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Community Through Diversity: Mixed-Race Identity Online
Veli Aghdiran
Veli Aghdiran

A look at how mixed-race online groups are pushing the notion of community in a fresh direction, and the positive repercussions this might have.

Over the last century, a substantial body of work has built up dedicated to defining just what is meant by the word 'community.' The Parekh Report (2001: 50) defines a community as something that 'gives its members a sense of belonging, and therefore of their identity and dignity... The boundaries round a community can be hard and fast... but often they are fluid, unfixed... It is entirely possible for someone to be a member of several different communities at the same time... A community is held together by symbols and ceremonies which broadly mean the same to all its members.' Perhaps the clearest message from this definition is that community is a very difficult thing to define.

A modern community is clearly a malleable entity. Development in what might be called the sociology of identity and selfhood have played an important role in 'opening out the conceptual space within which non-place forms of community can be understood' (Hoggett 1997: 7). In interest or 'elective' communities, people share a common interest other than place, i.e. sexual orientation, occupation, ethnic origin. In this context we can observe the development of online communities uniting ethnic minorities. In most cases, these are online manifestations of long-standing, often geographically established communities. The development of online mixed-race communities, then, is significant because it is a rare example of a community based on ethnic origins that is defining itself for the first time, and it is doing so in cyberspace. So what forms are mixed-race online communities taking and how do they differ from other ethnic minorities' online/real world communities?

Mixed-race people constitute the fastest growing ethnic minority in the UK and yet they do not have the same tools as other ethnic minorities - there are no community newspapers, no community centres aimed at mixed-race people. Multi-heritage people are spread all over Britain, so the internet has proved a vital tool in the creation of a community. The development of social networking sites such as MySpace and Facebook have made it incredibly easy for people to seek out like-minded people. As one MySpace user puts it:

"For me this is all new. I never even knew there were so many active organizations for the empowerment and support of multinationals, bi-racials, tri-racials multi-racials etc. Hell, I didn't even know we had sub-categories until yesterday. Now I see we've even got clothing lines, music, poetry and videos."

Like-minded people are seeking each other out online, and naturally, mixed-race people are seeking out others with common experiences and common upbringings. Mixed-race people are coming together, but why? And does an online assembly of people constitute a community?

What seems certain is that groups dedicated to 'mixedness' are providing a support network, and for some, a sense of belonging:

"I love coming to your page [and] seeing all the beautiful mixed people in the world. It warms me. I can remember a time when I thought I was a freak of nature because in the eyes of others, I was different. And back then, different meant freakish and unaccepted. I'm so glad I have outgrown that and come to embrace my uniqueness!"

But these sites are not just about support. People can buy 'mixed-race shirts,' read about mixed-race issues, exchange poetry, and imminently participate in an eConference on 'mixedness'. Thus these online developments seem to suggest that an identity is being formed, and, uniquely, it's an identity based on a common diversity and on dialogue. Anthony P. Cohen suggests that the reality of community lies in its members' perception of the vitality of its culture. What is clearly remarkable about the mixed-race community taking shape online, however, is that the common ground uniting people is their universal 'mixedness.'

But the question is: does this difference have any consequences on the wider backdrop of UK race relations? There are 12,446 members (and counting) of the Pakistani Facebook group. The discussion forums are dominated by Pakistani people. These groups perform an important function: members can discuss pressing issues, seek advice or sound off. But one thing they do not do is to encourage a dialogue with other ethnic groups. Mixed-race online communities are no different in this sense; it is unlikely that a non-mixed-race person will contribute on a mixed-race forum. However, the fact that mixed-race people are themselves an amalgamation of races means that there is an internal dialogue within the group that in itself encompasses a large number of backgrounds; this internalised dialogue, therefore, has repercussions on a more macro level.

A mixed-race online community is unique, then, because it represents a rare space where people from all manner of backgrounds are convening - whether it's a virtual space or real space is not relevant. Cohen argues that 'community' involves two related suggestions that the members of a group have something in common with each other; and the thing held in common distinguishes them in a significant way from the members of other possible groups (Cohen 1985: 12). Community, thus, implies both similarity and difference, defining oneself in relation to others. But the common ground in a mixed-race community is difference, thus undermining the notion that a community is necessarily founded on a shared similarity, for surely a similarity ceases to be a similarity when that very similarity is difference.

The etymology of 'community' implies a fellowship, commonness, not in the sense of usual or regular, but as a synonym for publicly accessible, for universal openness. I would suggest that the early stages of development of a mixed-race identity online are encouraging. The groups have very porous boundaries; a sense of sharing by all is being nurtured, and an emphasis is being placed not on race but on a common desire to celebrate diversity.

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

Click here to visit our forums and read the comments posted about this paper or to add your own comments.

Cohen, A. P. (1982) Belonging: identity and social organization in British rural cultures, Manchester: Manchester University Press.

Cohen, A. P. (1985) The Symbolic Construction of Community, London: Tavistock.

Hoggett, P. (1997) 'Contested communities' in P. Hoggett (ed.) Contested Communities. Experiences, struggles, policies, Bristol: Policy Press.

Runnymede Trust/Commission on the Future of Multi-Ethnic Britain (2000) The Future of Multi-Ethnic Britain [The Parekh Report], London: Profile Books

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