I’m glad that attitudes to mixed-race people have changed. But does it all mask a subtler kind of racism?
Why does everyone want to be like me? According to scientific research (yes, really) I’m not only more beautiful than, but also biologically superior to, other humans. Advertisers use people like me all the time – to show how cool they are, how modern, how cutting-edge. People like me win world championships, X Factor, and even the keys to the White House. Yes, in today’s world it’s great to be mixed race. If Nina Simone were alive, surely she’d be singing: “To be young, gifted and mixed”.
This week the BBC is marking the 10th anniversary of the ethnic category being included on the UK census with a three-part documentary, Mixed Britannia, part of its mixed race season (in which I’ve had a small role). Between 1991 and 2001 there was a 150% increase in those identifying themselves as “mixed”. Young people in particular are keen to adopt this label, and with more than 50% of Caribbean-origin children having one white parent, and other racial mixes on the rise too, the figures for this year’s census look set for another huge leap.
This love of mixedness is a recent phenomenon. When I was growing up in the 1960s and 70s – the child of a black father and white mother – interracial relationships were relatively rare, and children like me could often be rejected by one parent and abandoned by the other, ending up being heavily over-represented in children’s homes. To be mixed race was to be pitied – neither black nor white, unloved and rootless.
So I’m happy that attitudes have changed, and that people who want to express their own dual-race parentage feel comfortable doing so. But young people especially should beware getting caught up in the love-in. More and more, it seems that mixed-race people have become the acceptable face of diversity: white people don’t have to face up to their prejudices against black and Asian people because, look, here’s someone who’s got a bit of European blood in them: a model who doesn’t need “lightening up”; a man who doesn’t look quite so threatening. Indeed, could Barack Obama have been elected were both his parents black?
I can see why young people may want to adopt this identity – but there’s also a certain naivety to it, in that it ignores the history of anti-racist struggle and of mixed-race people themselves.
I was brought up in an all-white school, and from my earliest years it was made clear I didn’t belong to their group. Neither did the fact that my mother was white temper the abuse: I was never called just a half-blackie, a half-wog or a half-sambo (not even by my teachers, some of whom joined in).
Of course, racism today is nowhere near as stark as in the 1970s. We live in a multicultural society, don’t we? And we have laws against discrimination. But from unemployment figures to stop-and search rates to school exclusion statistics, it’s clear that all races are far from truly equal. This year an academic even felt confident enough to publish research claiming that black women are ugly. We should beware of legitimising this two-tier racism.
Alongside this search for a separate identity seems to be the unquestioning acceptance that other races are “pure”. But from the first days that Europeans, Africans and Asians traded with each other, through to slavery, colonialism and beyond, men and women have produced children of dual heritage. In some cases, as in brown-skinned Jamaicans, or the coloured population in South Africa, mixed groups have formed a separate social class. In others, they have reintegrated in a black group, such as in the US – or integrated into a white group, such as in London in the 1700s, where traces of its slave-trade-era black population have all but disappeared.
The biggest delusion of all, which props up this whole debate, is the notion that black and white people forming loving relationships proves racism is being defeated: that the quality of life for Britain’s minorities can be measured by the number of interracial relationships. But this is fantasy. Compare it with gender equality. Would anyone seriously claim that, because men and women feel attraction for each other, sexism cannot exist? From the days of master-slave girl couplings, it’s always been clear that what people do in the bedroom is completely separate from what they do in the outside world.
Ultimately, it’s clear that there is no single “mixed-race” experience – it varies with age, gender, geography and the type and number of ethnic origins a person has. And I’d never dictate to anyone what they should call themselves. But if we want to see an end to discrimination, prejudice and inequality based on skin colour, in all forms, then there is no doubt that black and mixed-race people have to be on the same side.