How do I identify? This has never been a more pertinent question than it is today, as questions of identity and belonging predominate ever more. Yet I still struggle to find a satisfactory answer. Usually, for the sake of ease, I’ll say “mixed-race”.
Sometimes I’ll dodge the racial epithet bullet altogether, and describe myself in ethnic-national terms: “I’m English and African.” Or I’ll be more specific and describe my ancestry: “I have a Black Somali grandfather, a mixed-race Anglo-Somali mother and a white British father.”
The responses to my self-description will vary, from “You look so white,” to “But Somalis are Black!” to “Oh wow, I would never have guessed.” This is because I “look” European: meaning that my hair texture, eye colour, skin colour and overall phenotype (observable characteristics) are all typical of someone whose ancestors hailed from the western peninsula of the Eurasian continent.
Were I to identify purely with reference to my appearance, then I might say “white”. Yet that would be to deny an important part of my heritage. But if I simply identified as “Black,” I would personally feel a bit of a fraud – something of a white-privileged interloper.
My late mother, known to the world as the musician Poly Styrene (born as Marianne Joan Elliott-Said), had no doubt in her mind that I was a white child because that was how the world responded to me; and it was also how she saw me in comparison to herself.
She told me she was surprised to see how pale I was when I was born, because she had assumed I would have a similar skin tone and hair texture to hers. She was likewise bemused (not to mention royally pissed off) when passers-by asked her if she was my nanny while she was taking me out in my pushchair.
That said – apart from these occasional irritations – I never really got the sense that the difference in skin tone between us was a source of discomfort for my mother. Indeed, she expressed relief that I was, to borrow a historical Americanism, white-passing; hoping that my white skin would be a ticket to a happier life than hers, and that I would be able to avoid the racist discrimination that had marked her existence since birth. To a large extent she was right. I have experienced little overt racism directed towards myself.
Instead, what I have experienced on occasion are unpleasant and revealing encounters with clandestine racists; who, thinking they are in the company of a fellow white person, allow their true feelings about people of other ethnicities to emerge.
On other occasions, I have indeed experienced bigotry after I have disclosed my racial identity. Someone once remarked that it made sense that I was partly Black – because I was a messy eater and I often ate with my hands. Another commented that my mixed-ethnicity explained the size of my supposedly large bottom.
There has only been one time in my life that someone accurately identified my heritage without me telling them: a Russian guitarist asked me after a rehearsal if I had any African ancestry, and I replied that I did indeed. He proceeded to tell me that he had worked this out on the basis that I smiled and laughed a lot: a curious way of stereotyping those descended from the peoples of an entire continent.
Even if the world sees me as white, I don’t feel white. Being raised by a non-white single mother in a large extended family of mixed-race aunts and cousins meant that, for me, brown skin and curly hair were the default settings for human beings.
My mother’s side of the family is mixed and proud, and my politically conscious auntie was always reminding me of my heritage, lest I take it for granted. She would tell me about the horrors of the transatlantic slave trade and the one-drop rule: the racist system in the United States that classified as Black anyone with just one Black ancestor.
I learned, too, about the quadroons and octoroons, who, in having one Black grandparent or great-grandparent, were still subject to slavery; or, if they were supposedly “lucky”, a life of concubinage and sexual exploitation. This early education was intended to instil in me not only an awareness of the novelty in the family of my white-passing privileges, but also pride in my Black, African heritage. And I was proud; we all were. We saw ourselves as the future, my cousins and I. One day soon, everyone would be mixed-race.
In 2000, the Sunday Times reported that the UK had the highest percentage of mixed-race relationships in the world and according to the most recent census information (from 2011 – we do not yet have the findings of this year’s survey), mixed-race Britons already, a decade ago, represented the nation’s fastest growing ethnic group.
The engagement of Prince Harry to biracial American actress Meghan Markle in 2017 was heralded by many as a sign that Britain was heading towards a “post-racial” future: one that was allegedly being embraced by even the stuffiest and most retrograde of institutions, the British royal family.
Such hopes had been expressed before, in a very different context. When Barack Obama was elected as the first Black president of the United States in 2008, his mixed-race parentage was also celebrated by some as a milestone on the road to a “post-racial” destination: a notion that had its own roots in the 20th-century vision of a “global melting pot”, a multi-ethnic, multicoloured, harmonious society in which divisive categories such as “race” would simply cease to matter.
As is often the way with essentially utopian visions, this particular dream failed to materialise, displaced by a global surge in nativism, racism and rightwing extremism on- and offline. From the start, the backlash against Obama’s candidacy and subsequent election from the populist Right often invoked racist rhetoric and tropes: from the “birther” conspiracy theory that the president had not been born on US soil to the proto-Maga battle-cry “Let’s take our country back” (uncannily similar to Vote Leave’s official slogan in the 2016 Brexit referendum).
