Brave new world: The complicated side-effects of Britain's mixed-race households

Click to follow
The Independent Online

Bev is beautiful, with silky black skin and thick hair she ties in a bunch at the top, spurting like a fountain. At 15, her face reminds me of the young and feisty Winnie Mandela. Dressed in denim, she is wearing lots of African bracelets and rings on her ears. And, incongruously, pearls, several strings looped around her high neck. Her face changes like an English summer – bright and sunny one minute, then suddenly dark, brooding and sometimes stormy. She wants to talk, she tells me, otherwise she will go crazy. And what Bev tells me is a part of one of the least reported stories of family life in modern Britain, remarkable and complex, and perpetually shifting.

"My family is messy," she explains. "There's been divorce, remarrying, separation, step-parents. It's hard to talk about that when we are all trying to be polite, faking it all the time. I was in a mood the other day – you know, you get into a mood. My mum came into my room, held my elbow so hard it hurt, and whispered: 'You'll lose me this man, too, you stupid girl.'

"Then there is RACE!" she continues. "We are black-and-white and inbetweenies, but no one mentions that either. We have to pretend that mum's latest guy is not white, and I am not brown, and there isn't an issue here."

She doesn't even take a breath as all this tumbles out. Is he unkind to her? I ask gently

"No, he's OK, I mean doesn't hit me or anything. But he has no idea. Comes from Norfolk or something. My mum loves all that – his fancy accent and that. She even went to Wimbledon 'cos he gets free tickets, and then both of them were moaning about Serena and Venus having a pushy dad, and my mum says something horrible about my ex-dad, and whitie nodded – he always nods, like Noddy. As soon as I have done my GCSEs I am out of here."

This country has more mixed-race families than any other in Europe. According to the latest social research, one in 10 young Britons lives in a mixed-race household and the number of bi-racial children is growing faster than any other "ethnic minority" group. We also have high divorce rates and – increasingly – step-families. Put all these factors together and you get a newish phenomenon: the rise of the mixed-race step-family. Social services, counsellors and academic researchers have not yet caught up with this social development. And those of us who find ourselves in these reconstituted multi-racial families make it up as we go along. I guess Bev's mum and step-dad are having to do just that.

Back in 1988, my Ugandan Asian husband unexpectedly went off with a young blonde, and her blondness made the betrayal all the harder to bear. It felt as if he was rejecting our cultural and inherited DNA. Our son was only 10 and still in shock when a blue-eyed Englishman came into my own life – came, in effect, to stay. Suddenly race didn't matter. How self-serving we humans are. I was, at the time, a race-equality warrior of the GLC sort and my comrades were unforgiving. The personal had to be the political. "How you let your boy be raised by the enemy, eh? What you teachin' him bout his self," asked an Afro-Caribbean activist.

She had a point. In my memoir, The Settler's Cookbook, I describe the hard adjustments, guilt and trepidation as my lover and I, two people of conflicted histories, committed to a life together. My son and I are third-world rowdy, open and fiery – how that scared the gentle Colin, brought up in a home where polite English discourse prevailed and high drama was only allowed on telly. Witnessing our daily, raw emotional exchanges, Colin feared the wounds between mother and son would never heal. At times I felt he was a repressed Englander, still imbued with colonial assumptions about civilised conduct. The departed father was handsome, sporty, an Imran Khan type who taught his boy to win, to beat down opponents. Ugandan Asians are congenitally competitive. The man who replaced him despised all that. He was working class and a life-long socialist, an ideological descendent of the Levellers.

Colin learnt to eat Indian food with his hands – a sweet gesture – but our re-formed family inevitably became anglicised. I wonder whether my son would have been more Asian if his dad had not left us, and yet I would never swap the life we subsequently made. When my son was 16, along came our daughter, Leila, his sister. Colin had to work even harder to ensure my son never felt like a loose tile in the mosaic. Physically Colin must have felt outnumbered – Leila looks Asian and sometimes people don't realise her dad is the man with the blue eyes. Our home is a vessel on a capricious sea, requiring much care and cultural wakefulness.

