& mixing

New perspectives on mixed-race Britons

A CRE eConference · 4-6 September 2007

The diversity of the 'mixed' race population in Britain (Miri Song, University of Kent)
28 August 2007

The diversity of 'the' mixed race population in Britain (1)

Posted on: Tuesday 28 August 2007

Miri Song

Miri Song


The growth of 'mixed race' people and relationships today makes nonsense out of the idea that there exist distinct, 'natural' 'races' among people in multiethnic societies around the world. The population of the UK is becoming increasingly diverse in terms of ethnicity, race, religion, and national identity. For the first time, the growth in 'mixed race' people was officially recognized by the inclusion of a "mixed" group in the 2001 UK Census, in which about 674,000 people were identified as 'mixed'. Demographers have identified the "mixed" group as one of the fastest growing of all ethnic groups, estimating that by 2010 it will have increased by more than 40 per cent (or by more than 80 per cent by 2020) compared with 2001 (Office of National Statistics).

Yet in spite of its growing importance in demographic terms and its entry into 'official' data collection, relatively little is known about the life experiences of so-called 'mixed' people, or how this new population grouping identifies in ethnic and racial terms - information which is crucial for our understandings of cultural diversity and the delivery of culturally competent public services.

Important research (both in the USA and Britain) has debunked historical depictions of 'mixed' people as fragmented, marginal, and necessarily confused. Recent qualitative studies have demonstrated that 'mixed' people can and do make choices about their ethnic and racial identities (within structured parameters of 'choice'), but there is a multiplicity of views (both academic and popular) about what the growth of 'mixed' relationships and people augurs, in terms of social and political divisions and race relations.

Trevor Phillips's highly generalized remarks (in a recent speech) about 'mixed race' people being potentially disadvantaged, potentially vulnerable to "identity stripping" (with children growing up marooned between communities), was rather typical of how some analysts and policymakers conceive of the 'mixed' population in Britain. The biggest challenge facing policymakers looking at the 'mixed race' population is the urgent need to investigate the great diversity of 'mixed' experiences, whether in their families, schools, neighbourhoods, or regions.

It is problematic to refer to 'mixed' people in Britain as 'the single largest minority group in the country', as they do not comprise a meaningful group/community in itself. Without further empirical study, it would be erroneous to presume certain commonalities of experience across this population. While 'mixed' people do grow up in families in which they may (or may not!) recognise 'difference' between their parents, we cannot make sweeping policy recommendations about people who vary in relation to phenotype, class, etc. For example, policies appropriate for working class Black/White men may not be relevant for the needs/concerns of middle class Anglo-Indian women.

We should also avoid using terminology and categories which suggest that 'mixed race' people are somehow separate from existing (monoracial) minority and White communities. In many respects, 'mixed' people's experiences may not differ significantly from those of many monoracial minorities, for instance, in terms of their being regarded as minorities, or the targets of racial prejudice (but again, this is dependent on all the factors discussed above, such as phenotype, gender, etc.). Thus we should not draw unfounded distinctions between monoracial minorities and 'mixed' people and isolate 'mixed' people as a distinct group in society.

Some key questions/issues for policymakers

1 Type of 'mix' may make a difference

How do different types of 'mixed race' young people describe themselves and what kinds of choices do they perceive? Some key variables to examine include:

  • Physical appearance: while it is possible to mediate our appearance via speech, dress, and modes of behaviour, we cannot change our physical selves. In many social interactions, each of us is racially assigned by others.
  • Social class: how may a more privileged class upbringing (versus a relatively poor, working class upbringing) shape one's experience of being 'mixed', and how may this class effect influence how different types of 'mixed race' young people identify themselves?
  • Ethnic/racial composition of neighbourhood/school/region: how may growing up in a multiethnic area with other minorities and 'mixed race' people (versus growing up in a predominantly White area) influence 'mixed race' people's sense of selves?
  • Gender: how may gender mediate one's experiences of being 'mixed'?
  • 'Thin' and 'thick' ties with White and minority communities: how influential are the social networks and ties with people of each parent's heritage?

2 What does being 'mixed' mean in everyday life?

What does being 'mixed race' mean, in practice, in everyday life? The racial terms and categories we report using, per se, may not tell us as much as we may think. There is no automatic correspondence between a claimed identity and specific behaviours/attitudes/everyday interactions. Also, one's status as 'mixed' may be central to one person's sense of self, while it may seem to be an afterthought for another individual. What it means to be 'mixed' must be understood in relation to the many other aspects of a person's being: gender, religion, class, hobbies, etc.

