Where I grew up, a mixed-race family was something of an anomaly. Families, according to our neighbours – and the pictures on cereal boxes, board games and holiday brochures – meant a white mother and a white father and two children, preferably a boy and a girl, ideally blonde. The father went to work in a suit; the mother stayed home and sang along to Radio 1 while doing the housework.
My family wasn't like that. My mother was from Guyana and wore her hair in a short Afro. She liked jumpsuits and jewellery and, shockingly, worked full-time. My father was from Scotland and wore embarrassing checked jackets from the 1960s (he was in his forties when my brother and I were born). Neither had heard of Radio 1. My childhood memories of growing up in a mainly white, expensively heeled north London suburb include the following…
I am six years old and talking over the garden fence to my next-door neighbour and two sisters from across the street and one of them calls me "Poo" and they all laugh and run away. I am eight and a classmate stops me in the corridor and asks, "What's it like to be black?" and I can't think of an answer so I ask her what it's like to be white. I am 10 and a boy from the Scouts asks me to play Uhura in their production of Star Trek and I'm so pleased and it's only much later that I realise I am the only person in the room who could do it. It is not always like this. Other things happen in between, lots of them good. But that's the thing about memory: only the strongest cling on.
Nearly 30 years on I have a husband and two young children. We live in a much more "mixed" neighbourhood than where I grew up so that, as a mixed family, we're far from unusual. In fact, all but two families in our street are visibly mixed in some way (it's a small street, but still). Unlike my parents, my husband and I do not stand out. Unlike my brother and me, my children will not be the only mixed-race children in their classroom.
Of course, we live in famously diverse London, but there are now 1.2 million people across Britain who describe themselves as "mixed", making mixed race the third-largest and fastest-growing ethnic minority group. Widely reported predictions that mixed will be the single largest ethnic minority group by the end of this decade are disputed by academics, but it is clear that a major demographic shift is under way.
Reaction to this social change has been contradictory, and peppered with hyperbole. On the one hand, the rise of "beige Britain" is eulogised as evidence of an open, tolerant country that's moved beyond outdated notions of race and racism. It has become fashionable to shrug and say, "Well, we'll all be brown soon." On the other, it is not unusual to see alarmist articles about white people becoming the minority (two recent stories predicting that so-called "indigenous white children" would be "outnumbered" in state schools by 2037 were illustrated with images of mixed children), while in the black press there are reports about the disappearance of the Caribbean presence as increasing numbers "marry out".
Reactions to Danny Boyle's casting of a mixed family in the London Olympics opening ceremony encapsulated these frictions: while some celebrated this very modern take on British life, the Daily Mail called its depiction of a white mother and black father living happily in a suburban home "absurdly unrealistic".
Underpinning all this remains an obsession with our physicality: we can't get beyond a basic fascination with what happens when two people with different-coloured skin have a child. A tiny recent study by the University of Cardiff on the attractiveness of mixed-race people received disproportionate media coverage, while a black radio presenter recently told me, "Everyone wants to look like you." More than one older white mother has revealed to me her yearning for a mixed child, à la Edina in Ab Fab, and well-meaning people frequently tell me how "cool" my two-year-old son looks.
Last year National Geographic ran a series of striking images of mixed faces, with the headline The Changing Face of America, an echo of the computer-generated image of a mixed-race woman on a 1993 cover of Time magazine, captioned The New Face of America. But while America is more diverse than Britain – about 23 per cent of Americans belong to ethnic minorities compared with 13 per cent of Brits – mixed relationships are more common on this side of the pond. This can be explained in part by our histories: what used to be called miscegenation was illegal in many American states until 1967; in Britain calls for the outlawing of interracial marriage never succeeded.
Ludi Simpson, a professor of population studies at the University of Manchester, says people have become less ethnically segregated over the past decade as newer immigrants become settled and move into more prosperous areas, like those before them. "It's not that people don't have fears or that there isn't discrimination and barriers to housing and jobs," he says. "But the evidence shows that, on the whole, people are moving in the direction they want to be."
And as people's lives become more intertwined, they inevitably couple up – and have children. According to a new report from the Office of National Statistics, 12 per cent of households with at least two people have partners or household members of different ethnic groups (black and, unsurprisingly, mixed people are the most likely to mix; whites the least).
There have been black and brown people in Britain since the Roman era, but the mixed population has never been this sizeable. One in 50 Brits now considers her or himself mixed race, and nearly one in 16 children under five is mixed race – rising to one in eight under-fives in London. Although those with one black and one white parent still form the largest group, mixing has become much more complex as migration becomes truly global.
And just as it has always been somewhat meaningless to talk of a black or Asian "community", so the notion of a mixed community is misleading. But that's not to say there aren't shared experiences. "It's that sense of constantly having to explain yourself to people," says Chamion Caballero, senior research fellow at South Bank University's Weeks Centre.
