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Dodging The -Ism
Dr Sarita Malik
Dr Sarita Malik

The problematisation of 'mixedness' is reminiscent of the ways in which ethnic 'others' have historically been managed and culturally perceived in the UK. Recent debate has revealed the imbricating threads around the state and status of Britain's growing mixed race population, particularly when those who inhabit it are related to so-called 'disadvantaged' or 'visible' ethnic minority groups. The phrase 'mixed race' is itself often racially coded, typically used to refer to a Black/Asian and White correlation.

General representations of 'in-between-ness' are based around themes of cultural divisiveness, uncertainty and conflict. The mixed-race Briton is apparently unable to resolve their different parts into a whole, cohesive identity. This idea of the 'identity-crisis' or 'culture clash', has been a long-running image of young ethnic minorities in Britain, perpetuated in media representations and public discussions for several decades. It functions as a kind of shorthand for understanding what, in fact, is a far more complex and layered place to be.

The new uncertainty
The new uncertainty, partly demographic in origin, suggests an updated focus on the threat that new hyphenated identities ('Anglo-Asian' for example) are presumed to bring to a 'pure' and 'legitimate' sense of national cohesion (amongst the older hyphenated identity, 'Anglo-Saxon').

When I wrote about this recently, it was reassuring to see that many who commented on my piece found it quite remarkable that a challenge to this myth of purity should be deemed problematic. Mixedness is an empirical fact, a heterogeneous condition that exists here and now and, moreover, a long-established feature of modern Britain.

So what is it about being mixed race that our society finds so difficult to get its head around? UK policy-makers, heavily influenced by the US approach to mixedness, have so far failed to produce a nuanced response to Britain's mixed-parentage demographic. The dual heritage of high-profile personalities is often ignored, not in a deliberately 'colour blind' way, but in an awkward, not-quite-sure-what-to-say way. Or it is reduced to 'black' or 'part-Asian' without any further detail given.

These are new kinds of cultural insensitivity. The biracial or multiracial qualities of that person are elided by the struggle to define, usually not by them - but by journalists, government bodies, policy-makers, or just the average person on the street. This anxiety around terminology often amounts to nothing; the supposed incongruities render mixed race Britons strangely invisible in public debate and policy and yet, they are everywhere to be seen; all and nothing.

The 'slipperiness' of mixedness makes it difficult to pinpoint racial identity; many find it uncomfortable when they don't know 'where they are' with someone. It becomes much more difficult to dip into your box of stereotypes. Symbolically, the complexities of definition have traditionally been sidestepped by official documentation and statistics altogether.

Annoyingly, the addition of a new 'mixed ethnic' category in the 2001 National Census - if it is to now be officially managed as a new ethnic group identity - may yet run the danger of reemphasising ethnic divisions that cultural diversity policy agendas have claimed to work against for years. But we seem to require it, if for no other reason, than as an antidote to the term "Other". But the potential losses and gains need to be carefully weighed up in order to consider what kind of representation mixed race Britons needs.

Meanings and opportunities

So what are the meanings and opportunities opened up by using the 'mixed ethnic' category? We can start by involving mixed race people in national conversations not just around "race", but also more broadly about implications for public policy, research and practice.

Should, for example, 'mixed ethnic' be used to formulate policy that claims to deliver equality? Perhaps we should be careful what we wish for. My own thoughts are that how we recognise 'cultural diversity' has to be a psycho-social response that is increasingly mindful of a growing mixed race presence and recognises that Britain is diverse from within, but not based around the premise of unique or discrete treatment. And that much of the work that needs to be done is in the private sphere.

Personal terrain
The politics of how mixedness is actually 'used' in society, not just on government policy levels but also within the personal terrain, is important. It is here that we discover not just the real pleasures but also the inherent prejudices in our midst. Our own cultural insecurities are, for example, often projected onto the mixed race person.

An elderly British-Asian man I know is openly pleased that his mixed race grandchildren look more English than Asian, particularly when he drops them off at their virtually all White school. He thinks it will present less of a barrier to their future success.

The White mother of a Welsh-Tamil friend of mine is keen that her daughter marries a Tamil man, just as she did, because she thinks that Tamils come from more solid family backgrounds. Aside from a Welsh-suitor, she would be even more perturbed if her daughter was to marry a Nigerian; a Muslim of any shade would rank the lowest on her wish-list.

That same friend was told by another that because she is mixed race, she is not "properly Asian". The tone of the debate on 'ethnic' radio shows often reflects a fear around miscegenation or of too much 'mixing' with other ethnic communities. And we have read about some mothers' deep concerns that their newborn mixed race children are getting darker by the day.

The 'uses' and impact of (the consequences of) mixedness and mixing are, for better or worse, manifold. It would be nice to believe that when people of mixed heritage become the majority British population, the 'issue' will hopefully stop being one of such private and public angst. But the boundaries of expediency and layers of prejudice within and across different ethnic communities highlight some of the challenges ahead. Being mixed race, or biracial or mixed heritage or however you prefer to think about it, is now such a diverse lived reality that it requires significant updating in how it is conceptualised and understood.

We are currently in the thick of a moment defined by a heavily politicized struggle for recognition with calls for cultural and other forms of expression, and an accompanying politics of competitive grievance. Mixedness is too far-reaching and multifaceted to be positioned against 'the rest' or to be subsumed into simple strategies of 'community representation'.

Just like multiculturalism, it needs to be conceived as a normative principle underpinned by a positive acknowledgement of multicultures; a qualitative mindset that depends on a certain process of understanding - not something that can simply or easily be enforced or implemented through targets or positive action measures if it wants to be consequential and champion its goals. But the temptation to fall for the promise of a publicly managed version of multiculturalism - through policies of ethnic representation, resource allocation and distributive rights - needs to be resisted. This runs the danger of crudely 'racialising' how mixedness belongs to society. It is important that the 'mixed ethnic' community, if such a thing can be said to exist, dodges such pitfalls that an institutionalised ism claims to avoid.

This paper was first submitted as part of the e-conference mixedness and mixing 4-6 September 2007.

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