3 Is being 'mixed' a racial disadvantage?

Is being 'mixed race' perceived and experienced as a disadvantaged status, and how may this differ across different kinds of 'mixed race' people? This is an important question, but as I argue earlier, it is not possible to address this question without differentiating 'the' mixed experience according to the type of 'mixed' people we are talking about in specific regional contexts: for how may the experience of being a Chinese/English woman differ from that of a Egyptian/English man (or an Indian/Barbadian man)? In addition to the specific 'mix', class and physical appearance, we also need to consider how perceptions and experiences of racial disadvantage may be gendered. The emergence of a large number of 'mixed race' people does signal that certain ethnic/racial boundaries are eroding, but it in no way means that we are (straightforwardly) in an era of declining racial inequalities or prejudice. Nor does this mean that all 'mixed race' people are somehow racially disadvantaged.

4 Do official surveys accurately capture how 'mixed' people describe/see themselves?

To what extent does official data collection accurately represent the ways in which young adults choose to describe their mixed origins? Analyses of Census data may provide an important snapshot of how certain Britons racially identify themselves. However, it is also possible that people identify and describe themselves differently on official forms, as opposed to how they describe themselves in 'real life' interactions - with their neighbours, friends, family members, and colleagues. For instance, the Indian mother and White Scottish father of a daughter may describe her on official forms as 'White' or 'Asian' (both monoracial possibilities), or 'mixed race' (when it is possible) on forms, but may raise her as 'Gujarati and Scottish', and may identify her as such to the people in their social networks.

There is also emerging evidence that many respondents are highly critical of existing racial/ethnic classifications on the myriad official forms they encounter. There is likely to be some inconsistency and fluidity in how people tick boxes (and/or use write-ins), depending on the forms they are asked complete. We should always keep in mind (as Richard Berthoud has argued in the past) that we need information about both a) actual parental heritage; b) how 'mixed race' people identify themselves - the two may or may not be the same.

Why does it matter?

First, it is imperative that more comparative empirical work is carried out on 'mixed race' people because many policies are based on assumptions about how 'mixed' families may or may not operate, or about how disadvantaged 'mixed race' people are today. I would argue that so much of existing survey work, while important, is still highly speculative and needs further investigation, through a combination of quantitative and qualitative approaches. Research, such as by Ros Edwards and Chamion Caballero on the Joseph Rowntree Foundation project on 'parenting mixed heritage children', shows us that little is known about how parents from different racial/ ethnic/ religious backgrounds actually negotiate their children's sense of identity and belonging.(2) While common sense tells us that parents do influence their children's sense of identity, we do not know how much difference this may make, for instance, compared with peer influences as children grow into adolescents and young adults. It may be that some parents simply do not talk with their children about 'race' or about the fact that their family is 'different'.

Second, on a political level, some (American) research on 'race' and 'mixed race' is now driven by controversial theorising about how and why people racially designate themselves (or their children) in the ways they do. For instance, George Yancey argues that the emergence of more and more Black/White Americans, and the possibility of choosing a 'mixed' identity (as opposed to Black) may worsen the status of monoracial Black people, but may also endanger a commitment to racial justice. This argument is based upon the belief that people who are part-White (including White/Black people) will not be as concerned with or committed to issues of racial justice as monoracial minorities have in the past. Such an argument needs empirical investigation.

The identification of people as 'mixed', as opposed to Black or Asian, for instance, in the US has been opposed by various minority groups/coalitions who fear the consequences of reduced enumeration and representation of their group in multiethnic America. This concern was instrumental in the US Census bureau deciding on a 'tick all that apply' (multiple tick boxes), as opposed to the provision of a 'mixed race' box in Britain. While trans-Atlantic comparisons must be made with caution, the political reverberations of the growing number of 'mixed' people in the USA are also likely to be felt here in Britain.



(1) This paper is based on an ongoing ESRC funded project, 'The ethnic options of mixed race young people in Britain', Peter Aspinall, Miri Song, and Ferhana Hashem, the University of Kent (interim report available through our links page).