The journalist Sophie Radice understands what I am describing, having experienced multi-ethnic step-family life herself. The daughter of the Labour peer Giles Radice, she has an 18-year-old son, Louis, whose father is French Dominican. Her partner Dan Weldon is white British and has co-parented Louis from when the boy was two. It isn't easy. Their roles are circumscribed, yet Dan, Colin and many others in the same position are pulled into intimacy, expected to be selfless. Dan and Sophie also have a daughter. As the family becomes less self-conscious of difference, Louis appears to be getting more aware of his own hybrid racial identity. Just another complication along the way: "He gets very upset if white people don't realise he is mixed-race and assume that Dan is his dad," explains Sophie. "It is not Dan he is rejecting – but who Louis feels he is. He's into hip hop and black music and jokes about race and the awkwardness around all that."

Louis's biological father lives abroad and sees him intermittently. For his son, though, that biological link is above reproach. When quite young, Louis asserted: "Yes, I'm French, Scottish, Italian, English but mostly I'm Dominican." As racial self-identification becomes more important to a child – one way of expressing feelings of loss of the "real" parent perhaps – there can be a period of self-imposed distance from the step-parent even if that relationship has been sound and nurturing.

It must hurt, though none of the men I talked to ever confessed that it did.

Not even Meena's stepfather Mario, who has recently endured appalling verbal abuse as well as cruel rebuffs . Meena's Hindu father was brutal and a drunk. Fearful for her baby, her mum, Minaxi, ran away to a refuge. Five years later, Minaxi met and married Mario, an Italian chef. Meena was embraced by Mario and his clan. Two daughters were born after Meena turned 10, and she felt they were her sisters. Until now.

At 19, Meena suddenly feels alienated from her Indo-Italian family. She sought out her biological father, who rejected her because she is no longer a "proper" Indian. Not once did he try to see his child over the years. But Meena forgets that: "That's what I can't forgive my mother for. If she wanted to make another life, why didn't she find an Indian? What right did she have to turn me into a half-Italian bastard, neither this nor that?" Such hurtful things are said, not really meant but a sign of inner turmoil. Mario is bewildered and Meena's mum is too far removed from her Asian family to give Meena what she needs. It may all pass but much damage has already been done to a fragile reconstituted family where everyone acted in good faith until race came knocking.

Meanwhile, Louis's developing identity is a challenge for the man who has been with him for almost all his life, but the relationship is holding strong. "A part of him really appreciates Dan and I have heard him defending Dan against his own dad," says Sophie. "They do fight, of course, but there is a bond. Dan has had to learn about a mixed-race child. We took Louis to Dominica to meet his dad's family, and Dan was amazingly understanding – not at all jealous."

Betty Gotham is a softly spoken white British woman who married an Afghan asylum-seeker in 2005. Now 41, she runs one of the Government's SureStart programmes and comes across as eminently sensible, the sort of Englishwoman who can tackle any challenge. Soon after the wedding, however, she had to take on her husband's young son and daughter, who had never left Afghanistan and were attached to the extended family. It came out of the blue, this urgent call. The boy had developed a life-threatening illness and needed medical care that was only available in the UK.

The children spoke no English, recalls Betty, and were completely bewildered. "It was a cultural whirlwind on top of all the medical concerns and the children being homesick," she says – and life is still a struggle as the values of two civilisations demand primacy: "It is hard for me to see that the father expects the little boy to help less than the girl Zalmai, and I get angry. My husband wants her to wear a headscarf and she doesn't want to, so she turns to me for help but there is no point – I have to respect his wishes." That is all she can do– a white stepmother has little autonomous power to make changes. But subtly, quietly, Betty is injecting modernity into the family she has inherited.

