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On Being Mixed-Race
Sir Keith Ajegbo
Sir Keith Ajegbo

The intention of this article is to give a brief history of myself as a mixed- race person and to reflect on how I have contextualised myself and my attempts to contextualise being mixed race. It is not based on research evidence but on my continual self reflection on what race means to me.

My story
I was born in 1946 to a Nigerian father and a white mother. They met at church. I don't know much about their feelings for each other but I know they had to get married. My mother came from a working class family, living on a council estate in South East London and my father came from Onitsha in Eastern Nigeria. He had come over to England to study law at an Inn of Court. He had been financed by his village and was expected to return to Nigeria.

My mother dreamed of a world that was not South East London and believed he would take her back to Nigeria.

In fact he left for Nigeria when I was six months old and despite many promises it became clear that she was not going to join him there. She was, therefore, a single mother with a black baby at a time when that was rare.

For her family, my white grandparents, the situation was difficult to deal with. My grandmother liked my father but was fundamentally racist in the way many people were in 1946 and was shocked by having to deal with the social consequences of a black son in law and a half black grandson.

The story could have ended in tragedy but it is important that in this debate about being mixed-race it didn't. My career has been successful. I went to Cambridge; have been an acclaimed Headteacher and have recently been knighted for my services to education. What I want to look at is the impact on my thinking and my life of being mixed-race.

The wider picture
In moving from the personal to the wider picture it is important not to generalise casually. The spectrum of being mixed-race is extremely wide. It is dependent on the particular racial mix, on location and a range of other factors. However a very crucial component to mixed-race children belonging and feeling whole has to be the attitude of their parents. My unresearched observation is that if parents are sensitive to their child being mixed-race and are prepared to work together on the issues that might arise in terms of identity and belonging then this makes a considerable difference.

I expect it also makes a difference if the family is together and both races are part of that family experience. The biggest psychological issue for me was being part of a white family with very little contact with the black side of my family. While my white family were very good to me they treated me as if I was white but had, rather accidentally, black skin. My grandmother would never allow black people into her house because of the trouble caused by my mother's marriage. I remember my mother telling me to pull my cap on so people couldn't see my hair and crying when my aunt referred to my curly hair. As a result I have always felt an element of being outside both races and of being inauthentic.

My experience as a Headteacher suggested that mixed race sons ( and sometimes daughters) have particular issues of identity and belonging when their family is essentially a white mother. In the inner city cultures of South East London mixed race children are often casually classified as black and, like me, can feel outside two worlds if they do not prove their blackness.

Clearly though other factors also have an influence. There are geographical contexts. It is probably easier to be mixed-race in London, which is increasingly multi cultural, than Bradford and other cities where Trevor Phillips has talked of the country 'sleepwalking to segregation.' Nor is it easy to be 'the only black in the village'. One way in which being mixed-race has determined my life is that I couldn't move out of London because I imagine I would not feel comfortable.

It is also true that the nature of a person's mixedness make a difference. There are different issues for children of mixed African Caribbean or African and white heritage which is quite common in some urban areas to children of Asian/white heritage.

Class makes a difference. A purely personal observation is seeing working class mixed-race pupils moving towards black youth cultures and middle class mixed race pupils moving towards white. In terms of schooling and neighbourhoods working class pupils often come into far greater contact with pupils from other cultures. This is exacerbated by white middle class flight. I have often felt disturbed by TV satires around working class culture that imply a mongrel society. A sketch that sticks in my mind and I found offensive was by Harry Enfield featuring the Slobs in which the fashion for the white girls on the estate was to have a brown baby.

While some aspects of being mixed-race are easier as the society becomes more at ease with race and difference, mixed race children are still likely to be at the sharp end of tensions and prejudice. An issue for me, which I expect is still there, is for mixed-race children to have to listen to prejudices voiced by one or other of their races against the other one. This can create a real sense of dislocation and being an outsider. One of my great fears as a child, which has recurred through my life, was of a great war between white and black in which I could find no haven on either side.

Multiple identities
There was also the constant re-evaluation of my essential being trapped between the stereotypes of the two races of which I was composed. It was very easy, in the time in which I was brought up, to feel caught between the notion of physical black people and cerebral white. This fuelled from a very early age the desire to be top of the class. But I also toyed with the idea that, although clever, I wasn't supremely clever, like, for example, an astro physicist, because of my blackness.

My outsider experience of society is that there is still deeply entrenched a sense of different attributes for different races and I often wonder if a deep psychological fear of inferiority sometimes stops black boys fulfilling their intellectual potential. In children of different mixes there are different stereotypes and prejudices to contend with.

Nevertheless out of my constant ruminations about race, about belonging and about identity I began, from a very early age, to understand complexity and the notion of multiple identities. Journeying from this sense of outsiderness to finding a place where I could exist with myself took determination and an early understanding of emotional intelligence. From where I stood I always felt I was negotiating my way into understanding how I needed to be and to behave to find my way into societies. I never campaigned because I didn't feel I was black enough or authentic enough to campaign. I created my world by being ultra sensitive to the signals I picked up about how I best place myself.

Leading the way?
An argument I tentatively develop from my experience is that there is no one better placed to understand the infinite complexities of belonging and multiple identity than mixed-race people and no one better placed, by developing emotional intelligence, to bridge the gaps between races and cultures and make race irrelevant. The abilities to deal with complexity, subtlety and nuance are qualities we want for all our children.

Mixed-race children, properly nurtured, are in a strong position to lead the way. As the headteacher of a multi cultural inner city school I saw being mixed-race as a real advantage in understanding how children and parents across the cultures and ethnicities felt about being in that environment. I had spent so long in examining who I am from both black and white perspectives that I felt I could cover many angles.

While developing emotional intelligence by being mixed-race is a hard won skill there have in recent years been other easier gains for mixed race children. In terms of fashion and glamour mixed-race faces now abound. There seems to be an aesthetic agreement that combining different racial features makes sense. The chances of seeing mixed-race people on adverts, on the TV, in premiership football teams has increased enormously and I have found this heartening. There has also been a great deal of public demystification of sexual relationships between different races that were almost seen as shocking not so many years ago.

In a society in which attitudes are changing I see no reason for mixed-race children to be stuck in limbo between races. There is clearly, and has been through history, an attraction between people that transcends race and the attitudes of society. As those attitudes change and soften and people move easily about the world there will inevitably be more and more mixed-race children. Although the nature of the mix and location will create different challenges they are now recognised as a distinct group.

The acceptable language for defining mixed-race has changed from my childhood where I was often called half caste of half breed. Mixed race people excel in a number of fields and I no longer only have Shirley Bassey and the tragic Randolph Turpin in my Hall of Fame. There is now a credible candidate for the democratic nomination for the presidency of the United States, the future Formula 1 world champion, the best golfer in the world, the ninth best tennis player, more premiership footballers and minor celebrities than I can name, the novelist and first class honours Cambridge graduate Zadie Smith and Damon Buffini, the managing partner of Europe's biggest equity firm and one of the most important and richest figures in the City.

Mixed-racedness is part of our future. People can succeed against the odds but what mixed race children need in order to take their place in the vanguard are families who give them a real sense of identity and belonging and equip them to negotiate the puzzles ahead.

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

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