People in Harmony celebrates 50 years in 2022 of providing support and information and engaging with research for our membership of mixed race people, families and couples.
The group was set up at the beginning of the ’70s, one of the bleakest eras of recent British history. This was a time of severe economic recession – massive unemployment, national strikes, inflation – the perfect breeding ground for fascism, especially as immigration was at its peak. People who looked different were ideal scapegoats and overt racism was rife. The irrational, emotional fires of xenophobia were fanned by the likes of the National Front and Enoch Powell. They preached race hate.
In fact, it was Powell’s infamous ‘rivers of blood’ speech in 1971 that sparked the idea for People in Harmony. Particularly, his view that mixed race children would never fit in and would cause friction in the community. At least one woman knew Powell was wrong. Carol Kayira was married to a Malawi writer and they had two children. Carol’s personal experience was that mixed race children are a bridge between communities and she was determined to speak out. She decided to write to Johnny Walker’s Radio 1 programme and the producers invited her onto the show to talk about her idea for forming a group of like-minded people. The response from the public was overwhelming support and Harmony (as it was then called) was born in 1972.
Initially based in London, people joined Harmony from all over the country as well as abroad. Members shared experiences, and developed strategies for dealing with racism and prejudice. They challenged racists like Powell by pointing out the benefits of being part of a mixed race family and how lives are enriched by different cultures. They promoted cross-cultural respect and understanding. Conferences were arranged on interracial marriages and trans-racial adoption and fostering; the Multicultural Books for Children list was established; members went out into the wider community – giving talks to organisations like the Mothers Union, Health Visitors and the Racial Unity Society. Harmony was meeting a huge need. It provided a forum for people to come together and to be – outside of other’s concepts of race, ethnicity and colour. Soon, local groups were flowering up and down Britain.
By 1981 a fund was started to buy a centre for Harmony. Carol raised money through donations, interest free loans and grants to buy a run-down property in Meare, Somerset. She moved in 1983 and, together with members and volunteers from other organisations, carried out extensive renovations to the building. Part of it was turned into a shop and other rooms were used for anti-racist training sessions as well as committee meetings. Harmony now had a home and a written constitution and decided to register as a limited company. However, the name Harmony was already in use, so members agreed to change theirs to People in Harmony, as it is known today.
In July 1985 founder Carol Kayira resigned for personal reasons and the centre was relocated to Southampton for a while. Members really wanted a base in London but the cost of property there was prohibitive. So they started looking further afield and eventually found a good compromise in Slough which was within easy reach of the capital. In 1991 premises were bought in Slough and People in Harmony obtained charitable status four years later, in 1995.
Workshops, AGMs and Annual Conferences were held at Slough, Reading and London with meetings and social events organised at the Slough premises. Members’ children enjoyed the various meetings with the garden, toy room and loft room used for play and entertainment. Local multicultural groups were able to use one of the rooms for their meetings in return for donations to cover costs.
In 2008 with upkeep and running costs of the premises taking up much time and money a decision was made to sell the property and relocate with a view to employing a worker. The property was sold in 2009 and a registered office address set up in London and a venue in central London used for the trustees/committee members to meet.
A lot has happened in the forty years since People in Harmony was founded. The ethnic diversity of Britain has been transformed by new migrant flows into the country from an ever-widening range of countries, by increasing rates of inter-ethnic partnership formation, and by the emergence of new identities based on multiple affiliations.
The number of people in inter-ethnic marriages and partnerships has increased dramatically, by around 65% in just the decade 1991-2001. There has been a commensurate increase in the number of people who describe themselves as ‘mixed’ in such administrative collections as the census, school registrations, et al. (over 660,000 in the 2001 Census). The latest estimate from the Office of National Statistics is of over 50 foreign country of birth groupings with 25,000 or more people, some of which have grown dramatically in size in just five years. In time many of these migrants and their offspring will find their way into inter-ethnic unions, adding further to the diversity of the country and of ‘mixedness’ itself. Steven Vertovec has used the term “superdiversity” to describe this development and it is exemplified by the over 300 languages now spoken by London’s schoolchildren.
The policy landscape has also been transformed. Towards the end of the twentieth century the British government drifted (in the words of the Parekh Report) into a form of unofficial multiculturalism, only to leave it in the first decade of the new century as concerns about Britishness and social cohesion came to the fore. 2001 saw the transformative Race Relations Amendment Act in the wake of growing concern about institutional racism in public services. Unlike previous legislation, it introduced the concept of positive duties that required statutory bodies to proactively seek good race relations and fairness in service provision and workforce matters.
This has been followed by the establishment of the Equality and Human Rights Commission whose remit now includes a much expanded list of ‘protected groups’. The UK census agencies took the pioneering step to count the ‘mixed’ population in 2001 and, in recognition of the country’s growing diversity, renamed the categories ‘mixed or multiple’ in the 2011 census. It has also added national identity and language to the cultural question set.
Our quality press now carries regular features on the mixed race population and BBC2 featured a ‘mixed race season’ in 2011/12. There has been a proliferation of ‘mixed race’ organisations. ‘Mixed race studies’ has appeared on university curricula and mixed race research has featured prominently in the Government research councils’ funding initiatives and as a subject for postgraduate theses. Yet much remains to be done.
There is still racism in our public services in spite of widespread initiatives to address it. Our understanding remains limited as to why there are variations in educational attainment across the ‘mixed’ groups and why eligibility for free school meals should differentially affect this. Similarly, the reasons for a disproportionate number of mixed race children in care is poorly understood, especially in terms of the contribution of social class and economic disadvantage to these differences. There has been little focus on the health of mixed race people, including why the group has elevated smoking rates and why it is over-represented in the statistics of users of drug services. Instead, the popular media has focused on spurious arguments about our genetic inheritance.
With its long tradition of educational initiatives, including high profile conferences, People in Harmony is well placed to form a bridgehead between the mixed race community and policy-makers and to assure the mixed race community a place as a stakeholder in these and other debates.