Time to Choose The Right Box


It is almost time to decide whether we like the idea that mixed race is another race or whether we want to dispute the insertion of a mixed race category on the census form.

I think we have probably all run through the arguments about the 'other' category on equal opportunities monitoring forms. Let's face it, it is pretty marginal and suggests a lack of clear definition about what mixed race is. But will a 'mixed race' option be any more enlightening? There are several points to consider here, the first being whether mixed race is a term on which those concerned can agree. Personally I would prefer something a little more whole than 'mixed' conveys.

The diversity of people who might fall within this category renders the term almost meaningless. And this is apart from those of us who want to insist that we cannot divide humanity into races let alone mix them. Why, in any case, is it necessary to know how many people have parents from different 'races'. It depends also on how many generations of ancestry the affiliation depends on. Who knows more than two or three generations back on what their ancestry depends, or what liaisons dangereusemay have contributed to genetics make up? Who cares anyway – this is about how we make sense of the present.

Since so many of our top draw white citizens rushed to claim common ancestry with Pocohantas when the Disney film of that title was released (they did marry and have children in real life – things of a mixed race nature had to be suppressed for the American market presumably) there are grounds for the assumption that those who occupy the 'white' box on monitoring forms are already a pretty mixed bunch.

Then there is the question of whether 'mixed race' is considered to be an ethnic affiliation. 'State which ethnic group you belong to' cannot be answered with the response 'mixed race'. Rather, mixed race is the answer to questions about the colour or national origins of biological racialised family situation. Further, it is possible to be of 'mixed biological origins' whilst being ethnically mono cultural. There are definite problems here.

Some of this stems from the imprecision over terms such as race, ethnicity and culture. In attempts to categorise the population, mixed race has always messed the statistics up. In the Labour Force Survey, for example, families considered to be mixed selfdefine themselves in all sorts of different ways. The particular parent being asked for information about children will tend to define the children not unreasonably, as being from the same group as themselves. Do members of mixed race families actually pursue totally different cultural programmes from one another? Are our children so culturally different from ourselves as to warrant being in separate boxes on monitoring forms? Is there a distinctive 'mixed race' culture? None of these seem completely true. Mixed race does, however, beg questions about ethnicity and its fixed nature.

It's not as though there is any social credit in a mixed race category as things stand. Considering the popular view of mixed race families as being the root cause of 'identity' and other terrible social problems, rather than as a source of skills and experience of inter cultural negotiation to be drawn on, there needs to be some agreement about the commonalities inherent in the term before we capitulate and tick the box.

It does seem that one common feature amongst those defined in terms fo mixed race is an ability to demonstrate the ineptitude of race as a means of dividing up the population. Then there is the widespread determination to register the view that 'mixed' is in fact not composed of irreconcilable essences but is whole and integrated. There is our common history to consider which is far less parochial than small time ethnic groups as we know them today. Our people have roots across the globe and have repeatedly been forced into submission only to survive and flourish in new places. We could soon get together the makings of an ethnic narrative…..

We do seem to be moving towards a point at which those with the label mixed race are in a sufficiently strong position to claim some social space and engage in an episode of self definition, such as the census category indicates. I hope we will use our time in the sun usefully, since history suggests that failure to gain a secure purchase on the processes of racialisation result in only temporary gain in social acceptability.

Jill Olumide (© Copyright 1997 Olumide)

Jill Olumide completed a PhD thesis entitled 'The Social Construction of Mixed Race' in 1996 at the University of Bradford.

Originally published in: News Letter Issue 17 November 1997

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