September 27, 2007

Mixed matches

What is it like growing up in a multi-race family? The first findings of a two-year project reveal some surprises that should put an end to the stereotypes. Picture the parents of a mixed-race child, and what do you see? If you believe the stereotypes, you will probably imagine a youngish white mother, probably on a council estate, pushing her frizzy-haired baby in a buggy, with the unreliable black father nowhere to be seen.

Such characterisations, epitomised most recently by Little Britain's Vicky Pollard and her black boyfriend Jermaine, have thrived in the absence of evidence to the contrary. But they are about to be challenged by the first piece of research to examine who mixed families really are, where they live, and what, if anything, they have in common.

This Friday, at a conference in London, Rosalind Edwards, a professor in social policy and director of the families and social capital research group at South Bank University, and Chamion Caballero, a research fellow in the group, will present the first findings from their two-year research project into the parenting of mixed-race children. Funded by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, the research used data from the 2001 national census to assess the socio-economic and geographical characteristics of mixed couples, and interviews with parents to find out how they negotiated the racial, ethnic and faith differences within their families.

Middle class

What they found may surprise you. Contrary to assumptions about broken families and poverty, the census analysis found that most parents of mixed-race children (55%) are together, whether married or co-habiting, and that mixed families are overwhelmingly middle class, with most of them educated to degree or professional level and living in homes they own.

The areas where mixed families live also offers food for thought. The research identified a band of mixed couples running down the centre of England, from Leeds and Manchester in the north, to Birmingham and Leicester in the Midlands, and London and Brighton in the south, raising questions about why mixing was happening less in other areas. Although, as might be expected, most mixed families lived in areas within multicultural cities, there were also significant numbers in more prosperous suburbs and small towns, with further groups in traditional manufacturing and industrial areas.

The results of interviews, too, were thought provoking. Caballero and Edwards interviewed 65 parents from around the country about how they brought up their mixed-race children. The approaches varied. Some tried to give their children a distinctly mixed identity, either by familiarising them equally with aspects of both cultures - particularly through food - or trying to foster mixedness as an identity in itself. Others stressed a single aspect of their child's identity - often their religious beliefs - while a third group adopted an "open" approach, telling their children that they transcended categorisation.

The parents interviewed came from a range of social, ethnic, racial and religious backgrounds, and a number were mixed themselves. Their overall message, whatever their background, was how much their status as a mixed family was not an issue. Yes, some had faced opposition from their own families to begin with, but in many cases having children had helped overcome this. Other extended families had gelled from the beginning, sharing aspects of each other's cultures and increasing their awareness of issues such as racism in the process.

"Generally, problems are perceived to be inside mixed families, but parents told us it is people outside that tend to have an issue with it," Caballero says. "People are saying they are happy and their children are happy. But once a child starts school or comes into contact with the community, people's attitudes can be negative."

Misrepresentations

There are questions to be asked about whether it matters that the majority of mixed-race families are middle class rather than working class. Should we necessarily be happy that mixing is happening more among professionals than we may have expected? This deserves thought, but it is important that misrepresentations are challenged. As Caballero puts it: "Everything before was assumptions. This is concrete."

The research, which will be published early next year, introduces the real voices of mixed-race people and their families, offering a much-needed challenge to those who seek to speak for us and about us. Although further research is needed into the experiences of lone-parent families, the fact that so many mixed couples are getting on with it should challenge the notion that relationships between people of different races or religions are inherently difficult.

But it also should not blind us to the problems that do exist. The fact that so many spoke about negativity from the outside world impinging on the stability of life inside the home should ring alarm bells. It should also be noted that the happiness and stability of mixed-race families and individuals depends a great deal on context.

This summer, I wrote about Gareth Myatt, who was 15 when he died in a children's prison in 2004. A mixed-race boy growing up on a white council estate in Stoke-on-Trent, he struggled with his identity. But when his mother tried to get him help she was advised to send him to an African-Caribbean youth club, an experience he found uncomfortable. Had Gareth's family had the means to move to an area where there were other mixed teenagers, or known about the many grassroots organisations offering support to mixed families around the country, things might have been different for him.

Fearful

When I first wrote about this subject a year ago for Society Guardian, I was fearful of the response. It was an article I had to write, but I didn't know how people would react to what I was saying. I was worried about being branded a self-obsessed, "poor me" journalist - but, more especially, of being accused of not wanting to be black.

