Race and identity in 21st century Britain

Once, it was a mark of shame in Western society. Now it's a badge of pride. By 2020, Britain's largest ethnic minority will be of mixed-race origin – and in every aspect of life, the diversity of our nation is shining through at last. Ian Burrell reports
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The Independent Online

By comparison with the rich heritage of Saskia Nava, who weighed in at 6lbs 13oz at London's Royal Free Hospital last month, Barack Obama's mixed ancestry appears so mundane that it might struggle to arouse the interest of producers on Who Do You Think You Are?

Young Saskia, like her four-year-old sister Cassima, is a mix of Pakistani and Barbadian, indigenous South American, African-Mexican, Austrian and Dutch. Her grandparents followed a spectrum of faiths: Muslim, Protestant, Roman Catholic and Jewish Theosophist.

Yet these sisters, light brown in complexion, fit in easily among the growing mixed-race population in modern Britain. "In Cassima's school, I think mixed-race kids are almost in the majority," says their father, Orson Nava, 42, a lecturer and film-maker who lives with his partner, Jreena Greene, in Hackney, east London. "It's more and more the norm, and I don't think it surprises anyone that someone is mixed race these days."

Obama's historic presidential victory earlier this month was especially meaningful for those who, like the senator for Illinois, are of mixed ethnicity. In the 2001 UK census, 1.4 per cent of respondents (some 677,000 people) declared themselves to be mixed race, a category that was included in the survey for the first time as recently as 1991. The category of mixed race has the youngest age profile of any ethnic group in Britain and is poised to become the largest of all non-white minority categories, overtaking the current largest non-white grouping, British Indians, by 2020.

It is a section of society that has been invigorated not just by Obama's success, but by Lewis Hamilton's accession to the throne in Formula One. Young mixed-race Britons might also look proudly on the achievements of Rio Ferdinand, captaining the England football team, or the singer Leona Lewis, winning The X Factor. They could recall Britain's first mixed-race cabinet minister – Paul Boateng, or the prize-winning authors Zadie Smith and Monica Ali. The glass ceilings have apparently been shattered and the sky would seem to be the limit.

In Manchester last month, more than 100 young mixed-race Britons gathered to celebrate and discuss their experiences at Mix-d UK, a groundbreaking convention. The organiser, Bradley Lincoln, a 39-year-old Mancunian with a black Jamaican father and a white English mother, says that attention is finally being given to a subject he terms, "the awkwardly coloured elephant in the room".

"It is almost like this has been an invisible issue until Barack Obama came around," he says of a subject still shrouded by ignorance, suspicion and political correctness. In America, mixed race people with any African heritage at all are often encouraged to see themselves as black under the so-called "One Drop" rule, which has also been followed by some British social services staff in adoption cases and other matters. Lincoln, founder of the Multiple Heritage Project, tours Britain encouraging young mixed-race people to feel confident in themselves. "We need to move from a problematic position to a modern one," he says of the tendency to see a victim status that often doesn't exist. "People's starting point has been, 'Aren't these people confused? Aren't they messed up?' That's not accurate, but people of mixed race have to defend a situation that they have not created."

There seems hardly an area of sport in which Britain is not now represented by mixed-race athletes. Olympic heroes included the gymnast Louis Smith and the gold medal-winning boxer James DeGale. Fabio Capello could pick a full team of mixed race players from those already in contention for England places: David James, Glen Johnson, Wes Brown, Rio Ferdinand, Ashley Cole, Ashley Young, Jermaine Jenas, Tom Huddlestone, Aaron Lennon, Gabriel Agbonlahor, Theo Walcott. Football, though, is still not entirely comfortable with the concept of mixed race. Premier League players are still known to have blacks versus whites kickabouts, with – according to England striker Jermain Defoe – the black players expecting their mixed-race team-mates to line up alongside them.

Many mixed-race Britons have succeeded outside sports, entertainment and the arts. The businessman Damon Buffini, a Leicester-born son of a British woman and an African-American serviceman, studied at Cambridge and Harvard and now runs the private equity company Permira. As well as Boateng, now Britain's high commissioner in South Africa, the politician Oona King made it to Westminster before being ousted by George Galloway. But prejudices in British society remain. The maternal instincts of Kathy Burke's Waynetta Slob ("all the other mums have got at least one brown baby and I want one and for that I need a big black man") have reinforced the idea that mixed-race families form part of an underclass.

While mixed-race relationships have been most prevalent in the largest British cities, and in merchant ports such as Cardiff and Liverpool, that is far from the only experience. Tom Copping, 26, who has a Dominican mother and English father, grew up in Cambridgeshire. "I only really had pleasant experiences, but maybe that's just because of my amenable personality, maybe I break down the barriers of race," he says.

