2001 : A Race Odyssey

2001 will herald a new age. The change may not be noticed by most people, but for the growing number of mixed race Britons the next census will give them their first opportunity for official recognition. For a group which has been consistently ignored and marginalised throughout history this is a milestone. For all of us, this new box to tick on the ethnic origin question raises some fundamental issues about how we define ourselves and others.

Chris Myant of the Commission for Racial Equality explains that many people ruined the statistics on their last census form by ticking more than one category on the ethnicity section, for example – black and white. This would give meaningless totals of over 100 per cent. Also, those who had no qualms about ticking 'other' frequently specified mixed race. The second important reason for this proposed new amendment, according to him, is the significant difference in the life experience of mixed race people: "There are quite clearly different circumstances that confront young people of mixed race background. For instance, if you look at child care, the likelihood of children ending up in care is greater for those of mixed origin than for those of black or Asian origin." He says that in order to understand how society delivers different outcomes to different groups and to be able to implement policies to ensure equality of opportunity, it is necessary to conduct ethnic monitoring.

Currently, the mixed race population is on the increase. A recent survey by the Policy Studies Institute shows that 40 per cent of black children have one white parent. Half of all British born black men and a third of their female counterparts have a white partner. The same is true for a fifth of African Asian men and ten percent of African Asian women. Professor Tariq Modood who headed the study says that although this trend is clearly increasing it is difficult to calculate the rate because figures have only just begun to be collected.

The Office for National Statistics will conduct a wide public consultation exercise this autumn to gauge public support for the new category, in particular what it should be called. The process will culminate in a debate in Parliament. It is likely that this will be a highly contentious issue. For some, the term mixed implies uncertain, confused and not whole. Others feel uncomfortable with the word race. Jill Olumide has produced a thesis on this issue and is in a mixed race relationship herself. During her research she found that: "a lot of people picked on the word 'other' and even 'mixed race' as typical of the way mixed race was regarded as outside, not part of the main stream, not quite definable." As an English woman married to a Nigerian man she points out that their backgrounds and outlooks are very similar, however people regard them as extraordinary because they are seen to be of different races. Jill finds this fixation on race frustrating. "In this society we do organise on the basis of race, class, gender, age, and disability – and if you threaten those divisions then it's quite destabilizing to people who use them regularly in understanding the world."

For psychologist Ann Phoenix, the term race is significant purely because it is a social construct; any scientific basis has long been disproved. She points out that people commonly use the word to denote a fairly crude classification, often on the basis of colour: "What that means is that, of-course, it has a social meaning and it's important to keep the term because one wants to be able to understand racism. You can't understand racism without understanding the social-constructedness of the term race."

Socio-psychologist Amal Treacher who has an Anglo-Egyptian background finds mixed race a clumsy term but is at a loss to find a suitable alternative. "On the whole I tend to use the term mixed-heritage, but that also assumes that that's two different cultures coming together, well it may not be. Half-caste is awful – we know that. But on the other hand mixed-parentage? I sometimes use that, but it's a bit dissatisfying. I think the difficulty of finding a term mirrors the difficulty of talking about mixed race." Amal also thinks that another aspect of this ambivalence is rooted at a much more basic level. "There's always a wish to be recognised in terms of one's identity and what marks oneself out as special and I think at the same time there's always a wish for that not to be recognised."

Additionally there is concern that a separate mixed race category will imply some sort of advantage over black with overtones harking back to the statutory classification of people in the United States and South Africa according to their black ancestry. The CRE point out that the difference here is that people can choose for themselves the category which is most meaningful to them and will not have an identity imposed on them. Chris Myant points out: " We are all subjects of the Crown and, horrible as Britain's Imperial history has been, the theoretical idea was that all the people in the colonies were subjects of the Crown in exactly the same way that I, as a white person born and brought up in Britain, was a subject of the Crown. So we have an equal citizenship (in the eyes of the law)."

There is also the political and pragmatic view that if you are non-white, you should identify yourself as black because that is the way you are perceived and treated by society. However, more and more mixed race people are wanting to acknowledge all their heritage and to express their life experience which is often different to that of blacks, whites or Asians; being often characterised by feelings of exclusion on the one hand and the ability to pass amongst and understand more than one culture, on the other. Clare Goram is of Swiss-Nigerian origin and was brought up by white adoptive parents. She is proud of her background because it gives her a licence to enter both the black and the white cultures. However, she has experienced racism from both communities. She finds abuse from black people hardest to understand. "When I lived in Brixton, I think that was the worst time in that I got called a milk-faced c**t by a group of black men and redskin bitch and what else have I been called? Really alarming things because you know that black people know how disarming it is when they're called a nigger and when they do it to their own…I just find it completely unfathomable."

Jill Olumide's research shows that this type of experience is what mixed race people have in common. However, because of the wide range of different 'mixes' and ways of life she is not sure that mixed race can signify a separate ethnic group. "This idea of rejection, of not belonging, of being pigeonholed, of not being able to self-define. I mean, they're quite a common band of experiences but whether that constitutes a culture, I don't know, because every person that I've interviewed does something different about social survival." According to Jill a very positive quality which the mixed race population shares is its ability to throw a spotlight on society's demarcation on the basis of race. "One of the things mixed race can do is to offer a damning critique of racial division. The fact (is) that I'm mixed race or I mix race , so obviously race and all that it's supposed to be – this terrible immutable division between people – can't be true because I've already crossed that barrier and do it every day in my life. I think that's quite a component of, and a commonality amongst, all people that are called mixed race. They disrupt and they disorder race."

Britain's history, as far back as you care to trace it has always been multi-cultural – the Scots, Welsh, Irish, Romans (Septimus Serverus, the African Emperor hailing from Libya, spent more time in Britain than in any of his other provinces bringing with him legionnaries from Africa), Normans and then the British Empire. There are not going to be many of us who can cling on to the idea of 'pure blood', it is just more visible in people whose parents are different colours. Now, with the new mixed race category in the 2001 census we are getting the chance to acknowledge and express the fullness of our diversity and also the extent to which we are the same. Racism is still a fact of daily life, but let us embrace the opportunity to prise it apart.

Ishraga Lloyd (© Copyright 1998 Lloyd)