Talk: Being Mixed Race in Mixed Up Britain

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As part of London's Southbank's fabulous 'Women of the World' Festival celebrating International Women's Day last week, we were invited to discuss the 'identity politics of the Jessica Ennis generation' which you can listen back to in all its one hour glory using the link above. Between the two of us we can call about six countries home (Eritrea, Yemen, Britain, Zimbabwe, India and South Africa) and have had our fair share of identity crises, so it was an honour to be a part of such an interesting and dynamic discussion with such inspiring women. 

The panel was made up of diverse backgrounds and opinions which included TV presenter Reya El-Sahi, SOAS teaching fellow Emma Dabiri and chaired by the English-Turkish Guardian journalist Emine Saner. Emine highlighted that in the 2011 census over a million people in the UK ticked the ‘mixed race’ box, double that in 2001 when the box was first introduced – but for some, the label is meaningless, especially as many mixed people self identify with a single ethnic group. 

Emma Dabiri and Emine Saner

Emma Dabiri and Emine Saner

So, how useful is the term mixed race?

 Demonstrating the number of fellow identity crisis sufferers in the room, when asked their preference the majority of the audience were undecided how they felt about it, with the rest equally split between happy and not happywith the term.  

Emma: "I question the usefulness of a mixed race classification which demands that you subscribe to a fixed manageable one dimensional identity when in reality we are so much more. The term perpetuates racial thinking and race is not real; it is a political, historical and socio-economic construct.  I'm not sure whether the mixed race classification on the census is progress, rather than deconstructing race it is a further reconstruction of it.  With the major issues that the black community has with shadeism, sometimes people wanting to call themselves mixed race is not so innocent because the lighter you are the better positioned you are in social hierarchy. I do still use it though because people understand it." 

Audience opinion: "We should accept people for who they are, not where they come from. We shouldn't put people into groups or worry about tick boxes. Boxes are limiting."

Alae: "Being ‘mixed race’ is definitely more than ticking boxes, and I think what's most important is what it means to you. I feel privileged to be mixed of two races and feel that it has opened my views on race, culture and identity; I’m able to view people as individuals and not just the country they so happened to be born into."

Kiran: "For me the term mixed race was quite liberating. Going through primary school in England I was called half-caste or black, moving to Zimbabwe I became 'coloured', neither of which I really connected to. Moving back to the UK, 'mixed race' was the first time I felt like there was something that really described how I felt and my family." 

Reya: "Even though we all have different heritages I found myself smiling and nodding to so much of what is being said and I think the power of the term mixed race is that shared experience. My mother is British Jewish and my father is North African Arab Muslim and after having to constantly justify who I am, the term gives me somewhere to belong. Having to always tick the 'other' box reiterated to me that I didn't belong. Now being able to tick a box warms my heart in that in not being able to doesn't."

Audience opinion: "Mixed race is such an important term to me because people always automatically assume that I'm white because I'm so fair. I'm never identified with the black community and being 'mixed race' stops me from being lumped in with white society which is not the whole of me." 

Audience opinion: "We're all here because the term mixed race means something to us. I had incredible difficulty with the battle of belonging. Growing up in the 70s I had to choose between being a white feminist or a black activist and now I feel like I can be all of them and choose from a whole multitude of things. People place identities upon us and we have to resist that." 

Reya El-Salahi and Kiran Yoliswa 

Reya El-Salahi and Kiran Yoliswa 

The Mixed-Race Myth

Linked to this idea of what on earth to call yourself was the discussion of the 'mixed-race myth'. The challenging and confusing process of seeking a feeling of belonging was a common theme and raised the question of whether there is now a common identity to which people of mixed race heritage can feel like they belong. 

Emma: The media often promotes this idea of a 'mixed race community' but it is a myth. It's a ludicrous idea that as someone who is half Irish and half Nigerian I'll get along with someone who is half Bangladeshi or half Polish better than I would with another Nigerian or Irish. I don't believe that we are somehow connected by virtue of being mixed or that we are more likely to socialise with other mixed people and have some sort of solidarity. People who are black mixed and people who are non-black mixed also have a markedly different experience because black mixed people are racialised as black whereas non-black mixed people are able to inhabit a more ambiguous exotic space. This puts paid to the myth that those people can be grouped together which the media feeds into this idea of a separate mixed community."

Alae: I was brought up in a community with few East Africans or Arabs to identify with so it took me a while to discover my identity and heritage. I found it easier to seek refuge in groups that were a minority and mixed.    

Reya: The mixed race community is a lie, we don't all meet up down the pub at the weekends. But away from the language, there is a shared experience that has some power.

Kiran: Many of my close friends are also mixed, and not just black mixed, and I think part of is because we do share some sort of experience and exploration of identity that has helped me and inspired me. Of course I also have non-mixed friends, but I do identify and find comfort in other people's mixed-race experiences. 

Audience opinion: "There is an experience that is exclusive to being mixed race, and for me the mixed race community is a beautiful thing." 

Reya El-Salahi

Reya El-Salahi

The Fluidity of Identity and Claiming Communities

Emma: Being mixed is not a stable or fixed identity. Growing up in Ireland there was no mixed race identity, you were just black. I'm perceived as different things in different places; in Nigeria I'm seen as 'white person', I'm mixed race in London, in Atlanta I was a light skinned black girl. In some contexts I feel black, sometimes I'm Nigerian, sometimes I'm Irish, white is still off-limits. I'm always me, and always have the potential to identify with any of these things. 

Reya: In Britain increasingly so you're allowed to be more fluid with your identity, more so than in other countries.

This idea of claiming communities was highlighted by an audience member who asked whether mixed-race people carry a sense of shame on their white side, citing Halle Berry describing herself as the first woman of colour to win an Oscar in her acceptance speech yet her mother is white. Halle Berry explained that in the US she is treated as a black woman and so that is how she identifies. Panellist Emma Dabiri said that in her experience whiteness is much more excluding, "Being half white doesn't exclude me from being Nigerian in the same way that being half black excludes me from being Irish. Irishness is synonymous with whiteness and purity, it doesn't extend admission to even the lightest skin black girls. You can claim blackness but not whiteness." Reya also discussed this in reference to the challenge of growing up with multiple religions and which ones she was 'allowed' to claim, defending her right to be a Muslim Jewish Atheist. 

Alae Ismail from SBA

Alae Ismail from SBA

We could talk about identity for hours so we wish we could have gone into more detail about other interesting points that were raised such as the use of mixed race people in British advertising to tick diversity boxes without scaring white people with a 'real black person'. Also skimmed was why some civil rights campaigners don't like the separation of the mixed race classification as it dilutes the numbers of people in ethnic minorities making discrimination harder to monitor. The politics of identity are obviously much deeper than this discussion, demonstrated by Emma's closing statement that 'Whether we're positioned as the half-caste underclass or the mixed-race messiahs of a post racial Britain, the myth of a beautiful mixed race generation that epitomises a raceless Britain masks the continuing racism that will go unchecked if we get seduced by it.'  Either way the room full of people showed just how willing people were to engage in these issues and the importance of opening up that dialogue. 

So while for some everytime you call yourself 'mixed-race' you're buying into a superficial idea of race, for others there is power gained from the idea of belonging to a group that shares similar experiences. The most important conclusion, as we were perfectly reminded by a lady in the audience, is that absolutely everybody's experience of being mixed, is valid.

To listen back to more of the WOW events, and there were some incredible ones,  visit www.wow.southbankcentre.co.uk.