While I would never describe myself as a monarchist, I have a certain affection for the Royal Family. Like a dotty old aunt, or a mad, senile granddad, there is always a royal on hand to give those of us born post-blitz a hearty, if bewildered chuckle. Princess Michael of Kent did the honours in July of 2005, following up an incident where she told a group of African American diners in New York to “go back to the colonies” with an impassioned plea of innocence. She could not be racist, she countered, as she has lived amongst the “adorable, special people” of Africa, even going so far as to dye her hair black and attempt to go “undercover” as “a half-caste”. Gawd bless you ma’am.
While her tone would be no less patronising were she to replace the term ‘half-caste’ with ‘mixed race’, she would probably come across as less blithely ignorant. Though it has a politically correct twang, it’s a tag I am comfortable with, proud of even, if in a deeply apolitical, rather holier-than-thou kind of way. After years of feeling uncomfortable in my skin, I am delighted to say to myself – and whomsoever should care to listen – that I am mixed race, and not to give a damn what anyone else thinks.
However, sitting at a PC as a 31-year-old man, proudly attesting to my happiness with being mixed race is rather different to the experience of the rather timid 13-year-old me, cringing away from a spittle-flecked playground accusation of being ‘an “alf-caste”. At an age when fitting in was everything, being the only mixed race kid at a school split roughly down the middle between asian and white children, was sometimes hellish.
Although it is doubtful that it would have been of any comfort at the time, I was unaware that I was part of what is now the fastest-growing ethnic group in the UK. In 2001, for the first time, the national census form included a box in the ‘Racial Group’ section marked ‘mixed’. Nearly seven hundred thousand people ticked this box, and we now represent 11% of the country’s ethnic minority population. And with figures from 1997 showing that half of all British-born black men currently in a relationship are with a white partner (as well as a third of black women), it seems that like it or not we are here to stay.
Rest assured, some people do like it. And some people most certainly do not. More than any other ethnic group, mixed race people in the UK are in a strange position where, even once we have left the schoolyard we find ourselves the conduits for the hopes and the prejudices of others. On one hand, mixed race people are often the victims of hatred and ignorance from both black and white communities alike. At the same time, we habitually find ourselves sanctified, idealised and, inevitably perhaps, commodifed by those who would see us as foot soldiers for some utopian, coffee-coloured future. When all most of us want to do is be who we are, we find ourselves the living, breathing representation of a new multicultural age: Generation M, some have called it, the value of which lies firmly in the eye of the beholder.
It would be easy, and comforting, to think that the taboo of interracial love has been broken, and there is no doubt that the attitude of mainstream society has softened appreciably. Mixed race couples are a common sight on our streets, and celebrities who marry someone of a different racial background can now expect only a single-figure number of dog turds through the post in the wake of their big day.
Yet, a large reservoir of intolerance remains in both black and white communities. The notion of the ‘white race’ being besmirched and diluted by interbreeding is a staple of far-right dogma, and taps into a deep-rooted fear of ‘the other’ that resonates throughout society. Similarly, to some in the black community, a mixed race relationship is inherently subversive, a concession to the white man: evidence of the perceived self-hatred that has led some commentators to declare ‘the death of black love’. To such people, the mixed race child is the embodiment of their bitterest fears and prejudices. Rather than having two cultures to embrace and be embraced by, mixed race children risk being rejected by both. Identity depends on recognising similarity and difference in others. It seems that, for some, we are just too different.
Like many mixed race kids, I learned this the hard way, in the playground and the classroom. While the teasing I endured was minimal compared to some, it was enough to leave a mark; enough to make me resent my background black, Guyanese father, white, English mother – for many years. For me, my appearance was a burden, and something I would attempt to deflect attention away from at all costs. While my brother is so light-skinned that he is assumed by all to be white, my straight hair, broad nose, and light-brown skin meant that I was continually quizzed about my ethnicity, by vindictive classmates and well-meaning teachers alike. Come playtime, many kids would run off to play football, often officially dividing themselves into teams: ‘whites’ versus ‘pakis’, with the smattering of black kids becoming honorary ‘pakis’ for the duration of the game. While I usually steered clear of football, on the one occasion I tried to get involved, I found myself in a situation where no one wanted me.
“You ain’t playin’ with us! What the fuck are you? You is an ‘alf-caste, innit?!”
I never tried to join in again.
While the term ‘mixed race’ is preferable to ‘half caste’ or ‘half breed’ it is inherently equivocal, suggestive of a tainting, a dilution of ethnicity. Mixed race people should be blessed with access to two different worlds and heritages. However, in a society intolerant of ambiguity, we often find that the only means of avoiding rejection by both black and white societies is to give in to the pressure to identify with the culture of those we most closely physically resemble. Mixed race people come in all shades of the human palette, and the fact that we cannot easily be categorised makes some people nervous and resentful, determined to cram us into whichever box seems most appropriate. Moreover, they seem to want to punish us for having the audacity to want to be anything other than simply ‘black’ or ‘white’.
In 2001, Halle Berry was celebrated as the first black woman to win an Oscar, and made a famously tearful speech in which she paid tribute to the ‘women of colour’, past and present, on whose behalf she was accepting her prize. The daughter of a white, Liverpudlian mother, Halle clearly chose her words carefully, though she has spoken in the past of an early, essentially pragmatic, decision to identify herself as the rest of the world sees her: as black. As she once commented, no one has ever mistaken her for white.
