The ethnic options of ‘Mixed Race’ people in Britain


This study aimed to explore how young 'mixed race' adults make identification choices across a variety of social contexts and settings. The results will be of particular interest to the research community and the public sector, an important focus being the provision of findings to inform the development of ethnicity questions for the upcoming 2011 Census. 

Key Findings

In the questionnaire survey, unprompted, a substantial majority of respondents gave a description of their racial/ethnic identity rather than a single generic term, with 60 per cent naming two groups and 20 per cent three or more groups. 

While a third of respondents identified as 'mixed race', almost half the sample utilised some kind of switching strategy in which they exercised more than one option – identifying at times with a single group, more than one group, as 'mixed race', and not identifying along ethnic/racial lines. Significantly, almost a third of respondents indicated that they could not prioritise just one racial/ethnic group.

Whilst race/ethnicity is often portrayed as a 'master-identity', the kind of study or work done, age or life-stage, education and family, were all considered more important.


Around 40 per cent of respondents were raised as 'mixed race' against just 12 per cent as a member of a single group, with parents the most influential household figures.  More co-resident mothers than fathers had the strongest influence amongst the predominantly female respondent base.

Societal perceptions

A third of respondents indicated that the way they were seen by wider society had an effect on the way they identified, whilst a half said that it did not.  Some adopted this societal perception, whilst others resisted it when it did not match their own.

Whilst three quarters felt that black and Asian people, Muslims and asylum-seekers were subject to racial prejudice, only 44 per cent mentioned 'mixed race' people with just over one third reporting membership of a group discriminated against in this country.


For nearly three in 10 respondents, the move to college or university had seen them change their racial/ethnic identity.  Almost invariably these were positive changes, with respondents better able to identify with various heritages and being more comfortable in doing so.

Terminology and classifications

Over half of respondents chose 'mixed race' as their preferred generic term, with terms such as 'half-caste', 'biracial', 'coloured', and 'dual heritage' most frequently cited as being offensive.

Whilst nearly two thirds thought the term 'mixed race' should apply to 'people who are mixes of white and any minority racial/ethnic group', significant proportions selected both ‘people who are mixes of minority/racial ethnic groups’ and 'people of disparate ethnic origins'.  This suggests a different and wider conceptualisation to that in the USA.

Three different classifications for 'mixed' were tested, with that used in the 2001 Census considered the easiest to complete and multi-ticking the most difficult.  However, an entirely open response for the 'mixed' group best allowed respondents to describe their ethnic/racial identity.

About the Study

The project was undertaken at the University of Kent by Peter Aspinall, Dr Miri Song and Dr. Ferhana Hashem.  A cross-sectional study design was used, with young adults recruited from universities and colleges in England through links to on-line surveys.  326 in-scope questionnaire responses were received, from which 65 respondents were selected for in-depth interview.

Download full report here