Paul Machnicki, 24, who has English, Polish, Dutch, Indian and Guyanese ancestry, also had a rural upbringing, in a Cotswold village. So diverse are his antecedents that he does not feel constrained by "the shackles of culture". "I don't have any firm views or beliefs that are only substantiated by tradition. I see that as a positive, it gives me a lot of freedom and flexibility," he says.

Such freedoms weren't always so obvious. The world's first support group for mixed-race families, People in Harmony, was set up in Britain in 1972 amid the ongoing animosity towards multiracial relationships generated by Enoch Powell's Rivers of Blood speech of 1968. "People in mixed-race families were just huddling together because of all the hostility," says Jill Olumide, the mother of two mixed-race sons with her Nigerian-born husband Seye.

Olumide, a lecturer at Swansea University, also remembers the idealism of an earlier era, when the British group Blue Mink sang in 1970 that, "What we need is a great big melting pot... keep it stirring for a hundred years or more, and turn out coffee coloured people by the score."

She is wary of presenting children of mixed ethnicity as symbols of human harmony, heaping a sense of expectation on their shoulders. "There were children born when race-mixing was being trumpeted as the way forward to a coffee-coloured nation. Then the politics changed and mixed race was no longer in fashion," she says. "You still have people coming out with the civil rights rhetoric that holds mixed-race people up as beacons of peace and harmony, which I think is dangerous. They just want to be normal people." But it is, arguably, a sign of progress that her sons, in their twenties and brought up in London and Bradford but now living in Swansea, are now more likely to encounter hostility for their Englishness than for being mixed race.

Tina Attoh, 53, was born in Britain to a Ghanaian father and Dutch mother, going to school in Holland and Ghana before choosing to live in England, where she felt more comfortable. She has four mixed-race children. "I'm British and proud to be British, and in London there are people who come from all over the world," she says.

A decade ago, Attoh made a documentary film, Caste in Half, to try to give voice to the British mixed-race experience. She found that many of her subjects had been profoundly affected, with some refusing to even go on camera. She contrasts the struggles of her generation to be accepted with the views of one of her daughters, Rienkje, who works for the BBC in Plymouth. "When I discussed these things with her, she would say, 'Mum, you are the one with the issues because of your past background.' It doesn't matter to her whether she dates a white man, a black man or a Chinese man. She just wants a nice guy."

Mixed race is not just a black and white issue. One star of British entertainment television, Gok Wan, grew up as the son of a Chinese father and English mother in Leicester – expected to be the first non-white majority city when the next census is completed in 2011. Myleene Klass, the classical musician and broadcaster, grew up in sleepy Norfolk and is of mixed Filipino, Chinese, Austrian and English descent.

And as the British population becomes increasingly cosmopolitan, so the issue of mixed race grows more complex. In a church hall in Shoreditch, east London, regular meetings take place of a group called Sputnik, which was formed to support Eastern European women who married African students and are now living in the UK after fleeing prejudice at home. Oxana Gouli, 38, met her husband, Oka, when he arrived in Moscow from Nigeria to study chemical engineering as part of a scheme set up by the Soviet Union to build links with the developing world. They came to Britain with the eldest two of their four daughters, 13 years ago. Sputnik now has 30 members, women from Russia, Ukraine, Belarus, all with African partners and mixed-race offspring.

"In former Soviet Union countries, there have always been problems with inter-racial marriages," says Gouli. "The problems have got worse with more of this pseudo-patriotic behaviour and many skinheads."

Gouli, who has since had two more daughters, is trying her best to give her children an understanding of their Russian roots. "I have been trying to show them that Russian culture is very rich and interesting. But they're not interested in Russian television programmes or music, it's British and American culture they are interested in," she says. "My older daughter has just spent three weeks with her grandmother in Moscow, but she was mostly staying indoors because it wasn't safe for her to go out on her own. She's not streetwise in Moscow and doesn't know where she can go."

In Britain, such barriers to young people of mixed-race appear to be coming down. Orson Nava, part Mexican, part Austrian-Dutch, hopes the election of Barack Obama will help his daughters to progress in a world where race becomes an issue of diminishing significance. "For our daughters, we hope the election of Obama is part of the normalisation of being ethnically mixed," he says. "It's increasingly less important in a cosmopolitan and ethnically mixed city, in a world where the most powerful person is himself of mixed race."

Paul Machnicki, 24

Film-maker, living in London. He is the son of an Indian-Guyanese mother and Polish-English father.

Because my background is so mixed, I've never had a specific historical background to draw on to create an identity. But this has helped my interactions with all sorts of people as I'm not shackled by one culture, whereas my friends who are monocultured are more likely to have a fixed view of the world.

