I recently watched an interview with the UK rapper, writer and academic Akala. I usually really enjoy hearing him speak and generally find him to be quite faultless in his views on racial issues. For those who don’t know of Akala he is of mixed race and identifies as both mixed and black. In the interview I am referencing he covers many topics including veganism, internalized racism and Obama’s presidency. He also briefly mentions his thoughts on people with some black heritage who identify solely as mixed race. I’d long been wondering about where he stood in terms of his thoughts on mixed race issues. Please note that for the purposes of this article when I mention ‘mixed race’ I am referring to people with both black and white heritage. You can link to the interview with Akala here if you want to watch it for yourself:
I have to admit I was actually quite upset about Akala’s comments in the interview on those who choose to identify as mixed race. He gave the usual spiel that is frequently heard in the US, about how many of those who describe themselves as mixed are problematic and are disassociating themselves from blackness. It’s quite common, particularly in the US, for people to view identifying as mixed race when you have black heritage, as anti-black and evidence of self-loathing/ internalized racism. I was shocked in some ways to hear Akala endorsing such simplistic views given that he obviously has such a good intellect.
I have read a few articles recently that have highlighted that there are differences in relation to how mixed race men and women tend to identify. Apparently it is more common for women to identify as mixed race and for men to identify as black. There are some theories out there as to why this happens and I have a few of my own. I do wonder if it’s easier for mixed race men to be accepted as black than it is for mixed race women, and also if issues connected to colourism are less observed between men of colour than they are between women of colour, the latter of whom face more pressures regarding appearance. It has also been suggested that mixed race men on the whole have things easier than mixed race women when it comes to carrying their racial identities. While mixed race men will no doubt face racial issues they still have the privileges that come with being male. From my own experience I know that I have faced multiple oppressions simultaneously including race, gender and class oppression as well as mental health stigma at times, and these have all affected how I see myself and therefore my self-esteem. I guess Akala is unaware of, or indifferent to, how individual experience and other aspects of identity are likely to impact how mixed race people see themselves and choose to identify.
I can completely see why some mixed people identify as black. Many do this as a political statement. It is a way of aligning oneself with blackness and expressing pride in a black identity. It’s a totally valid stance to take which I respect and sometimes I feel like I want to do it myself. What I don’t respect about a lot of the people who take this stance, is the lack of respect and acceptance they seem to have for people who choose to identify as mixed race. Some of the mixed race people who identify as black are very ‘black and white’ about things in more ways than one – they tend to feel that you are either mixed race and identify as black or there’s something wrong with you. There’s no in-between allowed. This is a classic example of thinking in rigid binaries and thinking in rigid binaries is not a sign of a good intellect. A strong mind is capable of holding the awareness that several different things can be true at the same time. A strong mind is capable of understanding that there are multiple different reasons why a person may identify as mixed race and that some of these won’t actually inevitably include a disassociation from blackness.
When black rights and lives are on the line and I am standing up against black oppression, in my mind and spirit I am black and black only, no doubt about it. I grew up in a very political household where I was made aware of black issues from a very young age. If I’m honest, the older I get, the more I feel conflicted about how to identify. I have spent the last week really considering whether I should start to identify solely as black. Whereas many in the US may grow up identifying as black but wanting to identify as mixed, sometimes I feel the reverse is happening to me. I more frequently find myself just wanting to identify as black in order to show solidarity with black people and make it clear to everyone where I stand on racial issues. I was always raised to identify as both black and white but maybe however you are told to see yourself, sooner or later you will start to resent it and want to push back against it. Identifying as black as a child could potentially have altered the course of my life. It’s interesting to think about how different I may have been if my parents had always told me I was black instead of mixed.
There are a lot of reasons why I currently identify as mixed race. For one thing it is common for people here in the UK with both black and white heritage to identify as mixed race. It could be said that it is the norm. Another reason I identify as mixed race is because I grew up in a predominantly white environment. Although I grew up with my black father, I did not really grow up with a connection to Jamaican or Nigerian culture. I only met my Jamaican grandfather once and my grandmother who was white British and black Nigerian died when I was a young child. Because I have no real connections to Jamaican and Nigerian culture this has sometimes made me feel like an imposter with black people who do have strong connections to their cultural heritage. This makes me feel like it would be wrong in some ways to identify myself solely as black.
I also identify as mixed race for statistical reasons. It would be impossible to track what issues affect the mixed race population if most or all mixed race people identified as black. Because mixed race children and adults do face different issues to other racial groups, I feel it’s important that we have a label of our own so we can see how we are represented in the criminal justice system, the child protection/ looked after systems, in crime victim statistics, mental and physical health statistics and so on.
Identifying as mixed is also a way for me to acknowledge I am having a different experience to black women. I do this out of respect for black women and I also do this out of respect for myself. It also allows me to acknowledge that I am having a different experience from monoracial people in general. Fundamentally, describing myself as mixed race is simply an acknowledgement of a literal truth. One of the most important reasons that I identify as mixed race is in resistance to binary thinking and monoracial norms. To choose a monoracial identity to me, is to submit to oppression and the idea that identities that are not easily boxed and understood are invalid. This kind of thinking is dangerous and is the basis for oppression on a much broader scale including the oppression of all people with any kind of bi or multi-identity (such as transgender people, bisexual people etc.).
Identifying as mixed may indicate a disassociation from blackness for mixed race people in some cases but it doesn’t always. Individual circumstances (gender, upbringing, relationships with parents etc.) as well as the norms in a specific country need to be taken into consideration when trying to understand how and why mixed race people make choices about how to identify. It is irresponsible for people with influence, like Akala, to generalise that most mixed race people who identify as mixed only have some kind of problem with blackness. This is simply stereotyping and making assumptions about a group with no real social power and that already faces oppression. Akala and other people with his level of influence should know better. While Akala gets to decide that he identifies as both mixed and black and is obviously completely entitled to do so, he does not get to police how other mixed race people identify. He also doesn’t get to assume he knows what’s in the head of every person who identifies as mixed. To his credit, he acknowledged in the interview that he is not the authority on blackness and he’s right. He isn’t. There is no monolithic understanding and definition of what blackness is or how it should be lived – something I wish I’d understood more growing up.
I feel like I promote both mixed and black rights/ issues equally. Internally I feel both mixed and black, and never just white because that would be impossible, and I have no desire to claim ‘whiteness’ anyway. On paper I would always describe myself as mixed but psychologically, emotionally, spiritually, I know that I am mixed and I am black, and I am proud of both identities. If you talk to me personally then I will tell you that’s how I identify myself.
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