& mixing

New perspectives on mixed-race Britons

A CRE eConference · 4-6 September 2007

Identity as relationship (Bob Macintosh, amateur philosopher and charity worker)
09 August 2007

Identity as relationship

Posted on: Friday 9 August 2007

Bob Macintosh

Bob Macintosh

I never used to think of myself as white. I would tick the box on forms - white was always the default, always first on the list - but it had no more meaning to me than my national insurance number, and I have never thought that I was LL nn nn nn L. Why should anyone think that they are a colour, a race, or an ethnicity? I found out when I met my wife, who is, or possibly is, Afro-Caribbean/Welsh or Dual Heritage, or Mixed.

I noticed straight away her features, her hair, her skin-tone, and they had no particular significance for me beyond her feminine charm. Our relationship began as man and woman, friends, lovers, partners, and all that ethnic stuff was not even irrelevant, it did not exist. I gradually became aware of strange looks in the street, suspicious shop assistants, odd comments. If ever we made some complaint, there was an immediate 'Oh we treat everyone the same.' I'd never had that sort of comment before, but it did not change my identity. But it gradually became apparent that it was easier for me to deal with certain matters alone, particularly anything to do with authorities and bureaucracy.

My partner was born and has spent most of her life in this country; she does not have a strange accent, or consult the entrails of chickens or anything like that. She has never been to the Caribbean. Appearance aside, she is just like me - university educated, vaguely liberal, nothing unusual. If culture is what you absorb from your surroundings and you upbringing, then her culture is British and white. But in her relationships with society, with the community around her, with the man on the Clapham omnibus, her appearance screams out that she is different, foreign, strange, and suspect. There is no question of choice here, she cannot choose to be white, normal, ordinary, even though she is in all but appearance. For other people, she carries an indelible mark of difference, and that negative identity is imposed upon her. Strangely, quite often people will say to her though, that they do not think of her as black. This of course is an obvious lie; if they didn't think it, they wouldn't bother to deny it. They never say it to me, for example.


The undiscriminating seagulls

It is a fact that my wife stands out in the crowd in this predominately white Welsh town. Perhaps the seagulls do not notice, but she stands out to me, and she would stand out to you - she's the one with the African features and the frizzy hair. There's no point in making a law, or a rule of political correctness that one is not to notice what is immediately apparent, indeed it is quite convenient for me, as I am shortsighted. The question is, what conclusion can one draw from this fact concerning her identity?

Through my relationship with my wife, I discover that I am white, not in our relationship, but in relationship with society, and that white has an unconscious significance of acceptance and privilege, which I have always been the oblivious beneficiary of, and which becomes apparent in relation to her. These identities, white, black, mixed, are not personal, nor are they chosen, they are imposed by the dominant culture on the basis of appearance. People of mixed race may have a 'different' cultural background, or a dual cultural heritage, or they may not. All one can say to 'identify' them as a group is that they are likely to experience that non-acceptance, and standing out in a crowd, that automatic suspicion, and that if they decide to 'go home' because they are barred from integrating into this society, that there is every chance that they would stand out there too.

What is needed, is what is most difficult for organisations, and for many individuals; not more definitions and rules and laws, not more knowledge, but less; less knowing of identities, defining of identities, understanding of identities, and a willingness to learn about someone one does not already know, and has not prejudged.


Read Bob's partner Isabel's paper here.

About the author

Bob Macintosh is an amateur philosopher and works for a charity supporting the disabled.

Thanks for your kind comments, folks. Siobhan, I applaud your positive attitude, but I have to warn you and your partner of the pain of seeing your children damaged by the ignorance and prejudice of society. Our articulate and intelligent daughter started school aged four, and within a few weeks did not want her mother to come and collect her. After a year, she cut off all her beautiful hair, and hid it under the bed. 12 years later she still straightens and dyes her hair. Your children are indeed the future, but pioneers pay a high price - as you probably already know, better than me. Gill Lawrence expresses something of this in her piece on this site. But I wish you joy and success with your family to be.
bob Macintosh
24 August 2007

delighted to read your piece: I am mixed race – black-Irish adopted and raised by an white Canadian-Irish family in South County Dublin - so not many ethnically diverse people around when was growing up

I am in serious relationship with an intelligent sentient white Irish man and he as had to have a crash course in identity politics over the last two years–white people just do not think about race; they don’t have to.

We have discussed kids in the future and what they will look like and how he will cope with and learn from his ethnically diverse children; I know from my own experience that all a child really needs is love and a sense of belonging to a family whatever colour that family may be and he worries that he will let them down and I tell him that we will tell them what my mum told me when i was a child and trying to make sense of my identity – that they are the future.

Siobhan McKenna
21 August 2007

I am in a similar situation. I am biracial black white Jamaican/English, but entirely raised by the British side, but I do live in a multiethnic are so it helps. I do notice how I stand out in crowds of white people in places like The Lake District, and appart from my appearence and my father being black, I don't see myspef as any different to white people. However, I do acknowledge that white people will notice I am different.

When people learn to see beyond the foreign looks, maybe they will learn that white isn't necessarily Britsh and black isn't necessarily foreign! I thnik this will take some time though as mixed race people are uncommon and misunderstood in may parts of the UK.

Kendra Mendes
12 August 2007

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