Shifting race: how language fails the ‘mixed-race’ experience
by VaraidzoFollow @veedzo
The idea of ‘race’ has no fixed definition considering the term has no biological basis. Yet all of us from minority backgrounds know what it is to be racialised, to be lumped together into a group with others who share our physical attributes, for this to be conflated with our ethnicity – our shared culture, history and experience. What does this mean for those of us who are mixed-race? Could it be argued that the shared experience of being racialised as ‘mixed’ creates a ‘mixed-race’ ethnicity of sorts? Can this ‘mixed’ tag be sufficient when we have experiences specific to one part of our heritage?
Right now, mixed-race people are considered to be of the largest growing groups in the UK with over one million of us in England alone. From Formula One World Champion Lewis Hamilton to One Direction’s Zayn Malik, mixed-race people are some of the most visible minorities in the media. We are everywhere. Which is impressive considering that as a definable ethnic or racial group, mixed-race people don’t really exist. Of course, on the tick boxes of the census we do, but in the real world these categories fail to tally with our highly diverse experiences of racialisation.
Take Halle Berry, who made headlines after she took her white ex-partner Gabriel Aubry to court for trying to lighten and chemically alter the hair texture of their daughter, Nahla. Some reports claimed Berry was worried that Aubry was trying to make their daughter look white, while Berry has stated in previous interviews that she feels herself and her daughter are black. So which is it? Is Nahla black, white or mixed? Surely she can’t be all at once? It is not uncommon to come across mixed-race people who refer to both their race and ethnic group as ‘mixed-race’ to cease this confusion.
But the ‘mixed’ category doesn’t, of course, encapsulate many of our experiences that see us racialised as the same as one of our parents. In my case, my mother is a white Englishwoman, my father a black Zimbabwean. Yet my ‘whiteness’ and my ‘blackness’ are not traits I possess equally. Whenever I enter the world and go about my daily business I am nearly always read as a black woman first, a mixed-race woman occasionally, and a white woman never. The racism and micro-aggressions I face daily are all due to me being recognisably black. In the game of racial Top Trumps, my blackness always wins.
I am not alone in this. Mixed-race people are often coded as one of their races before being coded as being mixed-race. In a poll by British Future under 60% of people polled could identify sporting stars Lewis Hamilton and Jessica Ennis (the poster girl of “melting pot” Britain) as being mixed-race. However, despite both of them having a black parent and a white parent, out of those that identified their races incorrectly, more people identified Hamilton as black and Ennis as white. The majority of people polled who didn’t identify Ennis and Hamilton as mixed-race did not identify Ennis and Hamilton as being from the same racial background at all.
It goes without saying we have no control over the genes we inherit or how others may interpret our features into race. Our race can never be a certainty; in fact it can change depending on context, for example, whether we’re with mum’s family or dad’s. And as in Nahla’s case, when this uncertainty spills into a discussion about issues specific to a particular race, such as the racial politics of black hair, then the term mixed-race is no longer an adequate way of describing experience.
Whilst we may sometimes experience something specific to one part of our heritage, our ‘mixedness’ must be acknowledged too. We live in a society where colourism provides mixed-race people with the privilege of being seen as more ‘palatable’ than the darker or less Western looking of their races, whilst still being coded as that race. For example, there was much celebration to be had when Martha Jones, the first black companion, was introduced on Doctor Who. Her parents were played by two black actors, Adjoa Andoh and Trevor Laird, and it was a positive representation of a black family on primetime television. However, Freema Agyeman, who played Martha Jones, is of Iranian and Ghanaian descent and her onscreen siblings were also played by mixed-race actors Reggie Yates and Gugu Mbatha-Raw who both have white and black ancestry. It would seem odd to depict mixed-race actors as the children of two white parents on television, yet this is frequently the fate for families of colour on screen. And when the actors cast are actively benefiting from the whiteness in their heritage, or their lightness due to their mixed heritage, it is only a small step away from whitewashing characters altogether. It creates unrealistic ideals about the way in which many races should look, and this is the kind of media bias that reinforces negative body image based on race.
Not only that, but when the mixed-race people on television and in media are never really identified as such, it’s harder for mixed-race people to see themselves as represented, despite visually being very present. Remember the furore when a cereal advert in the US depicted a mixed-race family in 2013? It seems mixed-race people are fine as long as it’s kept quiet where they really come from.
When mixed-race people experience racism because they are coded as a particular race, it’s also important for them to be able to identify as that race in its entirety, in addition to their mixed identity. Although mixed-race people may experience racism because of their mixedness (enter the crossbreeding slurs) they may also experience racism that is specifically directed towards one part of their heritage. This occurs not because they are half something or a quarter something else, but because they are Asian or because they are black or because they are whatever race they are getting marginalised for being. It is unrelated to their mixedness. This highlights a need for mixed-race people to be identified as mixed-race in some circumstances alongside a simultaneous need for them to be able to claim one race in particular in others.
It’s this complexity that makes the language that we use to discuss race insufficient. Treating race as a stationary category, as a fact, becomes even more ludicrous when discussing ‘mixed-race’ people. Active racialisation as a process becomes unmasked.
Our language has hit a stumbling block, one which exposes the arbitrariness with which race can be ascribed. Either all racial categorising must be abandoned or a new method must be created that better includes and acknowledges mixed-race people. Until a solution arrives I’ll continue being black at some times, mixed-race at others, and both constantly.
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Varaidzo is a black mixed-race writer based in South East London. Her work consists of fiction, poetry and pop culture reviews. Raised by the Internet, her focus is currently centred around exploring stories of the African diaspora in the digital age. Follow her on twitter @veedzo
This piece was edited by Henna Butt