What do the kids think of her? "I don't know. Zalmai has tried calling me 'Mum' at the school gates [but] it must be hard for them. They miss their mum, have only seen her once since coming over. My stepdaughter is naturally stroppy and takes her anger out on me because she can. But what is going on inside her head is hard to know. They have met with prejudices too – Mohammed, the boy, especially."

In perfect English, Zalmai, who is nine, tells me: "Well, it is safer in England. Now I have a lot of friends – but it is different. I have mixed feelings, I think I'm quite confused. I love Betty quite a lot. You are the person you are inside, and she's a good person inside. Yes, I think I love her." Betty tells me it is the first time she has heard those words.

That love can be as strong as the love between natural-born children and their parents, perhaps stronger as it is freely given and taken. Carey Smith is a 27-year-old therapist, part Jamaican and part Geordie. Her parents divorced when she was only two. It was not an easy relationship, made harder still by the disapproval of both white and black Britons: "Mum became defensive and when she left my dad – who was not good to her – she decided she would never allow herself negative feelings. She is too positive so can't understand how I felt really."

When Carey was eight, a white stepfather, a Scotsman called Martin, arrived: "I was silent and stared at him. His accent was strange. He arrived with two boxes and must have been crapping himself. Mum wouldn't give him wardrobe space, fearful that it might not work out." They lived in suburbia, where Carey had to deal with racism and her own identity – moving between Afros and bobs, blackness and trying to pass as sort-of white. But her relationship with Martin was solid. She wanted to call him "Dad" but it was hard at first: "I didn't feel I had a dad until I was 14. Sometimes if I saw a black man with a mixed-race child I would cry." Martin stayed steady. "He picked me up from school, cooked for me, understood me. It wasn't hard to love him. But I needed my blackness affirmed and he couldn't do that, obviously." Carey now belongs to the support group People in Harmony, which has long helped people through these emotional dilemmas.

Stan, an Eastender, failed to find within him the stoicism and resolve he needed when he took on four stepchildren aged 8 to 18. He married their mum, Maria, a Kenyan, once a dancer and now a businesswoman, the one woman he says he ever loved. He contacted me himself and within minutes was sobbing. It had been two years since that relationship broke down, he told me, and he blames the children who, he says, plotted to destroy the marriage: "It was unbearable. Those accusing eyes following me, insulting behaviour, always blaming me for bloody colonialism. And she took their side always. Said I was racist when I told them off." Was he? Is he? He stopped for a minute and said candidly: "Maybe there was some of that. These could not be my kids and I wanted my own who looked a bit like me, not jet black, but she wouldn't. Is that racism or just what everyone wants?" The end came with a bang. The 10-year-old boy threw a chair at him and called him a "white pig". Stan picked him up and hurled him on to the sofa, then shook him. The others rang the police and the rest is bad history. Maria will not take his calls.

Based on the research I conducted for this article, I think there are more good endings than bad ones like the one Stan described, even when families come together from places wide apart. Adele, a middle-class liberal with a breaking marriage, was trying to cope while bringing up two young sons. A friend introduced her to Harry, a Ghanaian engineer, who was single. He had come to Britain to study and planned to head back to his own country. They knew almost instantly that they belonged together and have been happily married for more than two decades. He had been raised in a village back home. Now he lives in Wiltshire, which couldn't be more different. At first she was worried: "I thought, their dad's left, this adds another dimension. Harry being African, I mean. They won't cope." It was a needless worry.

Harry took on Noah and Nick (now in their twenties) and gave them what they needed: a solid, steady male presence in their lives. He did not try to be their dad, was just a loyal and dependable friend. It worked. Adele and Harry had two sons – which could have caused a crisis – but the family got only closer. When sometimes the older boys went off the rails – as boys do – Adele was desperate but Harry supported her without turning on the kids. He did tell them when they did wrong and they always listened to him, but he had to be careful: "I thought they had some hidden fears – was I going to betray them? I believe in discipline, a very African thing, but I had to respect who they were. I had to hold back. I didn't want them to say to me: 'Fuck off, you aren't my dad.' "

A Godsend, then – as in my own life was Colin, who during the hard times could get through to my son like no one else. He even made my boy his best man and years later the compliment was returned.

