& mixing

New perspectives on mixed-race Britons

A CRE eConference · 4-6 September 2007

The mixed race population and enjoying art and culture (Hassan Mahamdallie, Arts Council England)
14 August 2007

The mixed race population and enjoying art and culture

Posted on: Tuesday 14 August 2007

Hassan Mahamdallie


Knowing that someone is of a mixed race background can only be the start of being able to understand who they are and their true potential.

As with all humanity a mixed race person may be any combination - you may be rich, you may be poor, you may be regarded as beautiful or ugly, you may be a wonderful musician or you may be tone deaf, love opera or punk.

Like all racial categorisations "mixed race" is a label. There is no scientific basis for there being different "races". Invented categories that aim to sub-divide human beings tell you much more about the society doing the dividing and its attitudes than about the group or individuals concerned. In apartheid South Africa or Jim Crow segregated America "race mixing" was illegal and even punishable by death. Both societies are thankfully, no more.

Attitudes can change. In the 1960s and '70s the racist Tory politician Enoch Powell successfully played on fears of "half caste" children over-running Britain's cities, yet today according to one recent survey 87% of young white British people would "not mind a mixed race marriage". I think this is too optimistic a figure, but the trend is clear.

Up to 1991, census research concluded that most mixed race individuals preferred to be identified with the race of one or other parent rather than with their own combined identity. There is nothing fundamentally wrong with this decision, as long as people weren't being forced to choose between identities because of prejudice, racism or pressure from wider society.

If we look at mixed raced people in British society we need to be wary of making sweeping statements - "mixed race people are..." or "mixed race people tend to....", or even "mixed raced people want...and need...".

Britain's mixed race population

So who make up Britain's mixed race population and what is their position in society?

According to the 2001 census there are nearly 700,000 people identified as mixed race in the UK. The large majority of these (643,000) live in England and Wales. The biggest group within the mixed race category by far are White/Black Caribbean at 237,000, with White/Asian next at 189,000, Other/Mixed at 156,000, and White/Black African at 79,000.

Out of all these groups the White/Black Caribbean are most recognisable as a group with certain common experiences, including the impact of colour-based racism, and the Other/Mixed the least easy to get a clear picture of because of the many different ethnic and cultural combinations that make it up.

The age profile probably tells you more about the mixed race population than by studying ethnic factors. The mixed race population are younger than any ethnic group - half the total number being under 16 years of age. Only 3% of mixed race people are of retirement age.

Half of all mixed race people describe themselves as Christian, 10% as Muslim, 2% Hindu and 1% Sikh. (Interestingly enough, given talk of Muslim self-segregation, these and other statistics point to Muslims being more likely to "marry out" of their race than either Hindus or Sikhs).

The statistics show that improving the lives of mixed race people is not solely a London issue. When it comes to mixed race people the capital is not the melting pot we might think it is. Only one in three of the mixed race population live in London, a much lower figure than most ethnic minority groups. Another way of looking at it would be that 70% live outside London. Thirteen percent live in the South East of England and 11 percent in the West Midlands. In Leicester the mixed race population is about the same size as the Black-Caribbean population.

There are features within the mixed race population that seem to mirror the Black and minority ethnic groups in British society - White/Black Caribbean's are most likely to suffer barriers and to be unemployed and least likely to have a degree qualification, and White/Asian most likely to be managers or professionals.

Britain's mixed race population is rich, complex and not easy to make general statements about.

The creative side of the mixed race population

What about the creative side of the mixed race population - what do they like to do in their spare time?

Figures from the Arts Council's Taking Part survey reveal that most of them are actively engaged in the arts. (The smallness of the sample means that we should treat the figures with some caution). The latest analysis shows that 60% of mixed race adults attend an arts event at least once a year. That is the second highest ethnic minority figure behind the Black population (63%). The white population are most likely of all (67%) to enjoy the arts.

More mixed race adults participate in the arts than any other ethnic minority group. Fifty two percent participate at least once a year, just 2% behind the figure for whites. Participation in Taking Part includes activities such as playing a musical instrument, performing, writing, photography and painting.

All in all the figures for attendance and participation in the arts for mixed race adults are not that much different than for other groups, nor are their reasons for taking part.

As a group do they have special needs or a unique cultural contribution to make? This is difficult question. One reason is that an expression of a unique mixed race identity in a way in which we might understand a Black British or white British identity has yet to be heard. The nearest we might come to a cultural expression of what we understand as a "mixed" identity are in developments in popular music, for example the cross fertilisation of hip-hop and indy music expressed by artists such as Lethal Bizzle and Dizzee Rascal and the "grime" scene. But it would be far too easy and far too crude to argue that mixed race people somehow physically embody musical cross-over or naturally have a dual artistic sensibility.

As the mixed race population grow in numbers these issues of cultural expression and identity may become clearer. But who knows what the future may hold? Mixed race people commonly tell of being forced to choose between one side of their inheritance or the other, of emphasising their "whiteness" so as to fit in and not suffer racist stereotyping.

Being at ease with yourself and having self-pride are preconditions for having the confidence to make your mark on society. Let us all make sure that the present assault on multiculturalism, the targeting of Muslims and the push to assimilate us all into a narrow and sterile notion of "Britishness" does not once again make the mixed race members of our society uncomfortable with who they are, or force them to suppress one side of themselves.



Who are the 'Mixed' ethnic group? Office for National Statistics May 2006

The Taking Part Survey

About the author

Hassan Mahamdallie is Senior Strategy Officer for Diversity at the Arts Council England.

1 Comment
I agree it'd be a mistake to assume all mixed-race people are automatic cultural interlocutors (although if you check the Corrine Bailey Rae interview in the video section it seems that it's certainly the case for her).

But this article raises the interesting idea that mixedness is happening through sharing and creating fusion music (and food and clothing etc.) as much as through making babies. So if an ethnic group is defined in part by shared customs and behaviours could this sort of fusion be a step towards creating new mixed ethnic groups independently of intermarriage?

Obviously in reality the biological/ genealogical heritage carries added weight - so we might love curry and fish and chips, bhangra and new rave, have travelled the subcontinent extensively but only if one parent is say white and the other Indian are we considered mixed - why is that?

17 August 2007

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