|Saturday 01 September, 2001
Mixed race, mixed feelings
Do people of mixed race feel caught between two stools or are they nestling in the best of both worlds?
As delegates from more than 150 countries gather at the World Conference Against Racism, Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia and Related Intolerance in Durban, South Africa, Outlook examines inter-racial relationships.
Britain currently has one of the highest rates of inter-racial relationships in the western world, with 50% of all black children born having one white parent.
Whether we view such unions as positive multiculturalism or not, the truth is that mixed race relationships are a fact of life.
So why is it still so hard to find a suitable term to describe mixed race people? Is it right to say that someone is black or white? Let alone half-caste, bi-racial or coffee-coloured?
And what do the children from inter-racial relationships signify in 21st century Britain?
In her latest book, Mixed Feelings, broadcaster and journalist, Yasmin Alibhai-Brown studies the “complex” lives of mixed race Britons. In it she claims that such people are forming:
‘A community which is moving out of the shadows and heading into the light, challenging existing ideologies of ethnic and national purity and staking its claim on this nation.’
In researching her book she met white women who remain undeterred despite having been confronted with brutal racism, sexism and resentment for their relationships with black men.
Labelled as ‘nigger-lovers’ by disapproving white men and dangerous white diluters, one black man warned that white women would ‘destroy us faster than slavery did.’
So what is it that makes some feel uneasy about mixed-race people? Is it that their very presence crosses cultural taboos, blurring notions of race and identity?
In Alibhai-Brown’s view racism is not inherent to the British way of thinking, but some British people are quick to class their neighbours if it suits.
Speaking about the level of institutional racism in Britain, she comments:
‘Nice people, good people have got it into their heads that one drop of black blood makes you black and this is what anti-racists fought against in the United States. I wasn’t prepared to see such fundamentalism and such blindness.’
Bearing this in mind she urges people to be aware of the dangers.
In her column regularly featured in the British Newspaper, The Independent, she once wrote:
|‘We must never underestimate the power of racism and xenophobia to influence resentful whites left behind in this bright, new, zappy digital age.’ |
Meanwhile, for Ramsey, one of Alibhai-Brown’s interviewees, the friction sometimes caused by mixed-race romances is easily explained:
‘The black man is king in the bed, on the dance floor and on some street corners. He has no real power without his sex. White power wants him dead. So we take their girls and make the blokes suffer, too, and I do feel sorry for these girls who love us because black culture is the coolest, you know?’
This was certainly a view upheld throughout the 1950s and ’60s when the white man feared the black man’s presence in the dance halls, but can it really apply to modern families or to couples who have enjoyed lasting relationships?
This is the time when true feelings come to the surface. Lives and emotions are inextricably entwined and those in relationships are mostly likely to claim that they are together because they love each other as individuals and, in doing so, embrace racial differences for their character defining qualities.
This leaves others to work out their feelings. Alibhai-Brown believes that it is now time for society to deal with the previously invisible mixed race constituency.
|'In a world keen to pigeonhole it’s people into pure categories - Asian, African, Caucasian –‘mixed’ race individuals are defined by what they are not.' |
In Alibhai-Brown’s view it is now time to recognise these people for who they are:
‘For far too long other people have labelled them and for the past 15 years there has been a move to always call them black. The argument I am putting forward is that they are very complex, they have different backgrounds and they must have the right to define themselves.’
Appreciating the diversity of people has also been identified as the aim of the Durban conference.
Speaking at the recent Commission on Human Rights in Geneva, Archbishop Desmond Tutu succinctly outlined the goals of the meeting and in doing so detailed a plan that could also serve the world well. He said:
‘We are all of equal worth, born equal in dignity and born free and for this reason deserving of respect whatever our external circumstances.’
‘We belong in a world whose very structure, whose essence, is diversity almost bewildering in extent and it is to live in a fool’s paradise to ignore this basic fact.’
| World Conference Against Racism
|World Conference Against Racism, Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia and Related Intolerance takes place in Durban, South Africa, 31 August – 7 September 2001.
In the International Herald Tribune, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Mary Robinson, who is in charge of the proceedings, wrote:
‘In his path-breaking novel The Invisible Man the African-American writer Ralph Ellison wrote, ‘I am invisible, understand, simply because people refuse to see me.’’
‘His powerful suggestion of wilful exclusion – of the decision we can all make to demote the humanity of other human beings – should be in our minds at Durban.’