Sensitive and committed step-parents can make a difference, though the going is tough. Children suffer more than we think when their parents part and families reform. As the following stories show, the good news is that a remarkable number of couples do manage to overcome obstacles and bring up sane and happy young people in mixed-race step-families, a testimony to the power of love and human generosity.

"My daughter talks to him like an equal"

Mayai Sharipova, 41, was, like her ex-husband, born in Kyrgyzstan. Her 11-year-old daughter, Nazgyl, is from her first, traditional marriage, in truth a legal abduction: "He didn't propose," she recalls. "I was kidnapped by him. I was walking down the street and he approached me, invited me to his house for a coffee. His mother was there. She put a white scarf over my head and claimed me as a wife for her son. I was too afraid to say no." They moved to England. The marriage was deeply unhappy for Mayai. Eventually she divorced her husband and a few years ago met a white British man with whom she has a baby boy: "Nazgyl has two fathers: her biological father and my new partner. His relationship with my daughter is very good. He takes her to the park and she talks to him like an equal. He is more supportive, more helpful and more friendly than my ex-husband was." For Mayai, her daughter is lucky – growing up with two different cultures: "It makes her more open-minded and more confident," she says. '

"Other people's perceptions don't bother me"

Professor Anne Phoenix is black British and the author of several books on young people. Her white partner, Charlie Owen, is a pioneer of research into mixed-race Britons. In the early eighties, she was married to a fellow Caribbean Brit and had a daughter, Anoushka. When the child was still a baby the marriage ended and Charlie came into their lives, a friend and a man who never wanted kids. They met at an event to protest about the death of a young black man in police custody. Race equality is fundamental to them, but could Charlie father a black child, not his own? Charlie's instinctively kind, which must have served him well. Anoushka was soon attached to him and calling him "Dad". For Charlie, it was unsettling and pleasing. He did not want to elbow in, and she did, after all, have a biological father. Anne, meanwhile, was confident this white man could be trusted to raise her beloved daughter. They talk about the subtleties of crossover relationships, about pride and prejudice and misguided definitions of race identity. For Anoushka, now an academic herself, there are no misgivings: "Charlie is my dad. That's what I have felt since I could understand things. It was sometimes confusing for my school mates – how come I am black and not mixed-race when he is white? But other people's perceptions don't bother me. I have never said to him, 'You're not my dad' – because he is, has been in every way." Communication, trust and honesty have made this family strong. Stronger perhaps than many mono-racial families who have never had to deal with divorce and absent parents.

"The crunch moments come as they grew up"

Tahera and Andy were both involved in community work. She, a Muslim, was separated and had two children, Shez, aged five, and Imran, three. They were friends before it turned into love. Like many mums, Tahera was most worried about how her kids would react. At first, it was easier than she feared: "They were quite accepting of him especially when they were younger," she recalls. "Then came the crunch moments as they grew up." Once, in a row over choice of TV programmes, the stepfather said, "I pay for this" – and a perfectly normal situation turned ominous, as happens so often in delicately balanced families. Andy converted to Islam to take away that barrier, at least. Before he became a Muslim and learnt his duties, Tahera's mum treated him "as if he was a ghost". The family he entered had their own cultural rules, and Andy needed to learn that etiquette to fit in: "We eat together and we are taught not to take too much food and not to grab the best bits," explains Tahera. Like for other step-parents, their acceptance of Andy is conditional. He now has a further challenge – Tahera's sister died this year of cancer leaving behind teenage children that he and Tahera now have to help nurture and bring up. Astonishingly, he seems unfazed by it all.

Additional reporting by Sarah Morris

Comments