(2) 'Parenting 'Mixed' Children: Negotiating Difference and Belonging' will be published early 2008 by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation. Read more about it in Chamion Caballero's paper 'Mixed' families: assumptions and new approaches.


About the author

Dr Miri Song is a reader in sociology at the University of Kent. Her research interests include ethnic identity, 'race' and 'mixed race', racisms, immigrant adaptation and the 'second generation'. Her books include Choosing Ethnic Identity (Polity 2003), Rethinking 'Mixed Race' (coedited with David Parker) (Pluto 2001), and Helping Out: Children's Labor in Ethnic Businesses (Temple University Press 1999). She is currently working with Peter Aspinall and Ferhana Hashem at the University of Kent on a project to investigate the range of identity choices potentially available to mixed-race young people in Britain.

This paper is taken with kind permission from the forthcoming Runnymede Trust publication: Mixed Heritage: Identity, Policy and Practice.

I agree that being Mixed is too tenuous a criterion to provide the strength of identification to form a community or a group in itself, although it does offer a superficial level of cohesiveness, emanating from an empathetic understanding of varying degrees of prejudice or discrimination from monoracial or monoethnic colleagues and relatives.
A considerable number of students at the halls of residence at my daughter’s university in London was Mixed, with only one pair sharing an identical ethnic mix. There is an increased sense of camaraderie amongst the Mixed contingent, who revel in their difference; however, friendships are closer amongst those who share aspects of their ethnic and cultural practices (e.g. the food they cook together and the sense of shared care and community culturally-informed by their collectivist upbringing). Personal identification is articulated through espousing their minority ethnic affiliation (“We, Greeks, are family-minded”), rather than through a more general Mixed description.
Phenotype is a/the significant discriminator of social attitudes and is evidenced by the vastly varying experiences of my own girls, not only by strangers, but also by peers and teachers at school, as well as relatives, whose interpretation of being ‘Mixed’ fluctuates according to the situation and individual prejudices.
To capitalise on the significant advantage that their Mixed status affords our children, it is imperative to enable, endorse and encourage – individually - all the components that constitute the Mix, by valuing, respecting and profiling the histories and cultures of the diversity of ethnic groups that contribute equally to their ultimately unique status.

Bina Radia-Bond
04 September 2007

My discussion is about the care sector and how it accommodates the needs of children and young people from mixed backgrounds. I have come across a number of children living in foster homes or with carers who are unaware of their needs in relation to hair, skin, and family background/heritage. These children are often seeking information about personal care, hair, skin etc as they do not get this in families or homes where their needs are not understood/recognised. I recently met a carer who said that her foster child (dark skinned and from a mixed background) thought he was white as he identified with their family. They encouraged him to think this as they saw o reason for him to be treated differently. Another young boy of mixed background (aged six) did not even realise that his father was black as he had no knowledge of his family background and had contact only with the white people in his family. He was taken back when the issue of the heritage of his father was raised and continues to wonder about this. Social services need to support children to understand their family history and background especially where it has an impact on their lives. There should be more training for social workers and carers about mixedness and children and young people should be aware of groups and agencies where they can get help and support should they need it. Not all children and young people will need this level of support but knowing that it is there if and when they do would be a starting point.
04 September 2007

Thanks Sadia. We'll be talking about mixed families tomorrow but it would be great to hear more from people about what needs to be done in the care sector (and other sectors) - check out the 'policy responses' threa in the equality forum
Hamish (Mixedness & Mixing)
04 September 2007

I am from Asain Pakistani backgorund. I have seen in Asian community how mixed race children are being treated when partnership breaks down. The child either stay with white mother or father's family keep the child and the child get all sorts of verbal abuses from mother or father's family. Lots of children end in care. Becuase the age group is relatively younger the awreness needs to be raised within care sector about the different needs and how to meet those needs. I hope this conference will bring this issue at the forefront and give a strating point.
Saadia Raja
04 September 2007

I think differences in physical appearance matter a lot in how they will be treated. My children are light skinned and people often thought my daughter was Italian or Greek and thus sometimes treated her with more 'approval' as a 'European' but my son has a larger mouth and broader nose, and I would say received more discrimination because of those features (including from teachers, assuming it was he who had done something naughty, etc.).
Gill Lawrence
03 September 2007

Leave a Comment
Name (required)
Email Address (never displayed)
Please type the following numbers for securityCaptcha Test Image
Enter a message