& mixing

New perspectives on mixed-race Britons

A CRE eConference · 4-6 September 2007

First person: Amanda Hussain (Amanda Hussain, Journalist and broadcaster)
03 September 2007

First person: Amanda Hussain

Posted on: Monday 3 September 2007

Amanda Hussain

Amanda Hussain

I'm a broadcaster and live in Winchester, Hampshire, with my husband Ian, a film publicist, and our five-year-old daughter, Lola. I'm used to describing myself as mixed race and yet a friend recently picked me upon it and argued that we should now be saying 'dual heritage' instead.

I suppose the confusion with the term originally started for me years back with the ethnic-monitoring, box-ticking exercise when you're filling out forms. I've tended to say 'half Asian half English' but with Americans you get into the whole Asian complication where they don't refer to Indians/Pakistanis as Asian.

I'm basically half Pakistani, half English white. I find people are awkward even alluding to the question now about ethnicity. There's the issue when asking 'where are you from?' as to whether people want to know where you live or what your ethnic background is. Funnily enough, I've got no problem with the question either way but I find lots of people dance around the subject uncomfortably. When I was young, people used the term 'half caste', and then once I was old enough to realise the implications of the caste system, I stopped using it.

It's often assumed that I'm Mediterranean due to my skin colour and then my Muslim surname throws people. I think I've often been seen as the acceptable face of being ethnic in that I grew up in Welwyn Garden City, a largely white area and spoke with a standard R.P accent. Oh and my white English mother brought me up solely when my parents divorced so it wasn't as if there were a different language spoken at home or curry for supper.

I grew up with people telling 'Paki taxi driver jokes' and I would wait for the punchline and then say, 'My father's Pakistani and he doesn't drive a minicab!' I remember doing this from an early age. And the reaction was always the same...Oh, no, we don't mean you! The way I see it, I managed to escape racism on the whole because people saw me as pretty much like them, even if I did look more tanned.

I would almost take perverse delight in the surprise of those thrown by my Pakistani roots but I guess I could only do that because I had been afforded a certain sense of acceptance in the first place. As I grew older that then became a double-edged sword because I realised how offensive it was, albeit ironically, that I was 'all right'. So for me, now, it's almost more gauling. In general, with white society I've been on the acceptable side but that doesn't always mean that I see that as a good thing.

I grew up in Hertfordshire which was very white and I think the other reason that we were so accepted was because there were only a few brown faces and I think had I grown up maybe somewhere like Bradford, Birmingham or the east end of London, amongst a much more multicultural community, I think perhaps I would have been seen as more 'different'. But I think if you've just got a few brown faces in a sea of white, it doesn't represent any kind of threat. There aren't those fears like 'I don't want my kids to go to school learning all these weird languages', so I scaped all that.

After my parents' divorce, when I was three, I spent most of my time with my mother and though I maintained contact with my father, I hadn't learnt Urdu. Interestingly, even my (English) mother tried to persuade me to learn but because my friends didn't speak it, I had no interest. In due course, my father re-married Helen, who was also white English anyway so English was their language at home too. I remember having had one Indian friend in my town, Neela, and funnily enough, I remember finding her family very different in their language and diet.

So, I see that I am the acceptable face of ethnicity because I fit in. And that isn't because I've tried hard to fit, it's because that's what I've grown up with. If anything, I've felt more alienated by the Asian side of my life and that has been relevant to my career as well. One of the first jobs I ever did was present a BBC 2 live show called Network East and I was seen as a pretty radical choice because I don't speak any of the languages...No Urdu, Hindi, nothing. We had all kinds of criticism. The producer, Sarah, who happened to be white, really went out on a limb to cast me I think. I got threatening mail... Fancy having a half-white girl who wasn't even a practicing Muslim present an Asian show! Since then, until recently when I've presented on BBC Asian Network, I've worked solely in the mainstream, non-Asian, media.

It's simplistic to assume that all mixed race people will face problems. I think I'm the richer for it. There have been many benefits...not least on holidays with white friends horrendously envious because I never burn and dying to get as brown as me which was never going to happen.


About the author

Amanda Hussain is a journalist and broadcaster.

