When you say the words “mixed race” to somebody in the UK, the vast majority will picture someone who looks like me. Someone with black heritage and white heritage, with skin that’s a somewhere-in-the-middle shade of brown.
I realised just how damaging it is to reduce being mixed to a simple case of black and white
This isn’t surprising. According to the last census, my mix of parental lineage – white British and black Caribbean – is the most common mixed heritage in the UK. But that is far from the entire picture, and when we assume that the mixed experience is a heterogeneous one, that to be mixed is to be one thing, we flatten the conversation entirely and erase the experiences of thousands.
Meghan hasn’t helped. The newest royal’s prominent rise to fame and subsequent vilification at the hands of the British press resulted in endless headlines, think pieces and hot takes on the state of race and racism in Britain, and Meghan – and those who look like her – became synonymous with mixedness, to the exclusion of everybody else.
By its very nature, to be mixed is to be the product of variety. The countless possible combinations of racial backgrounds that can make up a person reiterate that the experiences of mixed individuals are always going to be incredibly diverse, and yet we so frequently insist on an over-simplified, binary definition.
I’m mixed in a way that is widely recognised by modern society. I’m Meghan-mixed. And, as a result, I never really had to think about the exclusive and limited ways that we talk about mixedness – until I began the research for my book Mixed/Other. Through conducting more than 50 interviews with mixed individuals over the course of a year, and researching the work of academics who have been studying this field for more than 30 years, I began to realise just how damaging it is to reduce being mixed to a simple case of black and white.
Firstly, when we homogenise the mixed experience, we erase people who don’t fit a specific aesthetic blueprint. Mixed people can have darker skin, lighter skin, different hair textures, features and body types. Mixed people can “pass” as white. Mixed people can be mixed without white heritage. Our family makeup, where we are brought up, our cultural references all vary wildly, and impact our lived experiences. But these unique stories are not being heard.
Omitting the variety and the nuance from conversations about being mixed may be more convenient, and may result in punchier headlines, but what you lose in the process can’t be overstated. By repeatedly presenting a singular and binary image of mixedness, and limited narratives of what it means to be mixed, we are not only silencing those who don’t meet those expectations, we are also bolstering a racial hierarchy that positions whiteness at the top and everybody else on a sliding scale below.
The mixed population is the fastest-growing ethnic group in the UK, and this is a trend that is likely going to continue as the results of the latest census are revealed. It’s therefore vital that, as a society, we develop a broader and more inclusive way to talk about mixedness, one that doesn’t centre whiteness, or reduce our experiences to something stereotypical.
We live in a society that is obsessed with assigning people tidy labels. The moment you don’t fit into one of the pre-existing categories – whether that’s to do with your race, or any other socially constructed characteristic – it can cause an inherent discomfort in others. There is still so much suspicion and scrutiny of those who exist in liminal spaces and that can trigger damaging uncertainty around identity, belonging and self-worth.
Since publishing Mixed/Other, I have received countless emails and messages from mixed people living all around the country and beyond. They tell me that reading more varied stories of the mixed experience has helped them feel seen, helped them develop a stronger sense of belonging, confidence in who they are and where they fit. Identity is not the only issue that needs to be discussed when it comes to understanding mixedness, but I have seen first hand that finding a sense of community, a feeling of recognition and understanding, can be an antidote to isolation.
Mixed/Other by Natalie Morris is published in hardback by Trapeze and is out now