“Where are you from?” people ask me all the time. “The UK,” I respond. “Yeah, but where are you really from,” they add. “Everywhere...” I say. When you look the way I do, it confuses people.
I’m not what you’d call conventionally British looking. I’m caramel coloured, bushy-haired, and have a slightly hawk shaped nose. Some mistake me for Egyptian or Moroccan, but the truth is, I’m none of these. I’m mixed-race, and therefore part of the fastest growing demographic in Britain, with heritage in Ireland, Kenya and Cyprus. That’s right - I’m a living, breathing Long Island Iced Tea.
I guess if you mix all of these together, you get something North African looking. Only problem is, I don’t sound North African in the slightest. Only when I open my mouth does the English in me come out. I’m well spoken, but only to a certain extent. I have neither a cockney accent, nor sound like the Queen (thank god). I’m somewhere in-between. Middle class, if you may. As if things couldn’t get anymore complicated.
When you’re mixed-race and middle class, it’s not always easy knowing which way to identify. Some think you’re cultured and well-educated, others see a foreigner in you. People instantly assume that you’re fluent in a number of different languages, even if both your parents were born in the UK. I, for one, speak neither Greek nor Swahili, as I have to explain every once in a while. In fact, I’m more Irish than anything else.
I’ve been compared to footballers and R&B stars, for the simple fact that I’m brown, slim and have shortish hair. For the record - I look nothing like Marvin from JLS. Nor am I into football. My interests and temperament lean more towards that of an old white man. I moan a lot, drink copious amounts of tea, listen to jazz, go to museums, and enjoy long walks.
I live in a small, suburban neighbourhood called Hampton, surrounded by posh prams and immaculately groomed dogs. It’s not the most diverse area, at least not on the surface, but that doesn’t bother me - it’s home. Only when I venture into London do I bump into people who look like me. Most of the time I forget my colour.
So, what does it mean to be somewhere in the middle? The term, mixed-race, refers loosely to people with two or more racial backgrounds. In Britain, mixed-race people fall into a number of sub-groups, some more prevalent than others. There’s “White and Black Caribbean”, “Mixed White and Black African”, “Mixed White and Asian”, and the ever elusive, “Other Mixed”, with which I identify. I remember having to tick this category on forms as a child, and thinking to myself “am I British, or am I not?”
The history of racial mixing in the UK can be traced back to different points in time, and is a subject of contention. The 1930s saw the arrival of foreign seaman to port towns in Britain. These men came from far-off places and formed relationships with white, British women, many who, in turn, were cut off from their families and labelled whores. Mixed communities were formed, and this paved the way for a new wave of immigrants from Africa, India and the Caribbean in the 1950s.
These minorities settled in places like Bradford, Birmingham, Brixton, and Leeds, and were brought here as part of a national effort to rebuild Britain after the Second World War. The vast majority were poor, and, like those before them, shared neighbourhoods with white, working class Brits.
With mass immigration came violence and prejudice due to the clash of cultures and lack of mutual understanding. In some parts of the UK, this led to rioting; in others, it brought people closer together. My grandma - a white, Irish lady - met my granddad - a black African - around this time, and, in 1968, the two of them had my mum.
She, like other mixed-race children of the time, identified as working class. Many lived on council estates, went to majority-white schools and had parents that worked low-end jobs. Some had a difficult time fitting in and faced bigotry both on the streets and in the classroom. Those of black and white ancestry were often labelled “half caste” or “half breeds".
Only as time’s gone on have mixed-race people been able to progress in society. A breaking down of racial barriers in the 80s and 90s brought with it greater social mobility, allowing people of colour to date anyone, hold down better jobs and move to nicer neighbourhoods. As Dr. Chamion Caballero notes in BBC’s Mixed Britannia:
“There is a middle class dimension to mixed-race families in Britain. They tend to have high levels of home ownership, high levels of education profiles, which, again, challenges this idea that it’s a working class or underclass phenomenon.”
My good friend, Michelle, comes from such a family, but feels her ethnicity trumps her class. “I guess the mixed race part of me gets more ‘attention’ as people don’t constantly ask me what class I am” she says. “I see myself as English, but people often push for the Jamaican or Irish in me.”
London-based Michael is, similarly, a combination of Afro-Madagascan and Indo-Mauritian. In his opinion, being middle-class is the same for mixed and non-mixed people. “It’s the fitting in part that’s more of a challenge” he argues. “People automatically assume I’m Pakistani without a second thought, sometimes Mexican. But, as soon as I tell them I’m Middle Eastern/Spanish/East African/Central Asian/East Asian and less than a third South Asian, they suddenly act differently around me.”
Jack, another mixed-race Londoner, views his situation differently. “I've been able to move freely between different social classes and ethnic groups. In London, it means I don't have to think about race most of the time, just when it comes to the police, really.”
A 2011 census put the number of mixed-race people in Britain at approximately 1.25 million. Why then is it that very little is known about the separate lives we lead? Could it be that society’s placed too much emphasis on black and white issues and not invested enough in the experiences of those in between. If the upcoming marriage of Prince Harry and Meghan Markle is anything to go on, then a new dawn could very well be on the way.