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The acceptable race of the future;Another voice;Opinion

I am a lone white mother of a mixed-race child, and I don't feel that either my life or that of my child is an enormous problem. I am so grateful to his father for giving me such a gift and like many other working-class white women, I want us more to celebrate these children and not go on and on about their problems. That is a kind of racism, too. My son, who is 12, wanted me to tell you that he is happy, very happy."

These were the sentiments of one mother at a seminar at the Institute for Public Policy Research in March as part of the European Year Against Racism. There were other equally powerful statements from others who saw things differently.

We were there to discuss mixed-race Britons at one of our three seminars set up to discuss new issues around race and multiculturalism for the millennium. It was an invited audience of policy-makers, educators, academics and those with personal experience of the subject being discussed.

Such a seminar would not, could not, have been arranged even five years ago because ideological positions then were so fixed there would have been little point.

Just recall the awful, hysterical debates over adoption policies in the late Eighties. And even now, it is rare for academics and experts to meet "commoners" on an equal basis to work through ideas for the future, though more of this is happening at policy level with the increasing use of citizens' juries and focus groups.

The time, it appears, is now ripe both for the creation of genuinely interactive processes and to discuss a subject which many, including senior civil servants, feel has remained invisible for far too long.

Five years ago, I co-authored a book The Colour of Love, the first publication on mixed-race relationships in this country for 30 years. Since then, evidence is emerging from the Labour Force Survey and other sources to show that the number of mixed-race families is increasing. Forty per cent of black men have a white partner and the number of mixed-race children grew by 40 per cent in the Eighties.

At the seminar Dr Anne Phoenix, of Birkbeck College, described the demographic changes and charted the complex relationships between mixed-race Britons and the wider society. Other facts, still not considered polite to mention, emerged.

A disproportionate number of mixed-race children are living with lone mothers, often white, who are victims of horrifying racial harassment. Leicestershire's inspector June Webb described this in some detail, and those who proclaim white people cannot experience racism should listen to the stories.

Unacceptably high numbers of these children are in care, although because they are labelled "black" exactly how many remains unknown. Neither social services nor the educators have much understanding of the identities of mixed-race children and how it affects their self-esteem and progress. Most books and resources still remain focused on "pure" family types.

More open discussions are imperative, as is research. For centuries people of mixed parentage have been labelled half-caste, half-breeds, black, mixed origin, and about 70 other names.

It is time these individuals defined themselves and for those working with them to accept these. I observed a black teacher once hounding a boy who would not call himself black. He said he was light brown. This was not good enough for a whole generation of perfectly honourable professionals convinced that black was the best label for mixed-race children and that anything else showed inner confusion.

There are now several self-help groups such as People in Harmony where parents are getting together to make their demands on schools and local authorities.

Martin Hoyle, of the University of East London, is planning to publish a children's book of mixed-race role models which will include people such as Oona King MP, and Bob Purkiss, the national secretary for equalities at the Transport and General Workers' Union, and also director of the new European Union racism monitoring centre.

Mr Purkiss spoke movingly at the seminar, ending by saying: "We must make sure that mixed-race families are made more visible so that the growing number of mixed-race children do not have to face a society which sweeps their experiences under the carpet."

Yasmin Alibhai-Brown is a research fellow at the Institute of Public Policy Research

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