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Not as simple as black or white

ROLE MODEL: Mixed raced family

LAST MONTH, the UK’s fastest growing ethnic minority, as part of the BBC’s Mixed Britannia series, reignited the debate of what it means to be ‘mixed-race’.

Demographers have predicted that Britain’s mixed-race population will reach 1.3 million by 2020 – almost double the number recorded in 2001. Of this figure, 45 percent are mixed white and black.

But despite increasing acceptance of inter-racial relationships and more visible mixed-race people such as Formula One driver Lewis Hamilton, actress Thandie Newton and Olympian Kelly Holmes, the concept of being mixed-race remains quite literally a grey area – a type of no man’s land where nothing is as simple as black or white.

Some critics find the need for mixed-race people to identify as such divisive, and argue that biologically there can be no such thing. Others argue that by merit of having a collective experience, mixed-race people should be free to align themselves in this way, and subsequently, get their voice heard when it comes to policy and decision-making.

Self-defining

Then there are those who are comfortable self-defining as black in the political sense as a means of navigating British society.

Bradley Lincoln, founder of social enterprise Mix-D, whose aim is to provide a year-round national platform for mixed-race debate, said: “When we talk about being mixed-race there is a danger of either over-celebrating or sounding like a victim.

“Mixed-race people are not foot soldiers for a new racism. It is not a homogenous group. It is not a separate ethnic grouping – but it is time to move the conversation forward, particularly within the education and the social care system where many mixed children are considered just black.”

Lincoln, who was raised by his white mother, owns one of the largest data collections on mixed-race identity, compiled by talking to young people across the country to learn how they felt.

The research has formed the basis for education packs for parents and schools. His organisation has also presented a UK-wide policy document to the European Commission outlining best practice for accommodating and understanding mixed heritage.

“Growing up I had questions about my identity, and years later when I was working in schools as a mentor there were young mixed-race people grappling with the same issues: not knowing where they fit in; feeling the pressure to conform to either side of their parents’ family. Often, society forces the idea that you have to be one or the other; some people don’t feel like they have a choice.”


RESEARCH: Bradley Lincoln

According to his research, Lincoln explained, there are three states of being: nowhereness – feeling not black enough to be black or white enough to be white; somewhereness – aligning with one racial group; and groundedness – taking characteristics of both parents’ heritage to create something unique.

“With a lot of young people and adults, we found they had travelled through different states at different points in their lives.”

One of the findings was that out of 44 different terms used to describe mixed-race people, young people generally felt comfortable with only three: mixed-race, mixed heritage and dual heritage.

Lincoln added: “I would say that there is an automatic monoheritage approach to identity, with people assuming you are one or the other. That is why it’s important that the voice of mixed-race people is heard.”

Getting this voice heard is something that playwright Sarah Lee, who has written plays on racial identity for the BBC, will do when she stages her new play Snakes and Ladders.

Complex

Lee’s play, featuring poet Zena Edwards, tells the stories of three mixed-race sisters and tackles complex issues such as self-identity, shadeism (a bias towards lighter skin), and the idealisation of ‘good’ hair - which, in the crudest terms, means more European hair.

Her inspiration came from a project she co-founded with Brighton-based hair salon Shae Shae Creations called Positive Hair Day, which aims to create positive cultural and racial identity of black and mixed-race people.


STORIES: Lee’s Snakes and Ladders tackles issues such as self-identity and shadeism

As part of the project, they collected stories of mixed-race people and the relationship they had with their hair.

The anecdotes ranged from the light-hearted - putting a tea towel on the head to imitate silky flowing hair - to the traumatic. One boy spoke of how his foster parents hoovered his hair with a vacuum cleaner.

Another girl wore a riding hat to bed in an attempt to flatten her unruly curls.
Lee, mixed with seven different ethnic groups, confessed to “smelling like a chip fan” after using vegetable oil to smooth her hair because her white mother was clueless.

She said: “White people think hair is just a cosmetic issue. But coming to terms with your hair is often a reflection of coming to terms with your identity.”
Without anyone to model herself on, Lee turned to a headscarf to avoid taunts like “brillo”.

But like Lincoln, Lee has reached a place of “groundedness” and is happy defining as a mixed-race woman.

She said: “There are many preconceptions and assumptions to deal with from other people. There are these ideas of what a mixed-race person ‘should’ look like, how their hair ‘should’ be, and what colour their skin is. I guess you might call it that ‘classic’ mixed-race look. I have even noticed how I’m treated differently when my hair is straight.”

In Snakes and Ladders, the sisters routinely face ignorant questions over whether they are related because of their different shades of skin, and the stereotypes have a negative effect on their relationship.

“I’m not sure mixed-race people do arrive at a place of total self-acceptance. It is hard to integrate both cultures into your psyche,” said Lee.

She added: “Being dual heritage is a balancing act that is common experience among mixed-race people. Many of the stories featured in the play reflect that. People listen and think, ‘oh my goodness, that is me’.”

Snakes and Ladders is at the Pavilion Theatre in Brighton on November 25.

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