“Mixed-Race” Has Its Own History
In a will to do right by the history of Black Britain, why does the establishment “adopt” those who are Multiracial as Black without thinking to explore the parts of their identities that do not fit into the vast, wide-reaching grasp of Blackness as well?
Whilst I know “Mixed-Race” includes people from the unions of various racial / ethnic groups, this post focuses on those from (Black) African/Caribbean and white European relationships
For a while now I have been having lots of conversations with friends and colleagues that identify as Mixed-Race. Whether they call themselves Multiracial, Mixed-Race or Biracial, there are multiple terms for the people that do not fit into the monoracial boxes society assumes for us. Whether we’re talking two (bi) or multi (two or more). In the not so distant past, the derogatory term “half-caste” was a socially accepted term, and it is still used to varying degrees. However, in my love for history, pertinently the stories featuring those that are racialised as ‘Black’, I have found society more widely has “adopted” in a manner of speaking, Mixed-Race people of African heritage as Black.
A monoracial history may not seem an issue to some, but it is doing a disservice to a people that also have a history in their own right (beyond enslavement). Including Multiracial people into a Black history such as Walter Tull, says so much about society and their focus on his overt Blackness. Although it’s not widely acknowledged, part of Walter Tull is a product of his white working class ancestry through his white English mother and the other part is from his Black Bajan father.
In “adopting” Multiracial individuals into the Black historical narratives without thinking about other parts of their racial, cultural and / or ethnic identities, we are missing opportunities to have vital discussions about not only Multiracial identity but also class and whiteness.
What we are also missing out on are prevalent conversations on (un)conscious bias in the sense that media pushes only one dominant narrative of what “Mixed-Race” can look like, consistent with lighter skin and looser hair. However, I have known Multiracial people to have hair textures ranging from 2c/3a all the way up to 4c, also well-depicted in Emma Dabiri’s book Don’t Touch My Hair. There is also a narrative here of ‘good’ and ‘bad’ hair (but that’s another conversation). Moreover, the connotations that light-skinned Black people can be stereotyped as Multiracial tells me that the common thoughts about those from Multiracial backgrounds, is that they must have “lighter skin.” Yet, plenty who have monoracially Black parents also have lighter skin tones. So, there is lots to unpick here, and discuss, not only in terms of identity but also the (un)conscious bias against Multiracial people from all ethnic groups.
I grew up thinking of myself as Black but if we take this definition of “Multiracial” into its fullest meaning, I would also fit into this demographic, having Multiracial grandmothers on both sides my family with white Irish and Indo-Caribbean heritage. Has this changed how I think of myself in relation to my race and my cultural identity?
It certainly has.
What we also have to realise is that Black has changed meaning over time and Black is not a monolith, just as Mixed-Race is not. Blackness is fluid, and it brings me to ask questions about the Caribbean diaspora and how in somewhere like Jamaica, there is an African presence. There has also been a European presence (still is) and there is an Indigenous American presence. Also to include Jewish, Chinese, Indian and Lebanese people as well. Jewish and Lebanese communities came to Jamaica as part of the merchant trading class, and Indian and Chinese communities came as indentured labourers after the end of enslavement in 1838 to fill the new labour gap made in the abolition of enslavement. Consequently, they had interracial relationships and thus created a Multiracial community.
Within Black communities there has been contestation of who is / isn’t Black and like most identities, it is not something one gets to choose. I have met Multiracial people of African and Caribbean heritage that look like me that would call themselves Black and have also met others that identify as ‘Mixed-Race.’ However, one of the issues I have, is not that Multiracial Black-racialised figures are included in Black History Month campaigns, but by including these individuals, there is no gesture or want to discuss Blackness as fluid, which would also mean that Black History has multiple facets and many identities.
In African Renaissance: When Art Meets Power, in the second episode, journalist and broadcaster Afua Hirsch is in Sénégal. She says “the French legacy lingers in Sénégal today: in language, in architecture, but also in the people themselves.” The city Saint Louis was at the centre of French colonialism in this country. Hirsch also says “France turned Saint Louis into a grand experiment, seeding a hybrid Creole culture, like that of Havana and New Orleans. And it created a new caste that would bolster their rule.”
Like what happened in places like India, European colonisers had children with Sénégalese women, thus creating a new Multiracial population, who were then called the metis(se), and became a merchant class influencing much power within the colonial structure.
Whilst Black History Month campaigns so often discuss Multiracial individuals, why is that only in proximity to their Black identity? Why do we focus on the most visible identity, often the Black identity? Much alike the one-drop rule, why do we focus on the most visible identity? Frequently, I hear things like “Mixed-Race is the fastest growing racial group.” My question is, if this is the case, why are these conversations about Multiracial identities not being had on the same level as that of Black identity? Blackness is fluid — and whilst lots of Multiracial people may be racialised as Black, they may not all see themselves that way in terms of racial identity.
Many of my friends and colleagues that are part of this group identify as Multiracial, especially those that grew up with their white family members away from their Black relatives. Some have been made to feel othered by both society and white and Black relatives. But some are also quite proudly Mixed-Race. In our discussions about race, more could be done to talk about fluidity of Blackness, especially historically. It is a constant and as society becomes more diverse, definitions of Blackness will shift again.
Both Walter Tull and Mary Seacole have become establishment figures, indicative of ‘good Black British history.’ Both of them had jobs that are considered respectable — in, the military and healthcare — and names that are easy to say. On the surface of those Black postboxes, we are witness to a metaphor that ‘we will celebrate you’ if you are not too angry or too political — which makes talking about the history of this country within these isles and its former-colonies so difficult, as much of it is angry and very political. And even in discussing Walter Tull, there is a lot of focus on the “good history” (his achievements in football/breaking the British Army’s colour bar), but not much thought or discussion goes into actively interrogating the institutional racism at the time, nor narratives of class or the history of the care system — a history that him and his brother Edward Tull were part of.
One of my biggest qualms in Black History Month campaigns is this notion that all Black History has to be positive. I disagree. Not all stories have to empower, not all stories need to. The focus on that is to varying degrees problematic. In establishment figures like Mary Seacole, an example of ‘good history’, there is a Mixed-Race history, coming from a white Scottish father and Jamaican mother. Mary Jane Grant Seacole was a Mixed-Race Jamaican Creole woman. Whilst it is important to show the ways Black and Black-racialsed people have positively contributed to the world, we also have to tell the stories of struggle, not only but also including transatlantic enslavement, the rebellions, and the anti-racism of the 20th century.
In closing, more can be done to discuss narratives of Multiracial communities, especially as it is an interesting avenue into discussing the complexities of whiteness, class and white identity. From Barack Obama and Akala alike, being raised by their white mothers — to Frederick Douglass reportedly being the son of the white enslaver, and Mary Seacole, Naomi Campbell (Chinese grandmother), Stephen Graham (Mixed-Race half-Jamaican father) and the Black Georgians and Black Victorians that married interracially in the 18th and 19th centuries.