We should celebrate the rise of mixed race Britain

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

“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.

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

Sunder Katwala is director of British Future and former general secretary of the Fabian Society.

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Misogynoir: How social media abuse exposes longstanding prejudices against black women

After decades as an MP, Diane Abbott finally spoke out about the racist and sexist abuse she faces. But she's not alone. 

“Which STD will end your miserable life?” “This is why monkeys don’t belong here.” “I hope you get lynched”. These are just some of the many messages Seyi Akiwowo, a Labour councillor in Newham, told me she has been sent over the past three weeks. Akiwowo has received reams of violent and racist abuse after a video of her suggesting former empires pay reparations to countries they once colonised (and whose resources they still continue to plunder) went viral. She doesn’t expect everyone to agree with her, she said, but people seem to think they’re entitled to hurl abuse at her because she’s a black woman.

The particular intensity of misogyny directed at black women is so commonplace that it was given a name by academic Moya Bailey: misogynoir. This was highlighted recently when Diane Abbott, the country’s first and most-well known black woman MP and current shadow Home secretary, spoke out about the violent messages she’s received and continues to receive. The messages are so serious that Abbott’s staff often fear for her safety. There is an implicit point in abuse like this: women of colour, in particular black women, should know their place. If they dare to share their opinions, they’ll be attacked for it.

There is no shortage of evidence to show women of colour are sent racist and sexist messages for simply having an opinion or being in the public eye, but there is a dearth of meaningful responses. “I don’t see social media companies or government leaders doing enough to rectify the issue,” said Akiwowo, who has reported some of the abuse she’s received. Chi Onwurah, shadow minister for Business, Innovation and Skills, agreed. “The advice from social media experts is not to feed the trolls, but that vacates the public space for them," she said. But ignoring abuse is a non-solution. Although Onwurah notes the police and media giants are beginning to take this abuse seriously, not enough is being done.

Akiwowo has conversations with young women of colour who become less sure they want to go into politics after seeing the way people like Abbott have been treated. It’s an unsurprising reaction. Kate Osamor, shadow secretary of state for International Development, argued no one should have to deal with the kind of vitriol Abbott does. It’s well documented that the ease and anonymity of social media platforms like Twitter and Facebook have changed the nature of communication – and for politicians, this means more abuse, at a faster pace and at all hours of the day. Social media, Onwurah said, has given abuse a “new lease of life”. There needs to be a concerted effort to stop people from using these platforms to spout their odious views.

But there is another layer to understanding misogyny and racism in public life. The rapid and anonymous, yet public, nature of social media has shone a light on what women of colour already know to be a reality. Dawn Butler MP, who has previously described racism as the House of Commons’ “dirty little secret”, told me “of course” she has experienced racism and sexism in Parliament: “What surprises me is when other people are surprised”. Perhaps that’s because there’s an unwillingness to realise or really grapple the pervasiveness of misogynoir.

“Sometimes it takes a lot of effort to get someone to understand the discriminatory nature of peoples’ actions,” Butler explained. “That itself is demoralising and exhausting.” After 30 years of racist and sexist treatment, it was only when Abbott highlighted the visceral abuse she experiences that politicians and commentators were willing to speak out in her support. Even then, there seemed to be little recognition of how deep this ran. In recent years, the Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn has been ridiculed for having a relationship with her in the 70s, as if a black woman’s sexuality is both intriguing and laughable; people regularly imply she’s incompetent, despite having been in Parliament for three decades and at the last general election increasing her majority by a staggering amount; she has even been derided by her own colleagues. Those Labour MPs who began the hashtag #PrayforDiane when she was off work because of illness spoke to a form of bullying that wouldn’t be acceptable in most workplaces.

These supposedly less obvious forms of racism and sexism are largely downplayed or seen as unrelated to discrimination. They might be understood through what influential scholar Stuart Hall called the “grammar of race”. Different from overtly racist comments, Hall says there’s a form of racism that’s “inferential”; naturalised representations of people - whether factual or fictional - have “racist premises and propositions inscribed in them as a set of unquestioned assumptions”. Alongside the racist insults hurled at black women politicians like Abbott, there’s a set of racialised tropes that rely on sexualisation or derision to undermine these women.

The streams of abuse on social media aren’t the only barrier people of colour – and women in particular – face when they think about getting into politics. “I don’t think there’s a shortage of people in the black community who put themselves forward to stand for office, you only have to look at when positions come up the list of people that go for the position,” Claudia Webbe, a councillor and member of Labour's ruling body the National Executive Committee told me. As one of the few black women to hold such a position in the history of the Labour party, she knows from her extensive career how the system works. “I think there is both a problem of unfair selection and a problem of BME [black and minority ethnic] people sustaining the course." Conscious and unconscious racial and gender bias means politics are, like other areas of work in the UK, more difficult to get into if you’re a woman of colour.

“The way white women respond to the way black women are treated is integral,” Osamor says, “They are part of the solution”. White women also face venomous and low-lying forms of sexism that are often overlooked, but at times the solidarity given to them is conditional for women of colour. In a leaked letter to The Guardian, Abbott’s staff criticised the police for not acting on death threats, while similar messages sent to Anna Soubry MP resulted in arrest. When the mainstream left talks about women, it usually means white women. This implicitly turns the experiences of women of colour into an afterthought.

The systematic discrimination against women of colour, and its erasure or addendum-like quality, stems from the colonial racial order. In the days of the British empire, white women were ranked as superior to colonised Asian and African women who were at different times seen as overly sexualised or unfeminine. Black women were at the bottom of this hierarchy. Women of colour were essentially discounted as real women. Recognising this does not equate to pitting white women and women of colour against each other. It is simply a case of recognising the fact that there is a distinct issue of racial abuse.

The online abuse women of colour, and black women specifically, is an issue that needs to be highlighted and dealt with. But there are other more insidious ways that racism and sexism manifest themselves in everyday political life, which should not be overlooked. “Thirty years ago I entered parliament to try and be the change I wanted to see,” Abbott wrote. “Despite the personal attacks and the online abuse, that struggle continues.” That struggle must be a collective one.

Maya Goodfellow researches race and racism in Britain. She is a staff writer at LabourList.