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?

David Young
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The Tories are the zombie party: with an ageing, falling membership, still they stagger on to victory

One Labour MP in Brighton spotted a baby in a red Babygro and said to me: “There’s our next [Labour] prime minister.”

All football clubs have “ultras” – and, increasingly, political parties do, too: although, in the case of political parties, their loudest and angriest supporters are mostly found on the internet. The SNP got there first: in the early days of email, journalists at the Scotsman used to receive bilious missives complaining about its coverage – or, on occasion, lack of coverage – of what the Scottish National Party was up to. The rest soon followed, with Ukip, the Labour Party and even the crushed Liberal Democrats now boasting a furious electronic horde.

The exception is the Conservative Party. Britain’s table-topping team might have its first majority in 18 years and is widely expected in Westminster to remain in power for another decade. But it doesn’t have any fans. The party’s conference in Manchester, like Labour’s in Brighton, will be full to bursting. But where the Labour shindig is chock-full of members, trade unionists and hangers-on from the charitable sector, the Conservative gathering is a more corporate affair: at the fringes I attended last year, lobbyists outnumbered members by four to one. At one, the journalist Peter Oborne demanded to know how many people in the room were party members. It was standing room only – but just four people put their hands up.

During Grant Shapps’s stint at Conservative headquarters, serious attempts were made to revive membership. Shapps, a figure who is underrated because of his online blunders, and his co-chair Andrew Feldman were able to reverse some of the decline, but they were running just to stand still. Some of the biggest increases in membership came in urban centres where the Tories are not in contention to win a seat.

All this made the 2015 election win the triumph of a husk. A party with a membership in long-term and perhaps irreversible decline, which in many seats had no activists at all, delivered crushing defeats to its opponents across England and Wales.

Like José Mourinho’s sides, which, he once boasted, won “without the ball”, the Conservatives won without members. In Cumbria the party had no ground campaign and two paper candidates. But letters written by the Defence Secretary, Michael Fallon, were posted to every household where someone was employed making Trident submarines, warning that their jobs would be under threat under a Labour government. This helped the Tories come close to taking out both Labour MPs, John Woodcock in Barrow and Furness and Jamie Reed in Copeland. It was no small feat: Labour has held Barrow since 1992 and has won Copeland at every election it has fought.

The Tories have become the zombies of British politics: still moving though dead from the neck down. And not only moving, but thriving. One Labour MP in Brighton spotted a baby in a red Babygro and said to me: “There’s our next [Labour] prime minister.” His Conservative counterparts also believe that their rivals are out of power for at least a decade.

Yet there are more threats to the zombie Tories than commonly believed. The European referendum will cause endless trouble for their whips over the coming years. And for all there’s a spring in the Conservative step at the moment, the party has a majority of only 12 in the Commons. Parliamentary defeats could easily become commonplace. But now that Labour has elected Jeremy Corbyn – either a more consensual or a more chaotic leader than his predecessors, depending on your perspective – division within parties will become a feature, rather than a quirk, at Westminster. There will be “splits” aplenty on both sides of the House.

The bigger threat to Tory hegemony is the spending cuts to come, and the still vulnerable state of the British economy. In the last parliament, George Osborne’s cuts fell predominantly on the poorest and those working in the public sector. They were accompanied by an extravagant outlay to affluent retirees. As my colleague Helen Lewis wrote last week, over the next five years, cuts will fall on the sharp-elbowed middle classes, not just the vulnerable. Reductions in tax credits, so popular among voters in the abstract, may prove just as toxic as the poll tax and the abolition of the 10p bottom income-tax rate – both of which were popular until they were actually implemented.

Added to that, the British economy has what the economist Stephen King calls “the Titanic problem”: a surplus of icebergs, a deficit of lifeboats. Many of the levers used by Gordon Brown and Mervyn King in the last recession are not available to David Cameron and the chief of the Bank of England, Mark Carney: debt-funded fiscal stimulus is off the table because the public finances are already in the red. Interest rates are already at rock bottom.

Yet against that grim backdrop, the Conservatives retain the two trump cards that allowed them to win in May: questions about Labour’s economic competence, and the personal allure of David Cameron. The public is still convinced that the cuts are the result of “the mess” left by Labour, however unfair that charge may be. If a second crisis strikes, it could still be the Tories who feel the benefit, if they can convince voters that the poor state of the finances is still the result of New Labour excess rather than Cameroon failure.

As for Cameron, in 2015 it was his lead over Ed Miliband as Britons’ preferred prime minister that helped the Conservatives over the line. This time, it is his withdrawal from politics which could hand the Tories a victory even if the economy tanks or cuts become widely unpopular. He could absorb the hatred for the failures and the U-turns, and then hand over to a fresher face. Nicky Morgan or a Sajid Javid, say, could yet repeat John Major’s trick in 1992, breathing life into a seemingly doomed Conservative project. For Labour, the Tory zombie remains frustratingly lively. 

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.

This article first appeared in the 01 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The Tory tide