Yet, despite being able to form quite deep friendships with individuals, I've never wanted to penetrate group structures of friendship circles. It's something I've never been interested in. I suppose this is because most groups are quite homogenous and I tend to make friendships on a more individual level.

Growing up in the UK, I've always felt that its culture is defined by its multiculturalism because it is a country full on people who are not mono-cultured but jet-setting, whereas a lot of other countries can feel quite closed. Britain, in my experience, is really cosmopolitan, so, for me at least, it is an easy place to be mixed-race. I couldn't ask for a more permissive and tolerant society.

Not that is has always been this way, though. When my mum first moved to the countryside, in the Cotswolds, she felt that there was a lot of curtain-twitching going on. I remember she would prescribe behavioural characteristics to us, saying 'you shouldn't do this or that because it's already tough enough being a mixed race family'. As a mixed race couple I think my parents managed to adjust to village life very well, especially considering I grew up in a tiny village where most people who had lived there had been there for at least three generations.

One area though that as a society we still need to address is how mixed race people are portrayed is in advertising. Often corporate advertisers, especially American companies, shy away from using a black person to sell their products so will simply draft in a mixed race black and white person. It's just a trick to advertise a product by using a "foreigner" that most people can more easily identify with.

Tom Copping, 26

Works in publishing, lives in London. He is the son of an English father and Dominican mother.

I've never seen being mixed race as particularly enhancing, or as negatively affecting my life. Your successes tend to have less to do with your race and more to do with your upbringing and background – and my upbringing was very good. I was lucky enough to go to a private school where my race was never a major issue. I've only ever had pleasant experiences but that might just be because I'm very amenable. I'd like to think I'm breaking down racial barriers, but I just haven't come across any.

I grew up in the country, where you might expect to see some racism or prejudice, but my upbringing was fine. I've never had much of a problem with prejudice in the UK. Western Europe is accepting, but I have had problems when I've gone abroad, particularly as a British person of mixed race in Eastern Europe, where I've travelled. I've found myself on the receiving end of some funny looks there.

Nonetheless, I'm sure there are still problems with prejudice here in the UK. Lewis Hamilton may have won the Formula One world championship, but that doesn't mean we've reached the end of racial prejudice.

He has achieved so much because of his talent and upbringing, perhaps in spite of society's racial prejudices and people's attitudes towards him. The same could be said of Barack Obama's victory in America.

Suchitra Chatterjee, 45

A race case specialist for Sussex Police, living in Brighton. She is the daughter of an English mother and a Bengali father.

Whenever I think of being mixed race, or people ask me about my background, I remember one incident from my childhood. My mother took my sibling and I into school one day to remonstrate with a teacher who had unleashed a verbal racist attack on one of my siblings. My mother was absolutely furious but what sticks in my mind is my teacher's reaction.

She hadn't realised, or perhaps understood, that the three little brown kids she was teaching had an English mother. It's a very distinct and unpleasant memory.

It's a cliché, but being mixed race does enable you to see both sides of the coin and see society from your mother's and your father's perspective, as well as eventually your own. But at the same time it can also be a hindrance because people generally want you to be one thing or the other and of course you're not. It is that difficulty and the abuse my siblings suffered that has given me the passion to fight against racism. And I now work for an organisation called Mosaic, which helps victims of racism.

I've always used the term "bi-racial" to describe myself, and at work, because I think it gives some dignity. As a child, I was used to be being called horrible names like mongrel and half-caste, so society's use of the term "mixed race" is certainly an improvement. It's not just the language used to describe race that is an issue, though, in Britain. I remember reading in Barack Obama's book that as a child at school the other kids would call him Barry, and I've been in a similar situation. British people can sometimes be lazy in trying to get their head around different types of names.

In the end, I think people of mixed race have a desire to fit in and succeed so they strive to be excellent. I think you end up having to be 10 times better than your counterparts.

Kurt Giese, 22

A landscape gardener and lives in London. He is the son of a Nigerian mother and German father.

Being mixed race, I've always been able to socialise with a variety of people and have been unaware of any differences between us. I've never experienced any social stigma because of my race. For me, the most important thing when telling someone I'm mixed race is to highlight that I'm from two places, not that I'm from an ethnic minority. I tell people I'm from Germany and Nigeria, two countries that I'm patriotic about, and it's up to those people to interpret it as, "Oh you're half-white and half-black", but for me, that's beside the point.

Growing up, people used to love asking me, "Do you consider yourself white or black?", which is a ridiculous notion. I'm just from two different places.

