What is it like to be a,
MIXED RACE FAMILY in Modern Britain
Words Wendy Gregory
I watched the John Lewis Christmas advertisement back in December with a mixture of delight and sadness: I was thrilled that at long last such a prestigious nationwide store was featuring a mixed race child, but disappointed that it has taken until 2017 for this to happen. One could have been forgiven previously for thinking that Christmas was only for middle class, good looking white families, so it was refreshing to see images that represent my family and modern Britain.
Although that seemed like a real step forward, there has recently been a huge amount of publicity around Prince Harry’s engagement to Meghan Markle and excessive interest in her ethnicity. My initial thought was, “Hey- I’ve got something in common with the Windsors!” But as well as myself and the royals, there are an ever growing number of mixed race families in the UK: in fact it’s estimated that mixed race children are the fastest growing ethnic minority group. So what is it really like to be a mixed race family in modern Britain, and what’s it like to raise mixed race children?
Firstly I should state that although my daughters’ father is of black Caribbean origin, in this wonderfully diverse society there are all kinds of mixed race couples of all ethnicities. Of course I can’t speak for everyone and I’m sure that there are a whole range of experiences out there, from not having any problems to being the subjects of the most diabolical forms of racism. However, in researching this topic a number of common threads have emerged.
One of these is around identity and the question of how mixed race people identify themselves needs to be handled with sensitivity. In spite of being such a rapidly expanding group, mixed race people are still largely unacknowledged and frequently referred to as black, not mixed race. When my girls were at primary school (in the nineties), I regularly complained to the governors about their data collection forms, on which there was no category that my daughters belonged to. They could be White British, Afro- Caribbean, Asian, South-East Asian or Other. It infuriated me: the implication was that they didn’t have an identity worth mentioning. Although, mercifully, we have moved on since then and most institutions have a much more inclusive list, I still occasionally come across this.
Neither of my daughters refer to themselves as black – like Meghan Markle who stated, “At the end of day I’m really just proud of who I am and where I come from and we have never put any focus on that,” they are confident and comfortable speaking of themselves as mixed race. However, as teenagers they both felt pressurised by other young people to choose between being black or white. One of them distinctly remembers the time when she was at McDonalds with some of her white school friends and was approached by a group of black girls, one of whom said,
“Why are you with those white girls? You shouldn’t be friends with them – you’re black.”
Whilst my daughters and I have rarely experienced overt racism, the subtle effects of people’s assumptions based on stereotypes cannot be underestimated. For example, many, many times have we been on the receiving of remarks such as, “I bet they’ve got a great sense of rhythm,” or “They’re bound to be good dancers, it’s in their blood!” Actually, not all black people are good at, or even necessarily enjoy dancing. Out of the three of us, I’m the one who has a passion for it.
There is still, it seems, a marked difference in attitude and understanding between locations. During her gap year, whilst working for a bank in Windsor my elder daughter was asked by a customer where she had been on holiday to get such a lovely tan. When she replied, “Oh, no, I haven’t been on holiday. My dad’s black,” the customer roared with laughter assuming she was joking. Somehow I don’t think she would have met with that type of reaction in Slough or Reading.
With this issue in mind, Oruj Defoite ,who made a documentary for the BBC called “Home to Ebbw Vale” based on her experiences of being a mixed race child raised in Wales told me that she and her husband deliberately looked for a more urban area with a diverse population to bring up their own children. Oruj said, “The school we send our children to is 40% ethnic minority. My children don’t feel “other” like I did when I was growing up. They have friends from all over the world, they know Japanese nursery rhymes, celebrate every religious festival and are happy to experiment with different sorts of foods. It’s not perfect, there are still issues of representation eg the schools governing body doesn’t reflect the school population at all and never has done but that’s another story.”
Another fellow journalist, Mina Green, who has Indian and white English parents also found that there was a marked difference in the way people reacted to her in urban and rural areas. With populations in large cities being generally diverse, it wasn’t an issue being mixed race, but in rural Scotland which was mainly white, she was sometimes called a “Paki” or a “Half- caste.” Like my daughters, she felt that in general people have not been openly hostile to her, but that she wasn’t considered Indian enough by Indians and was considered “other” or “exotic” by white people.
Similarly, there are still many well intentioned people who make comments about my daughters such as, “Oh, they’re stunning!” or “Aren’t they gorgeous!” Although this could be considered complimentary, the implication is that they are somehow different, unusual and exotic. They’re not. They are pretty girls (I’m just slightly biased) but their shade of skin has nothing to do with that. In contrast, one of my daughters is often told “You don’t look mixed race.” What actually, is a mixed race person supposed to look like, and one wonders if that is intended as a compliment?
Finally, what is my experience as a white British woman being with a black partner? Only once or twice (although that’s too often) have I been the target of deliberate racist remarks, such as being called a “ni***r lover.” Although we all know it happens, when it happens to you it is a huge shock and causes deep distress. Nevertheless, whilst most people are not intentionally racist, they still say things which are at best irritating and at worst downright offensive. For example, I am still asked, “Is it true about black men?” When I ask them what they mean, they say, “You know… are they bigger?” to which I reply, “When I’ve slept with them all I’ll tell you.” That usually puts paid to their curiosity!