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We should celebrate the rise of mixed race Britain

One generation’s social problem has become the next generation’s proud family history.

British Olympic heptathlon gold medalist Jessica Ennis. Photograph: Getty Images.

“Mixed race? What’s all this mixed race nonsense? If you’re not white, you’re black.” That old point was jovially roared at me with some emphasis by one of this country’s leading public raconteurs on race and racism, shortly after we had been discussing a small storm in a tea cup, which the 24 hour news cycle had turned into a “race row”.

The conversation continued:

“But I’ve never thought I was black. Shouldn’t it be up to me to decide?”

“What are you then?”

“British. And English. My parents are from India and Ireland, so I am half-Asian and mixed race as well.”

“British? Why don’t you call yourself Indian? Are you ashamed of your father, boy?”

That seemed odd. I am not ashamed of my mother either, but I don’t see how it makes me Irish.

I do think of myself as “mixed race” – though perhaps more as a descriptive census term than as a particularly strong source of
identification.

So I was one of a million people who did tick the “mixed” box on the census, as about half of those with ethnically mixed parentage do. But the fact of “mixed” heritage doesn’t in itself seem as contentful as having some Indian and Irish family links. I am much more likely to mention the connection to somebody from Gujarat or County Cork, where my parents came from, than to look for the shared sense of “mixedness” with somebody with, say, French and Jamaican parents.

Maybe having a mixed background was always likely to predispose me to being sceptical about “community of communities” forms of multiculturalism, which always seemed to me to offer identity boxes too narrow for many people to fit into. Though there seem to be more census options every time, the boxes never quite seem to work. This time, I could tick “Asian/white” – but with no chance to acknowledge my Irish roots at all, which is an option for those who choose the “white” box first, and so write out the Indian part of the story.

More happily, I never did find community leaders claiming to speak out in my name for the Anglo-Irish-Indian community, but I never missed them. There has long been a growing revolt against that form of “gatekeeper” politics, often particularly strongly voiced by second and third generation Brits under thirty. Of course, a society that divides itself along tribal lines won’t appeal to those who wouldn’t have a tribe if it happened, but it isn’t something most people want anyway.

This latest census will see the rise of mixed Britain celebrated, as it was in George Alagiah’s often moving BBC documentary series – the story of how one generation’s social problem became the next generation’s proud family history. The fear of difference was trumped by lived experience, of life, and love, and loss – because the social “problem” of mixing, and the alleged clash of identities, was always agonised over more by those who were not mixed race. Surely everybody’s usual self is an unusual self, as Rita Tushingham’s character declared in A Taste of Honey.

If the fact of mixing is the good news about integration, the term “mixed race” feels pretty tired. It is not as ugly as “half caste” – still widely used as a descriptive term a generation ago – but it shares its roots in the fear of miscegenation.

A so-called mixed marriage was a controversial issue when my parents got married. Neither of their families turned up to bless the union. My grandfather had been trying to persuade my dad to return to India, offering to arrange a marriage for him. But he wanted to make his own choices. But nobody batted an eyelid when Stacy and I got married in Essex in 2001. She doesn’t see her own Irish-English parentage as being an ethnic “mix”. And the idea that I am in a “mixed race relationship” seems a pretty trivial truth. After all, if it would be true of any possible relationship that I could form with anybody white, black, Asian or indeed mixed too – even if I had married somebody else with Indian-Irish parentage, wouldn’t it still be the case? – then it is perhaps a meaningless statement.

Are our children “mixed race”? They certainly could be, if they want to be. I guess we had to tick census boxes for them too. Maybe I should have left the space blank. I feel that I should wait, and ask Zarina and Jay, Sonny and Indira, all under seven right now, what they think, when they are fifteen years old, before I pronounce on their identity or ethnicity for them. Their family history enables them to stake their claim to be mixed race – in pretty much the same way that Sebastian Coe could. They too have one Indian and one white English grandfather, though they can also call on two Irish grandmothers, one on each side of the family.

I want to respect the choices they decide to make. If I were to try to influence them at all, I hope it may just be by showing them that there are a million – probably two million now – different ways to be mixed race in Britain, sometimes claiming the label and sometimes not, and more than five million ways to be non-white, because there are sixty million ways to be British. There are, as it happens, tens of millions of ways to be white, to be English, and many more ways to be “white working-class” too than the media caricatures admit.

So being mixed race matters a lot to Ryan Giggs – “it’s your roots. It’s who you are, it’s what you are” – while it seems more of a simple matter of fact to Jessica Ennis. Others, like Daley Thompson, actively reject the labels which others ascribe to them, while Giggs must choose to declare if he wants it to be known.

My fourteen year old self used to have various sarcastic lines for those ignorant of the difference between India and Pakistan, though it’s twenty years now since anybody called me a “paki” in my earshot. But it didn’t feel to me, growing up in the 1980s, that racial identity could be as much a question of choice as a matter of fact.

So it is fascinating that, by 2020, that may well be how it seems to my children.

That is only a threat to those whose views of race depends on telling everybody else how to think about who they are.

So I will raise two cheers for the rise of mixed Britain. I guess I’m proud to be a mongrel Brit, but the motley tribe that I want to be part of is the one that everybody can share.

Sunder Katwala is the director of British Future.

British Future's new report "The melting pot generation: how Britain became more relaxed on race" was published today.