However, and despite the fact that she had never made any secret of her dual-heritage, she soon found herself ‘outed’ by a press who suddenly decided that (in the words of the Evening Standard), Halle “isn’t exactly black”. The implication of many observers seemed to be that Berry was cashing in on her blackness, using the label to score points. After years of struggling to make herself known, in part due to her colour, suddenly she wasn’t black enough. Yet, to have made more of her white heritage during her career would no doubt have been interpreted as denial and self-hatred. The world wants us to be either one or ‘the other’. Is it just this troublesome extra layer of ‘differentness’ that provokes such strong negative reactions in some people? Or is there something more fundamental about what mixed race people represent? Something that taps into prejudices and fears so deep-seated that they go beyond mere ‘race’?
The most commonly voiced belief amongst those, white or black, who object to mixed race relationships, is that ‘interbreeding’ compromises the integrity of the race. In the mixing of bloods, culture is undermined, its very existence threatened. Yet, in these claims, one can detect a subtle intermingling of racial stereotypes and sexual neuroses which have their roots in the phenomenon that represents the over-arching context for black-white relations: slavery.
There is a myth rooted in the Atlantic slave trade known by some as the ‘Mandingo Complex’, and enthusiastically taken up by Western society, that black men are, by their nature, sexually potent, powerful, and insatiable. This image is a staple of the white-dominated porn industry, but it’s pervasiveness and widespread acceptability can be seen in the British media’s bizarre obsession with Linford Christie’s ‘lunchbox’, at the time when he was arguably the country’s greatest, most successful sportsman. Sure he won the most coveted prize in world sport, but what about his cock?!
As Ricky Gervais brilliantly illustrated in a particular episode of The Office (“Is it bigger than a breadbin?”), the white male’s hilarity at the prospect of the fictional, super-sexualised black man reflects both contempt and fear. By reducing him to a phallus with a body on the end, he can reassure himself of his intellectual superiority. And by laughing about it, he can ignore the nagging fear that one day a black man will pinch his girlfriend, and she will never come back to him.
Thus, every mixed race couple, every mixed race child he sees is another affront to his manhood. This is the fundamental, primitive terror that underpins much of the right wing bleating about black men stealing ‘our’ women, and that makes the mixed race relationship such a threatening concept. However, a similar archetype exists in black society: that of the tempting, manipulative white female, who entices the black man to stray, often to his ultimate cost. Again, this is a myth that can be traced back to colonial times, in the image of the slave and the plantation owner’s daughter or wife. Just as white society has a powerful mistrust of the black man due to their perception of his sexuality, black society mistrusts the white woman on the basis of hers, and the concept of the white woman stealing ‘our’ men is widespread.
However, just as many negative conceptions of mixed race people are located in sexual factors, so are the ostensibly positive ones. For every person who finds us loathsome, there is another who finds us attractive, often from an aesthetic as well as an ideological point of view.
The Observer’s Barbara Ellen wrote in 2003: “Years ago, US comedian Sandra Bernhard used a routine in her live show where she loudly, wailingly lamented: ‘I wish I were mixed race and beautiful and had everything happening for me.’ You didn’t have to be a white liberal wuss to find the sentiment both funny and true. Most of us would have noticed, some of us might even have been brave enough to comment upon, the fact that there suddenly seemed to be an awful lot of people around, men, women and children, who simply looked, well, how can I put this, a hell of a lot better than most of the rest of us.”
While you might not have to be a white, liberal wuss to find Berhard’s sentiment ‘both funny and true’, nor do you have to be a curmudgeonly, humourless race-warrior to find it both patronising and reductive. All the same, it seems that it is not only well-meaning, but silly journalists (the type of white, middle-class individual who can, in all seriousness, and with no sense of their own ridiculousness, use the term ‘white, middle class’ as an insult) who see something attractive, even aspirational in being mixed race.
However, even this side of the story is not straightforward. A black acquaintance and I were talking about a music video we saw, by Lemar I think, and he commented that there were some nice looking ‘brownies’ in it. I’d never heard that term before and asked him to explain: “Brownies – mixed race girls”. He obviously had no idea about my background, so I asked him if there was a term for mixed race blokes. “Yeah, ‘wankers’!” was his reply, “They just think they’re too nice”. The impression seemed to be that ‘we’ want to have our cake and eat it, to cherry-pick the best of the stereotypes of both worlds: to be king of the dancefloor and the bedroom like the black man, and to be respectable and sophisticated like the white man. Again, cultural and sexual stereotypes collide with bewildering and by now predictable complexity.
All the same, a lot of people out there in advertisingland seem to like us. Is it simply because we are meant to be good-looking? Is that why British TV adverts are filled with young, Bambi-eyed, khaki-clad mixed race men and women? What is the real message behind ads that invariably feature black men with white women, or mixed race individuals? My fear is that the dilution of blackness that some fear mixed race people represent is being made real in the media. The advertisers have cottoned on to the fact that they can trumpet their inclusiveness and multi-cultural credentials, without having to be associated with ‘real’ black people or couples. Furthermore, their mixed-race models can be dressed in pastels, made to smile and dance, so that they become safer, quite simply because they are made ‘whiter’. We are becoming the ‘acceptable face’ of blackness. Those in the black community who have cried ‘sell out’ are being made right.
Are we being accepted or are we being sold? Many conceptions of what mixed race relationships are about, and what mixed race people are like are based on stereotypes, cultural and sexual, that speak volumes about those holding them, but say nothing about who ‘we’ are as people. When fleeing the hatred of others, one’s instinct is to turn toward those who claim to like and accept you. But with friends like the ‘Generation M’ brigade, whose support seems superficial at best, who needs enemies?
I have long stopped waiting for society to accept me. I will never be ‘just’ black or white, nor would I wish to be. I would love for both black and white people to respect me unequivocally for who I am. But if I, and people like me, face the choice of either being demonised by those who hate us, or patronised by those who purport to love us, we may have to get used to our place on the sidelines. We don’t want to play that game.