It seems that Germany is less culturally diverse than the UK – Mum still faces discrimination there. Perhaps because of that she has a bigger chip on her shoulder and as such feels more black, even though she is mixed race, too. Technically, I'm three-quarters German and a quarter Nigerian, but I consider the mix to be equal. I think it has a lot to do with upbringing. My mother's mother, who was German, died when my mum was an infant and she grew up in Nigeria. So I see my mother as a Nigerian woman, and she is my mother so I am half-Nigerian. People often say or think you have to be black to be Nigerian. But for me, it's about cultural influences rather than genetics.

Segun Lee-French, 41

Writer and refugee arts projects organiser living in Manchester. He is the son of an English mother and a Nigerian father

When my older sister was born my mother had to change her name because one of the grandparents was embarrassed about having a mixed-race grandchild. But, generally, I don't think much about being mixed race. I grew up as a black man, and the only times I was aware of being mixed race was when black people pointed it out to me. And I would hear insults from black people about being "double blood", proving it isn't just white people who can be racist.

I've become very outspoken about racism and am not afraid to challenge it. I'm not afraid of confronting someone using racist language.

Some people argue that globalisation and demographics will make being mixed race irrelevant because, eventually, we will all be. But I don't buy that. Racial mixing doesn't actually lead to a decrease in racism because, over time, people of mixed race tend to return to their bloodline. Demographics alone aren't going to change attitudes. It's not going to change the fact that most of the poor people in the world are black, and most of the rich people in the world are white. The only thing that can change that is radical economic systems.

Shane Casey, 28

An interactive designer who lives in Bristol. He is the son of a Trinidadian mother and an Irish father.

My parents met in Canada, where I was born, and moved to Ireland in 1982. But I'm even more of a mix. My grandmother was descended from African slaves with some Portuguese thrown in. My grandfather was Chinese with a bit of Scottish.

Ireland in the 1980s was very different from the UK. In my school there were only three other families of mixed race and everyone else was white. And this was in a town of nearly 10,000 people, so we stood out from the crowd. That is not to say there was anything traumatic about it, just that you were aware of being different.

I've tended to see myself as Irish. I've only been to Trinidad once, so I don't feel comfortable saying I'm half Trinidadian.

My wife is white English, but her family have been welcoming and accepting of me – it's just never been an issue. That wasn't true of my parents' generation. My father's parents were very fond of my mother, but I'm sure when he called them from Canada and told them that he'd met a black Trinidadian, it would have raised eyebrows. But there are still too many stereotypes. The only way for that to change is when you get to know people and they become people rather than being stereotypes.

I've never experienced racism living in Bristol, and people are more likely to take the piss out of my Irish accent than my Caribbean background. Some prejudices are more socially acceptable.

Tracey Hylton, 41

Works for a diversity organisation and lives in Liverpool. She is the daughter of an Afro-Caribbean father and an English mother.

My dad was from an Afro-Caribbean background and my mother was white. They met while serving in the RAF.

When we were growing up in the 1960s and 1970s there were very few mixed-race children. If anything, we were quite lucky: in the forces, there were disproportionately more mixed-race children. But people still did not know what to make of us. It was often the mothers that came in for it, being branded "n***** lovers". My mum was spat at in the street. It was like we were an oddity, something you would watch in a circus.

There are a lot more mixed-race people about in the younger generations now. It's more accepted. It's more usual. Racism still exists, though. If you're black, you're black. And it might cause problems with some people's sense of identity, in terms of where they fit in with the equation. Let's not go on about "shadism", or how much black blood you have. If you look part black, that's how people treat you. Racism is more subtle now than in the 1960s. The barriers are still there; they are disguised under a nice fluffy covering. It used to be barbed wire, however.

Molly Sexton, 33

Lives in Cardiff. She is the daughter of a Zambian mother and a Welsh father.

I grew up all around the world, in Zambia and Saudi Arabia, and have been in the UK for about 15 years. My mother is Zambian and my father was Welsh. You are not recognised as being "mixed race" as such, say on ethnicity monitoring forms. People don't know how to deal with me because I sound very white British. For interviews, if I speak to someone on the phone first, before meeting them, people are often surprised by what I look like. I have never had any racist incidents, although there was one time when I bumped into a man and he gave me some racist remark.

How you are perceived depends on where you are. In the UK, I am seen as being black. But when I go to Zambia, I am seen as being very white. I think people see a bit of colour in me and wonder how to place me. Where I work, the majority of people are mixed race – it might be different if I was in a mostly white organisation. Because my mother was African, we had a lot of friends who were mixed race. It was nice for me to know people who had the same sort of background, but I identify with both sides of my heritage.

Interviews by Lola Manzi, Jamie Merrill and Rob Sharp