double shuffle’

A major source of the new Conservative hegemony has been its fundamental intellectual political thinking and its adaptive nature. The intellectual foundations were laid in the decades of Keysianism when free market thinkers, notably Hayak and Friedman, pioneered neo-liberal thinking that would burst onto the political scene in Reagan/Thatcher era.  Despite setbacks, following the exhaustion of the Thatcherite political project in the 1990s, it has sprung back to life again in a more malleable form. Its strengths lie not only in its roots in a neo-liberal economy and state, but in a conservative ‘double shuffle’: the combining of neo-Thatcherite economics and social and civil liberalism, represented by a highly flexible and cordial relationship between Osborne and Cameron.  

 Right intellectual and political resources

The Conservative Party has also mobilised an integrated set of highly effective political and intellectual resources that are constantly seeking new avenues of economic, technological, political and social development, able to appropriate the language of the Left and to summon and frame popular common sense. These include well-resourced Right think tanks such as Policy Exchange; campaigning attack organisations, notably, the Taxpayers Alliance; a stratum of websites (e.g. ConservativeHome) and bloggers linked to the more established rightwing press that provide easy outlets for key ideas and stories. Moreover, a modernized Conservative Parliamentary Party provides essential political leadership and is highly receptive to new ideas.

 Very Machiavellian - conservative coercion and consensus

No longer restrained by the Liberal Democrats, the Conservatives have also opted for a strategy of coercion to erode the remaining political bastions of the Left with proposed legislation against trade unions, attacks on charities with social missions, reform of the Human Rights Act, and measures to make it more difficult for trade unionists to affiliate to the Labour Party. Coupled with proposed boundary changes and English Votes for English Laws (Evel) in the House of Commons, these are aimed at crippling the organisational capacity of Labour and the wider Left.  It is these twin strategies of consensus and coercion that they anticipate will cohere and expand the Conservative political bloc – a set of economic, political and social alliances underpinned by new institutional ‘facts on the ground’ that aims to irrevocably shift the centre of political gravity.

The strengths and limits of the Conservative political bloc

In 2015 the conservative political bloc constitutes an extensive and well-organised array of ‘ramparts and earthworks’ geared to fighting successful political and ideological ‘wars of position’ and occasional “wars of manoeuvre”. This contrasts sharply with the ramshackle political and ideological trenches of Labour and the Left, which could be characterised as fragmented and in a state of serious disrepair.

The terrain of the Conservative bloc is not impregnable, however, having potential fault lines and weaknesses that might be exploited by a committed and skillful adversary. These include an ideological approach to austerity and shrinking the state that will hit their voting blocs; Europe; a social ‘holding pattern’ and dependence on the older voter that fails to tap into the dynamism of a younger and increasingly estranged generation and, crucially, vulnerability to a new economic crisis because the underlying systemic issues remain unresolved.

 Is the Left capable of building an alternative political bloc?

The answer is not straightforward.  On the one hand, Corbynism is focused on building and energizing a committed core and historically may be recognized as having saved the Labour Party from collapse after a catastrophic defeat in May. The Core may be the foundation of an effective counter bloc, but cannot represent it.  A counter-hegemony will need to be built by reaching out around new vision of a productive economy; a more democratic state that balances national leadership and local discretion (a more democratic version of the Northern Powerhouse); a new social alliance that really articulates the idea of ‘one nation’ and an ability to represent these ideas and visions in everyday, common-sense language. 

 If the Conservatives instinctively understand political hegemony Labour politicians, with one or two notable exceptions, behave as though they have little or no understanding of what is actually going on.  If they hope to win in future this has to change and a good start would be a collective sober analysis of the Conservative’s political and ideological achievements.

This is an extract from The Osborne Supremacy, a new pamphlet by Compass.

Ken Spours is a Professor at the IoE and was Convener of the Compass Education Inquiry. The final report of the Compass Education Inquiry, Big Education can be downloaded here.