The emails I got - and am still getting - from readers, were like a confirmation. To date, there have been around 150: from teenagers struggling with where they fit; from adults extolling the virtues of a mixed identity; from parents of mixed children wondering what all the fuss is about; and from more isolated single mothers asking where to go for advice. They came from all over the country and abroad, and included letters from mixed Asian and white and Japanese and white people, who pointed out my own bias.

There was hostility, too, although far less than I expected. If it was so hard for you, one email implied, doesn't that prove that inter-racial relationships should be discouraged? Hostility also came from the black press, with one newspaper accusing me of "demanding a divorce from the black race" by speaking up about my mixed identity, and describing the many readers who wrote in as tainted by "self-hatred".

This is a sensitive area for black people from the Caribbean and Africa, who have a long and painful history of being divided up according to colour during slavery and colonisation. But the response, "Just shut up and be black", is inadequate for people with one white parent, whose authenticity will always be questioned. Just ask the Rev Jesse Jackson, who got into trouble last week after apparently accusing the presidential candidate, Barack Obama - mixed race, but often described as black - of "acting white"; or the rapper Kanye West, who last year described mixed-race women as "mutts".

Since writing last year's article, my own views have been reshaped through conversations with the many academics and grassroots activists working in this area who, having functioned for years in relative isolation, are increasingly being brought together. I have realised that even as a mixed person, my own assumptions have been tainted by our hidden history, in which the white women who had relationships with the black seamen who settled in Britain early in the last century were branded prostitutes, their offspring tragic mongrels who would regret being born.

Such characterisations have long tentacles: I have spoken to more than one white mother who feels her mixed child is seen by others as evidence of her promiscuity. Yet people continue to have relationships, as they have always done, and - as the Joseph Rowntree research shows - are not weighed down daily in some kind of cross-cultural battleground.

Last September, I described mixed-race people as "the elephant in the room", ignored by public bodies and political rhetoric. I am happy to say there has been progress. Earlier this month, a series of meetings between the Department for Communities and Local Government, the Commission for Racial Equality - long considered to have ignored the issue - and the Runnymede Trust equality policy research organisation culminated in an online conference aimed at formulating government policy "that delivers equality to all mixed-race people". Discussions will continue at South Bank University this Friday, when a range of interested parties are brought together in person.

Celebration

That such events are taking place is a cause for celebration. Although it remains to be seen how they will actually affect people's lives, it is exciting to hear the range of viewpoints emerging as the debate grows - including those from the many mixed backgrounds that have long been sidelined. After years of being absent, our voices are finally demanding to be heard. I will be listening with interest, and I'm sure I won't be the only one.

· Parenting 'Mixed' Children: Negotiating Difference and Belonging will be published early next year by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation. For more information about Friday's conference at London South Bank University, go here (pdf).

Guardian

Directory: organisations supporting mixed race people and families
Map: where mixed race families live
Table: where mixed ethnicity families live

8 comments:

Anonymous said...

Sharon with her pro-white uncle tom leanings, is hardly a racial stereotype in herself, lol.

Anonymous said...

"Sharon with her pro-white uncle tom leanings, is hardly a racial stereotype in herself, lol."

He, he, made me lauf.

Anonymous said...

So mixed race offspring have none of the problems Trevor Phillips said they are more likely to exeprience and suffer from.

Mmmmmmm. Sounds like a bit of a white wash

Anonymous said...

The Joseph Rowntree Foundation is a lefty organisation that will only find what it wants to find. Sharon is mixed race and cannot come to terms with who she is. According to Lee Barnes, she is in the grip of an ethno-masochistic psychosis".

Anonymous said...

"So mixed race offspring have none of the problems Trevor Phillips said they are more likely to exeprience and suffer from."

Well, they probably have less problems than you...

Anonymous said...

"The Joseph Rowntree Foundation is a lefty organisation that will only find what it wants to find."

BNP and Migrationwatch are hardly innocent of only finding things they want to find...

webeatthebnp said...

"According to Lee Barnes . . . ."

But isn't Lee Barnes the guy who claims to have seen UFOs over the Kent Marshes????

I'd hardly pay too much attention to Mr "Legal Eagle" Barnes !!!!

Lettie131 said...

BTW Who is Sharon?
(post1)