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.

13 Comment responses

  1. Avatar
    August 23, 2019

    I really want to read the PhD study and find out more about the author’s thoughts and her interviewees’ experiences.


  2. Avatar
    August 24, 2019

    Interesting article. I’ve asked the same question from my mixed-race niece and received similar responses related to identity,belongingness and space.


  3. Avatar
    August 24, 2019

    Great piece m, Chantelle. Some real food for thought here.


  4. Avatar
    August 25, 2019

    Ms. Lewis,

    This commentary is an excellent critical analysis of the portrayal of multiracialism within society!

    I hope to see your research as published book one day.


    Steve Riley


  5. Avatar
    August 25, 2019

    No, we will NOT STOP talking about mixed-race identity. “Race” is a continuum. People have every reason to call themselves multiracial or mixed-race without any concern about what certain jealous people think of it. Blacks DO NOT OWN every one in the world who has partial black ancestry. We can also be WHITE and mixed-race at the same time because “white” is not a racially pure or mutually exclusive category.


  6. Avatar
    August 25, 2019

    I agree that the conversation on mixed race is very superficial and does not reflect the difficulties mixed race people face epically within their own families. I am black and white mixed race and grew up in a new town in the UK. As my environment was predominantly white I looked for my black identity amongst my black family and never felt accepted. Both my parents are in herently racist and have no concept of the insidious nature of their racism. I’m sure there are many mixed race people out there who have struggled within their own family with their identity as well as negotiating the outside world.


  7. Avatar
    August 25, 2019

    Well said. Fight the ideology and reality of white dominance. Don’t get distracted by “mixed race” solution to white supremacy; it reinforces Eurocentrism and white domination.


  8. Avatar
    November 15, 2019

    Ah, this was such a great article. I’m currently working on a research proposal that is aiming to discuss and explore exactly that: looking at characteristics of place and space how that dictates how we navigate racialised realities. Living as a black/white racially ambiguous (often misclassified as ethnically latin) person in a predominantly white city (Portland, Oregon), I’m really interested in how mixed-race (especially black and white mixed-race folk) navigate this increasing racial dichotomy that seems to be evolving due to this sociopolitical climate. I’ve more so noticed a heavily enforced racial binary (people of color or BIPOC individuals vs. white folk) in Portland– and maybe because it is a predominantly white city…would love to connect if you get my comment


  9. Avatar
    November 28, 2019

    I was very interested/impressed with everything I have just read. I am a white (very white) female. Both my parents had red hair, myself and my three siblings all had red hair!! My mother’s best friends, Bet & her husband where mixed race (we only learned this many, many years later)! They had two sons, Charlie & Steven. They and their boys were our neighbours & friends and we loved them all and we never, ever knew they had a different TAG to any of us!
    I was always quite jealous of their lovely honey complexion! I believed God really wanted us to mix and enjoy the benefits of our differences.


  10. Avatar
    February 07, 2020

    I have spent many years thinking about being mixed-race as I was bought up in the countryside in the 1970s with an Anglo Indian dad. I came out mostly white, but my sister came out looking Indian. Dad was the only Indian looking man in the village and so we were called the Pakis up the road. We soon got over this pretty quickly when people got to know us, as it’s just ignorance in people after all. I was always told by my parents that medically we are far more advanced, and protected from viruses than someone of purer blood. I actually think that being mixed race is progressive, especially medically. (See still grappled with this as I got older as I had no proper identity as my parent’s heritage come from so many different countries, making me feel that I have no roots, and so now at the grand old age of 50 I have come to realise that my roots are where my family are, not my bloodline. Now I live in London I have met many people the same as me and this is where I don’t agree with the article. I do agree that society in families can cause racism. Being Anglo Indian, my father is racist in a class way, this stems from the whole Indian class system about colour and position. I don’t see enough on mainstream media about mixed-race heritage and where we are in this world. I have friends whose son’s are being bullied at school by the black kids for being mixed race, yet this isn’t being addressed in the media or schools. Maybe if schools, colleges and the media talked more about the benefits of being mixed race then this article wouldn’t need to be written.


  11. Avatar
    February 21, 2020

    There’s no such thing as black mixed race people. Mixed already implies that someone may have black in them.