Culture is not something you have, it's something you do. Differences are not natural,and cultural identities are not grounded in a primordial, biological identity. Unfortunately, culture has become something of a politically acceptable euphemism for race, where every 'community' has its distinct 'culture.' An understanding of culture as something you're born with reintroduces the discourse on racial identities through the back door, as Amanda's story demonstrates well. There is no 'culturally' right or wrong way of doing and thinking.
Kjartan Sveinsson
06 September 2007

To assume or expect that someone should have a ‘good’ understanding of a particular culture just because they happen to have a parent from that culture is problematic: what does ‘good knowledge of a culture’ mean? And who is entitled to judge Amanda’s understanding of the Asian culture (which by the way doesn’t mean anything – there isn’t one Asian culture)? A person who is more Asian-looking than her? I believe that nobody, other than herself, has the right to decide how she identifies herself and there is no reason why she should be told to embrace or force upon herself any notion of mixedness if it doesn’t reflect her experience. I also have a problem with this notion that if parents don’t teach their children elements of their culture or language, they will suffer an endless identity crisis and feel alienated. I was taught English by my Indian mother, who herself speaks Gujarati, Hindi and Marathi but who felt that trying to teach us a 3rd or 4th language (in addition to French, my Dad’s language and English) was going to be too much for us as kids, already slightly confused by the bilingual environment which we were living in. I don’t feel alienated and upset at my Mum for not teaching me all the languages she was brought up in. if I want to learn Hindi today, I can book myself into a class and do it.
05 September 2007

"how can you see the real Pakistan without knowing the language" Maybe I'm being a bit cheeky to ask which language you need to really inderstand Pakistan? Is it Urdu (one of the official languages), Punjabi, Pashto, Sindhi, Seraiki, Balochi, Gujarati or the second official language...English?!
05 September 2007

Amanda, no one should tell you 'how Asian to be'. You have the right to define it for yourself, as well as to make the choices about language, and the way you raise your children. It would appear from Sharron's response below that there is a 'proper way' of being mixed. While I appreciate Sharron's view that people must have the right to identify as they wish, including as 'mixed-race', I get concerned when this extends to telling others how to be. This tendency to authenticate, to approve or disapprove, is one of the challenges of community building, and a particularly sensitive one when trying to build a community that is fundamentally based on its ethnic diversity.

Regarding your appointment to present Network East, what should have been in question was your competence as a journalist/presenter and ability to report on the issues - melanin content is not a qualification - and is why I'm looking forward to seeing more suitably qualified Black and Asian faces presenting Countryfile, Top Gear, and The Politics show!

Rob Berkeley
05 September 2007

I really agree with Amanda's last paragraph. For so many people being 'mixed-race' or 'dual heritage' is a positive and enlightening experience. I am also the richer for it and so are my family, on all sides
Victoria Burton
04 September 2007

I can see why people would have been upset at you presenting an Asian show. Knowledge of an Asian language would have helped but also you would need to have an understanding of Asian culture and from what you say, you didn't have that either. I think if you had, you would have been able to defend criticism and would not have been upset by it, you would have understood why viewers wanted a person who could bring them a programme from their perspective. I wonder how your children view themselves and whether one day they will seek out their Asian roots and find that their lack of language and Asian culture will make them feel alienated. I know that the Pakistani community can be quite harsh when it comes to mixedness but how can you see the real Pakistan without knowing the language. If I was you I would learn the language of your father and teach it to your children. One day I assure you they will thank you for it and who knows one day you might be able to do programs from an Asian perspective. It's never too late.
Sharron Hall
04 September 2007

Amanda's paper has confirmed for me the experience that my children,who are teenagers,are likely to go through in future and are going through now.
I am an asain woman in my late 40's, married to an english partner,as a couple we are all too aware of how we are perceived by others as a mixed family,and asain sikhs in particular about our 'unclear identity'.
We have coped on many different levels and ways,and continue to do so,however we have faced inequality and judgement and disownment by others,despite living in fairly middle class neighbourhood,housing,professional jobs ,and good education for our children.
The point I want to make is that inequality is relative to how honest we are prepared to be about the treatment we receive as 'mixed families'.
Many of us in mixed families choose not to talk about the prejudices we face,because we want to be positive united front as a family in the face of negative views.When the prejudice is not overt,but subtle...as Amanda explains...it can be harder to challenge.We have faced both,I personally have found the covert more difficult.

Jasvinder Chana Glen
04 September 2007

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