Likewise, the Harry and Meghan fairytale soured quickly. The media’s attention took a nasty turn and Meghan found herself the target of tabloid hit pieces highlighting her “exotic DNA” and “ghetto” roots, in constant contrast (explicit or otherwise) to her sister-in-law, Kate Middleton.
What is the lesson of these two tawdry tales? Obama wasn’t white enough to be a true American. Meghan wasn’t white (or posh) enough to be accepted as a true royal. In other words, even after “climbing the ladder” to the highest echelons of a supposedly liberal country, a person of mixed-heritage will still struggle to avoid othering – that inescapable hallmark of the mixed-race experience.
All the same: there is no denying that people of mixed-heritage are now ever more visible in Western societies. Accordingly, this has deepened curiosity in the “mixed-race experience” and encouraged a growing (if far from universal) recognition that multi-racial people have a unique sense of identity that has not been given its due.
In the United States, most biracial people are categorised as Black, a sign that the legacy of the one-drop rule still looms over that country. Indeed, many mixed-race people, such as Obama, still choose, for very good reasons, to identify as Black, despite having a white parent.
Often, they do so because they feel a sense of shared experience with the Black community, matched by a perception that “whiteness” is inaccessible to people of colour – irrespective of our parentage.
There are also some who cast doubt on the very notion of “mixed-race”. How can one be mixed-race when race itself, in its truest sense, is a social construct? Indeed, it’s a question I have often asked myself – hence my tendency to describe my identity in ethnic-national, rather than racial, terms.
The idea of “race” as a social construct should not be controversial in this day and age – there is no strictly biological basis for the concept. Of course, there are genetic and cultural similarities between groups of people with ancestry tied to particular geographic locations – in other words ethnicities.
However: these ethnic groups should not be glibly lumped together in binary categories. Diverse and dispersed European, Middle-Eastern, South Asian and East African peoples were all considered, by the post-Enlightenment inventors of the very notion of race, to belong to the Caucasian class – based on antiquated pseudo-scientific theories that often involved measuring skulls, teeth and noses.
Indeed, according to the 18th-century Gottingen school of history, there were only three human races: Caucasoid, Negroid and Mongoloid. Subsequently, these prototypical racial categories would be further subdivided into a multitude of sub-races; now taking into account skin tone, hair texture and cultural traits.
This in turn entrenched the notion that certain races were superior and had the right to subjugate those of inferior heritage. The tragic consequences of this racial categorisation were legion: notably, the horrors of the transatlantic slave-trade, anti-Irish oppression by the supposedly superior “Anglo-Saxon race”, South African apartheid and, of course, the Aryanist variety of anti-Semitism, culminating in the systematic attempt to murder all Jews in the mid-20th Century.
All of which begs the question: why can’t we rid ourselves of these racist concepts and categories once and for all? If “whiteness” and “blackness” are relatively recent concepts, invented by racists and responsible for some of the greatest atrocities committed in history, then why use them?
The answer is not straightforward. For a white person, confronted with the historical wrongs from which they, if indirectly, have benefited, there is an obvious psychological attraction in wiping the slate clean and deciding that they “don’t see race”.
This may be intended to sound like an expression of decency. In fact, it is a cowardly evasion. True, there is a human instinct not to hold children responsible for the sins of their fathers. But that does not mean that historical wrongs can be swept under the carpet, or collective social responsibility ignored.
As long as the legacy of oppression and discrimination remains, the notion of race will and should be a key element in our social and political discourse. Formerly subjugated peoples have found power in reclaiming blackness; and whiteness is a useful explanatory tool in understanding the power structures and inequities that still prevail in modern society.
Where does this leave people of mixed-ethnicity? Some may reject the very term for good reasons. Many more, including myself, will continue to use the term mixed-race because it is convenient, broadly understood and as good a shorthand as we have available at this moment in history. Others still will opt for the less racially loaded mixed-heritage – as, again, I sometimes do myself, depending on my mood.
There can be no prescribed answer to such questions. Indeed, it is up to the individual to decide whether they want to answer the question at all. Identity itself is increasingly fluid; people are making up their own rules as they decide how they wish to present themselves and to be perceived. And that should be a cause for celebration.
Please don’t misunderstand me. In a world of injustice – the world upon which the murder of George Floyd shone such a horrendous light – it is much too premature to ditch the notion of race. There is still too much reckoning to be carried out, too much truth that remains untold.
But, in the great sweep of things, it is an unequivocal good that the old boxes and restrictive structures, so limiting to people in the past and so effective a means of oppression, are slowly starting to be opened up, flattened and thrown away. As a person of mixed-heritage who still hasn’t settled on a definitive identity, that’s a bright beginning that I welcome with all my heart.
Celeste Bell is a director, musician and author. Her film Poly Styrene: I Am a Cliché is available to stream.
Celeste recently appeared at our ThinkIn, “Could punk save the 21st Century?” Tap below to watch it.