Please can we stop talking about ‘mixed-race’ identity (on its own)?

Please can we stop talking about ‘mixed-race’ identity (on its own)?

Chantelle Lewis

In response to recent mainstream media outlets featuring and celebrating ‘mixed-race’ populations as a symptom of progress in our society, my concern is this simplistic analysis conceals the broader structural implications of mixedness.

Given the opportunity, we all like talking about how we feel about our identity. If, like me, you belong to a racialised group, we become particularly animated by these opportunities because whiteness permeates so much of public life. We want to think about our varying family histories and how we embody them (or not) within our appearance and how we live our lives.

More often than not, when there is a public discussion about racialised identities, ‘mixed-race’ people are given too much space to grapple with theirs without critically engaging with their own structural positionalities. My contention is that these discussions will often position identity in abstraction from discussions of place and space, class, gender, and wider structural issues.

Why are editors, commissioners, writers and even ‘mixed-race’ people themselves so reluctant to talk about the difficult stuff and their changeable (and sometimes negotiable) positions? Well firstly, because it is difficult. It’s difficult to come to terms with how our position in society might have been influenced by (or in some instances secured by) our proximity to both whiteness (for those with white parentage) or our proximity to another racially ambiguous – but often fetishised (and celebrated) – population (see Kim Kardashian). Whilst acknowledging these proximities, ‘mixed-race’ people (and particularly Black mixed-race people) must also navigate the inevitability of experiencing racism throughout their lives. It can be difficult to make sense of this lived juxtaposition… but this is not new information! How about we do some introspection and move the conversation on?

Whether it’s in books, articles, films, plays, documentaries, academic journals or even threads on Twitter, we are continuously reminded of the plight of ‘mixed-race’ people coming to terms with their divided identity. Most of these outlets will begin by discussing ‘mixed-race’ alongside population statistics revealing how this remains the ‘fastest growing population in the UK’. Why is it that if we’re talking about ‘mixed-race’ there is this need to alert the reader that this population is important because of its emerging size? Of course, not everyone who writes about ‘mixed-race’ and uses a similar introduction intends to contribute to problematic celebratory and progressive discourses on race. But intentions do not always translate as immunity.

There has and should continue to be space to discuss how mixedness is narrated and lived within families, places and institutions, but the conversation needs to broaden. We can talk about these complex issues whilst also addressing the privileges we are afforded which in turn are often determined by social networks but importantly, place and space (Campion, 2017).

My PhD research is a situated ethnography focused on the lived experiences of Black mixed-race families who have lived and brought up children (now adults) within a predominantly white town in the West Midlands. I am Black mixed-race myself and grew up in the town. I’ve conducted group interviews with Black mixed-race siblings and both Black and white parents. I’m concerned with the ways in which racialisation and racism is (or often isn’t) managed and negotiated within families and other social networks in this predominantly white town. My (not new) contention is that that characteristics of place and space dictate the ways in which Black mixed-race people are able to navigate their racialised realities.

By focussing on the unravelling of everyday life for these families I’m attempting to address the structural implications of mixedness but also look at the embedded nature or whiteness in the lives of participants. This has required difficult discussions that involve the roles of friends and family members in perpetuating and at times ignoring (even purposefully silencing) manifestations of racism that have occurred within their hometown, but also within their families.

In my research I intend to grapple with the difficulties of mixedness. Some examples of these include; people coming to terms with the fact that those closest to them can contribute to racialised oppression – even our mothers and fathers (Lewis, 2009)(!); how mixedness is negotiated within predominately white places; and also how proximities to privilege have impacted (or not) on our lived trajectories (spoiler alert for mixed-race people reading this- speaking about our privilege does not hurt us!). Through ongoing discussions about racism, class, patriarchy and colourism, I’m trying to show that it is possible to move on from identity!

‘Mixed-race’ individuals or the ‘mixed-race’ family should not be – but continues to be – positioned as an emblem of progress. These populations disrupt taken for granted notions of race, but that should not create the illusion that the only adequete way to discuss these lives is through a never ending discussion on identity.

I am not the first to say that Black mixed-race people are positioned as the palatable version of Blackness, but why do we not see more discussions on this? Because it doesn’t fit the post-race narrative (Joseph-Salisbury, 2018). If you’re ‘mixed’ and reading this now and feel uncomfortable, I have achieved my goal! You’ve been sold a lie by white supremacy that the only way you can be authentic within public life is through discussions about your divided identity. It’s not true and it’s holding us all back from having conversations about the difficult stuff.

Society keeps telling us our ‘mixed-race’ families are progressive. We know this isn’t true. Taking my research as an example, most of the participants have never discussed some of their most horrific experiences of racism with their own parents! For many of us that have grown up and lived in ‘mixed-race’ families – like a lot of families – we know they have the capacity to contain some problematic viewpoints of society.

Overall, I understand the feeling of need to tell our own personalised story about our ‘mixed-race’ identity, but we need to be thinking a lot harder about how we communicate these issues and how they should be attentive to intersectional specificities as well entangled proximities to whiteness.

In the scramble to fight the ever evolving (and growing) far-right, it feels like when we speak about mixedness, we lean into these very old notions of ‘the melting pot’ and multi-racial Britain. If people think this is an adequate response, then I have some news – white supremacists can and do have relationships with Black people and people of colour; some of them even have kids!

Campion, K. (2017) Making Mixed Race: Time, Place and Identities in Birmingham. University of Manchester.
Joseph-Salisbury, R. (2018) Black Mixed-Race Men: Hybridity, Transatlanticity and “Post-Racial” Resilience. Leeds: Emerald Group.
Lewis, G. (2009) Birthing racial difference: conversations with my mother and others. Studies in the Maternal, 1(1), pp.1–21

Chantelle Lewis is a part-time PhD student in the Sociology department at Goldsmiths, UK. She is co-host of the sociological/political podcast Surviving Society, a research assistant on the ESRC funded project (UK in a Changing Europe), BrExpats and Programme Director of the Leading Routes campaign, #BlackinAcademia.