Every mixed race marriage is building a better Britain

Lynchings, imprisonment and social exclusion will never stop individual s breaking racial barriers

Yasmin Alibhai-Brown
Thursday 04 March 1999 00:02

WE HAVE looked, for a good many days, at the poisonous worms of racism as the Lawrence inquiry team turned over the soil. The coverage of this event has been unprecedented. Usually black issues have their small, insignificant place in the scheme of things. Suddenly what happened to one young black man became a statement of who we are as a nation.

The only other event that provoked similar levels of engagement was the Satanic Verses saga. The white elite has never tried harder to understand how racism, crude as well as subtle, violent as well as polite, is an abomination.

But, as we Muslims say on the 40th day of mourning a beloved, it is enough for now. We come out of our white mourning clothes, often go to the park, smell the flowers and remind ourselves that there is much beauty left in the world.

There are many good stories to tell about how integration has occurred in spite of racism. In truth this real, day-to-day integration has surpassed our understanding of it. Look around. Trevor McDonald is the nation's favourite newsreader. The other day I went to Soho's Red Fort Indian restaurant and saw young English girls in velvet dresses lost as they watched live classical Indian dancing. Round the corner, in Soho Spice, young, even anorexic trendies are eating Indian food as if it is suddenly cool. The Victoria & Albert Museum is putting on an exhibition of Sikh art, thanks to one of its curators, Dr Debbie Swallow, who is more passionately "Indian" than I shall ever be.

But by far the biggest story is that this country has almost the highest rate of interracial relationships and number of young, mixed-race people anywhere in the Western world. More than half of British-born black men have a white partner, as do a third of Asian men. The rates for black and Asian women are rising. And prominent people in mixed marriages include Mr McDonald himself, Michael Caine, Lenny Henry and Dawn French, Baroness Scotland, Lord Taylor, Bernie Grant, Jemima Goldsmith, Salman Rushdie, Zeinab Badawi, Madhur Jaffrey, Sayeed Jaffrey, Jung Chang, Frank Bruno, Ainsley Harriot, Sharron Davies, Oona King, Hanif Kureishi, Sade.

This is not true of the United States these days, though it was in the heady days of the Sixties. A journalist from The Washington Post who came to interview our family last year was astonished at this aspect of British race relations, and equally surprised that we don't sing about it as loudly as we should. Could you sing "Coffee Coloured People" or "Ebony and Ivory" and not blush? He had a point. Getting any of the famous people listed above to talk about this is impossible, perhaps because there is a prevailing connivance of silence.

Many white people don't wish to accept this reality because the Powellite nightmare of a nation polluting itself is still strong, if not often stated. A number of black, Asian and Jewish people are just as afraid. For them it is the fear of cultural annihilation. And the irony is that the more the fences are broken down by the irrepressible forces of lust and love, the less acceptance there seems to be of what is going on. We should have learnt by now that apartheid laws, lynchings, imprisonment, torture and social exclusion have never managed to stop individuals breaking down the barriers of race, religion and culture.

Read Titus Andronicus and you get the most modern debates on the identity of a mixed-race child. And in this country this has been going on since the 16th century. In the 17th and 18th centuries fashionable rich ladies liked to have slaves as ornaments, and black lovers in their beds. One of these, Soubise from St Kitts, was adored by the Duchess of Queensberry and was the toast of fashionable London. Some of the earliest race riots in this country, at the start of the 20th century, were over the number of white women having sexual relationships with black men. In 1930 an official report said: "[Mixed race] families have a low standard of life, morally and economically. It is practically impossible for half-caste children to be absorbed into our industrial life."

There will never be a speculative film made about what Queen Victoria really did with her handsome Indian servant Abdul Karim, but she did have his portrait painted; their letters were burnt by fusty officials after her death. In the Sixties, when free sex and false Indian gurus co-existed with rampant racism, mixed race relationships became the obsession of the media and others.

Last night I spent a glorious evening with Earl Cameron and Harry Baird, two black movie actors of that period. They talked about their roles in Sapphire, one of the first feature films about mixed-race relationships, and how "carefully" the intimacy between the two lovers had to be presented, and how nevertheless the audience left the cinema as if they had been at a funeral.

Well, it is not like that any more. Young mixed-race Britons are challenging all those who would rather they did not exist. They include the writer Jayne Ifekwunigwe, who has just written a marvellous book called Scattered Belongings, and stylish Chris Cleverly, the youngest barrister in this country with his own chambers, who cannot even understand my questions about the problems of being half-English and half African. His heritage has been, he says, one of his biggest assets.

And this message is being passed on to the third and fourth generations in the most unexpected places. Such as hard old Bermondsey. At the Snowsfield primary school, I saw some of the best teachers I have ever seen in my life, imparting to their tiny mixed-race pupils a proud sense of who they were and how they belong to this country. As they wrestled loudly with the words of "What a Wonderful World", I thought how this scene would upset Enoch Powell and his acolytes - it shows a far truer picture of modern Britain than the racist killing of a young black man.

The writer's documentary, `Beyond Black and White',will be broadcast on Radio 4 on Friday at 11am

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