Book of the week: identity crisis

24th August 2001 at 01:00

Mixed Feelings: the complex lives of mixed-race Britons
By Yasmin Alibhai-Brown
The Women's Press pound;11.99. TES Direct pound;11.49 (020 8324 5119 99p pamp;p per order)

Since the 16th century, the British have engaged in, enjoyed and reaped the fruits of inter-racial sex. Four centuries on, the UK can pride itself on hosting the largest number of inter-racial relationships in the western world. Nearly half of all non-white children in this country are mixed race and four out of five children described as Caribbean have one white parent. Estimates put the total number of Britons of mixed parentage at around 350,000, representing 11 per cent of the 3.25 million people from ethnic minorities living in this country.

Despite the rapid growth of this multiracial society, particularly over the past couple of decades, Yasmin Alibhai-Brown notes that many mixed-race people experience "unsettled identities" and negative responses from their own families as well as from the community. While some parents nurture their children's mixed identity with thoughtful equanimity, others engage in a wrangle for control over how a child views itself: white or black?

And for some, particularly those raising children single-handedly, there can be confusion and unease, bitterness against the absent partner leading to a denial of the child's mixed parentage. Although the British public is more accepting of the blurring of racial distinctions than before, there are those for whom it represents a threatening dilution of the race, moral waywardness, incompatibility and shame.

Surveys on attitudes to race are notoriously contradictory and unreliable, but a study that Alibhai-Brown included in a report for the Institute of Public Policy Research in 1999 yields some interesting findings. A third of whites, 38 per cent of Asians and nearly half of Jews questioned felt that most people in Britain would object if one of their close relatives married an African Caribbean.

But nearly three-quarters of whites said they wouldn't mind, and among younger whites that figure rose to 88 per cent. One in 10 whites and African Caribbeans would mind, they said, if a close relative married an Asian and 5 per cent of whites would be unhappy if it were a Jew. Among Asians questioned, 30 per cent would not like it if a close relative rmarried a Jew.

Alibhai-Brown's book is a compelling mix of research, history and first-hand accounts by both mixed-race children and women and men who have intermarried. The picture it offers is mixed, too. There is optimism in the testimonies of people who are proud of their multiple heritage. And there are others - young and old, white, black, Asian, Jewish - who express their abhorrence at worst, and at best disquiet, at racial mixing. Some of these voices sadly come from children of mixed-race parentage and people whose inter-racial marriages have failed.

  • Picture: mixed families are a fact of life in contemporary Britain
    • A longer version of this review appears in this week's TES

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