What's black and white and lives in a political minefield?: Society expects people to be one thing or the other - but what if you're both at once? Emma Lindsey on mixed-race perspectives

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Indy Lifestyle Online
I grew up with my white mother from Yorkshire and my black father from Mississippi. They met at an American air-force club in London, married in 1968 and raised me with a mixed perspective.

When we lived in England, school holidays were spent in Bridlington visiting my maternal grandmother. She and I would collect shells on the beach, go down to the pier to watch fishermen and eat toasted teacake for breakfast.

On Sundays dad would cook dinner: corn bread, black-eyed peas, collard greens and pot roast. Books by Malcolm X and James Baldwin sat on the shelves next to Jane Austen and Iris Murdoch, and records by black artists were stacked high. At home there was complete equality between black and white, which meant I was free to be half and half - just me.

Then, in my teens, outside influences hit. Suddenly it seemed it wasn't enough to say I was mixed: I had to be specific about the whys and wherefores of my physical appearance and to justify my outlook.

Society insists that you take sides, but I wasn't equipped to do that. My life experiences meant I wasn't 'black enough' to fit easily into the black community. Talking to other mixed-race people, I realised I wasn't the only one who felt this way. Being black from a mixed perspective is harder than it should be because others have a problem with the concept. A number of mixed-race people give up the fight, ignoring one side of their legacy to make life easier, but that is a denial of the truth.

Since the melting pot of the Sixties was thrown on to the scrap heap, people born of two cultures have had to work to find a place for themselves in a society which insists on concrete categories. Within the context of a racist society, many black people consider it politically suspect to insist on one's dual heritage. We are expected to give a nod to the white half but not much more, and just get on with being black. If only it were that simple.

A mixed child growing up with a black mother in a predominantly black part of town will more readily identify as black. But if, as census figures suggest is more likely, the child's mother is white and the child is brought up in a predominantly white area, getting to grips with one's blackness requires a conscious effort.

Tara, a 24-year-old theatre worker says: 'These days I'm more likely to say I'm mixed-race. I used to be adamant about saying I was black: I felt the need to prove myself. I don't now. I have to accept my white half, and by saying I'm black I'm denying it. 'When black people get derogatory about white people, I can't join in - because that's my mother they're talking about.

Outside the middle classes the gulf is widening between black and white. Being a 'conscious' black person entails having a deep- seated distrust of the white population and its institutions. It also demands, in some quarters, disapproval of mixed relationships.

Bobby, a 24-year-old London student, expresses these feelings: 'Mixed-race relationships are killing the black community. Everywhere black people are abusing drugs, starving in other countries, and if the people who are left are having relationships with white people it's just undermining the black race. Their children are mixed, they're not black. All the mixed people I've met at college are white-identified, not black.'

In the Caribbean it has historically been white, mixed-race and light-skinned people who have dominated in the best jobs, schools and colleges - positions of privilege which have been carefully preserved by light marrying light. Many mixed-race people feel they are scapegoated for a status quo beyond their control.

In America, mixed-race people are clamouring for self-definition. They can read magazines such as Interrace and Biracial Monthly or follow a course called People of Mixed Race Descent at Berkeley, California. But, most important, the Association of MultiEthnic Americans (AMEA), campaigning since 1988, this year won the right for people of mixed race to 'truthfully identify' themselves on the next census in the year 2000. They will have a 'mixed race' category; at present they have to tick 'other'.

Reaction has been divided. Many oppose the move, saying it will further dilute political unity among black people. There is also a suspicion that wanting to be 'multiracial' is the latest form of 'passing for white'.

It is an understandable view. After all, in South Africa's recent elections, the 'Coloureds' turned out en masse in the Western Cape region to vote for de Klerk, rather than supporting Mandela or any other black candidates.

But mixed-race people have an undeniably different reality. Marina, a journalist, says: 'With white people I'm seen as black but with black people I'm mixed. I know I've been treated differently by white people because I don't look very black and because of the way I speak. I don't feel guilty, but what I can do is be politically aware.'

Kwesi, an 18-year-old student, articulates a widespread sentiment: 'We can't identify with either black or white completely. A lot of people think being mixed- race is a disability - like you're neither one thing nor the other - but they don't understand the importance of having an identity which is mixed-race. You can't escape it. And you shouldn't have to, because it's what you are.'

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