"You might have a different mix to another mixed person, but you've all had to deal with other people's stereotypes of you, and that constant 'What are you?' question." The other version of that question is, "Where are you from?" and, in my experience, "north London" doesn't cut it.
It wasn't until the 2001 national census that we were counted at all: before then only black, white, Asian and "other" categories existed, leaving a gaping hole in this snapshot of the country's make-up. Even now, the fact that we still view people as either one thing or another leaves those of us who don't fit into neat boxes battling with others' preconceptions.
"If you have a black and a white parent and you live in a world where these constructed identities are supposed to be in friction, you viscerally have this question of, 'What does that make me?'" says Minna Salami, the award-winning blogger also known as Ms Afropolitan. "Many mixed-race people suffer some trauma from having to battle with these ideological conflicts not created by them."
Bradley Lincoln, whose organisation Mix-d has worked with hundreds of mixed young people across Britain, agrees that it's often others who find it hard to accept mixed identities. "If you ask a mixed person whether they see themselves as black or white, it removes the possibility that mixed race is a healthy identity in itself." He adds that young mixed people overwhelmingly prefer "mixed race" as a descriptor – it's seen as less "wordy" than "multiple" or "dual heritage". Unfortunately, the hated "half-caste" has been joined by other inventively abusive terms including "confused.com", "Hovis best of both", "pick 'n' mix" and "mutt", used by the rapper Kanye West (who, incidentally, now has a mixed-race daughter).
Negative ideas around racial mixing have a long history. In Britain, concern about interracial unions reached a peak in the first half of the 20th century, when mixed neighbourhoods such as Toxteth and Tiger Bay were portrayed as immoral and dangerous, mixed children as tragic outcasts. Marie Stopes, then a prominent eugenicist, called for all "half-castes" to be "sterilised at birth". Caballero says this notion of mixed people as divided and confused – the "marginal man" of early social science – remains. "When I started in this area I got sick of reading about how we were all psychologically traumatised and about all these broken relationships when my own parents have been together for 30 years," she says.
Academia has moved on. Researchers are now looking at the lives of mixed people themselves, and the picture that emerges is that, at least for the people concerned, mixing is far more everyday than officialdom has so far recognised. Contrary to stereotypes, mixed families are overwhelmingly middle class, with most educated to degree level or higher; most mixed children have married or cohabiting parents; and, far from being concentrated in poor, inner-city areas, mixed families span the country from larger cities to prosperous suburbs and small towns.
Despite this reality, Chuka Umunna, the shadow business secretary and one of a handful of mixed-race MPs, says attitudes in politics have some way to go. "When I first arrived [in Westminster], people presumed I grew up on a social housing project in Brixton Hill," he says. "The fact that I am mixed race and middle class is something that some have struggled with."
Where politicians and commentators do recognise Britain's mixed population, they tend to use it as evidence of a "rainbow nation" at ease with its diversity. I think this makes people feel good, but I don't think it's true. Yes, more people are mixing. And yes, attitudes towards mixing have relaxed. A recent report by the think tank British Future found that 15 per cent of the public are opposed to interracial marriages, compared with 50 per cent in the 1980s.
But that still depends on where you live – and how rich you are. Even within one city, there will be variation. Mixed families in multicultural neighbourhoods may feel unremarkable; those in poor or prosperous white areas might feel more exposed. "I've heard tales of dog s— being pushed through the door [of mixed-race families]," says Caballero. "In wealthier areas the racism is still there but it's all very polite and middle class." Growing up in a wealthy suburb made my own brother a target for police attention: they simply could not believe that he belonged there. A mixed teenage girl living in South Wales told me she was called "Paki" almost every day at school.
Those of us who are not white know all too well that there is still plenty of discrimination based on skin colour, while in May the British Social Attitudes survey found the numbers of people admitting to being racially prejudiced has increased in the past decade. There can be a tendency to use the success of some mixed-race individuals to paper over these realities; in fact, the trend for mixed actors, models or television presenters to be deployed as the unthreatening faces of "diversity" can squeeze out other people of colour.
"When an advert uses a mixed-race woman it's meant to say, 'We are multicultural' – but it's a complete lie," says Salami. "The desire of the company is to reflect that they are open-minded, yet they would not feature a darker-skinned woman." These things impact on how we all see ourselves. The Oscar-winning actress Lupita Nyong'o, for example, recently said that as a child she prayed to God to "wake up lighter skinned".
My daughter is four years old. She has blue eyes and her father's blond-ish hair and to some people probably doesn't look like she has a black grandmother. Heartbreakingly for me (I spent years praying at the altar of swishy, straight, brushable hair), she has already started wishing away her curls. My son has my brown eyes and complexion, and the curls. How will life be for them?
Salami says her own mixedness has enriched her life: "Even to have to grapple with the difficulty of it is something that ultimately feels like a gift," she told me. Umunna, too, says the versatility of a mixed identity makes him feel "very lucky". I tend to agree, and I hope this will also be the case for my children. Sometimes, though, I wish it didn't have to be quite so complicated.