I’ve been reading a lot of articles recently about Taye Diggs and some of his comments on the racial identity of his son whilst he has been promoting his new children’s book ‘Mixed Me’. The backlash in the US against Diggs for identifying his son as mixed race as opposed to black would never happen in the UK where I live and many people here may struggle to understand it. It’s been interesting for me to watch the controversy unfold due to the differences between the UK and US with regards to racial politics and the self-identification of biracial and multiracial people.
I am mixed race:, Black Jamaican, Nigerian and White British. My earliest memories are of being described racially as ‘half caste’. This was an accepted term back in the 80’s in the UK to describe someone whose parents are of different races. I remember my parents, friends and strangers referring to my racial identity in this way. The term is now understood as offensive and I never hear people use it anymore in the UK. The word caste originates from the Spanish/ Portuguese word ‘casta’ which means ‘pure’ so to say someone is half-caste is to imply they are only half pure which has obvious racist implications. In spite of this and the fact I now dislike the term I don’t particularly remember it bothering me as a child. I did not understand the term then or know there was anything wrong with it. In fact I do think it helped me in some ways to at least have access to some terminology which acknowledged that my racial identity was different to most of the other people around me. Looking back I do wish a more appropriate term had been available at the time.
In 2001 the category of mixed race was added to the National Census of Population in the UK. It was from around this time that I and others started to describe myself and those in the country of biracial or multiracial heritage as mixed race. It is the most popular term for those of us who have parents of different races here. I am sure however that there must be some people who are mixed race but decide to use mono-racial terms to identify themselves instead. The British history of slavery and colonialization impacts us today in many ways resulting in colourism and racism however because slavery is more tangible in the US this leads to more disagreements and debates about how people of more than one race identify than we have in the UK.
It’s important to point out that while the category of mixed race is an accepted term for describing one’s racial identity, we still have similar problems to the US in that mixed race people will still often only be understood in terms of one part of their identity depending on their physical features and complexion (if part of your heritage is white then it will typically be the non-white part). For instance when I meet new people they often behave towards me as though I will conform to black stereotypes and as though I will only be aligned with the black part of my identity. In other words people readily accept me identifying as mixed but that doesn’t mean they necessarily accept me as someone who is both black and white and influenced by all of the cultures that make up my heritage. The acceptance of mixed race people is often superficial. I don’t see us as being much more advanced in the UK as compared to the US when it comes to mixed race politics. In fact in some ways I’d say we are further behind. There is little research done on the UK mixed race population and when it comes to social policy we are still very much an ignored group. Much of the recognition we receive as a racial group is connected to stereotypes of perceived attractiveness.
I feel somewhat torn in the Diggs debate because I partly agree with the responses from biracial and multiracial people in the US which acknowledge he is not necessarily really in the best position to say how his son should identify. Ultimately his son will have to decide for himself how he wants to refer to his racial identity in the environment he lives in. I definitely think though that we do need to raise children to acknowledge all sides of their racial identity so that they can live as whole and authentic people. I do feel one good way to do this, is to identify children of more than one race as mixed race (or to use a term with a similar meaning) rather than in mono-racial terms. Also until biracial/ multiracial children can self-identify parents do need to choose some form of racial identification for them. There is no real way of avoiding this. The key, as many have already pointed out, is to keep things flexible so as a child grows they can change the way they identify if they wish to.
For me, I feel the term mixed race most accurately describes who I am and the kind of experiences I have had in my life. I recognise at the same time that I will commonly be viewed as black or ‘more black’ and that’s why I feel it is crucial to raise mixed race people to see society for the way it really is in terms of race and racism. It is a complicated task for parents to raise mixed race children who accept themselves as whole beings when we live in such a structurally racist society. I think there should be more quality support and guidance available to parents of mixed race children.
As mixed race people we all have to accept at some stage that there is a difference between how we see ourselves and how others see us. That doesn’t mean we should let society define us. It’s time for mixed race people to find their voices and push back. I’m excited whenever I hear a mixed race person assert their voice and their identity because we often get lost in discussions on race. Mono-racial people tend to speak over us telling us how to see and describe ourselves and this must change. I’m so fed up of this as I’ve been dealing with it all of my life. As a mixed race woman I have spent much of my life fighting to assert my identity and to transcend the perimeters others have tried to place around me. All mixed race people unfortunately will have to go on this journey but we can choose to be empowered by it and freed by it rather than defeated. Being mixed race has taught me to trust my own perceptions, to define myself and to value my autonomy and these are some of life’s most powerful lessons.