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?