Over the course of my life i have struggled to come up with a satisfactory term for my ethnicity. I have an Indian parent and a White English parent, and one of my grandparents was Jewish.
When i was in Primary School I was called half-caste. This was a reflection of the different skin tones present in my ancestry. I think the decisive factor at the time was skin colour, and the term half-caste picked up on the fact that mine was clearly darker than the white kids, but obviously not as dark as people whose parents both came from a sunnier place. The fact that there was some Jewish heritage in there, didn’t really feature at the time.
At some point, I think when I started secondary school, I was made aware that half-caste was insulting. I don’t remember it being explained to me why, but i was told the correct term was mixed-race and so that’s the term i used for at least a decade and a half. Mixed race has obvious advantages. Mixed race is obviously more neutral. It sounds flatly descriptive, broad enough to cover those who’s parentage might be geographically disparate even if you wouldn’t know it from their skin tone.
But this very flexibility opens up a range of tensions that we find under the surface of much of our thinking about race and ethnicity. Race may be a construct, but ethnic categories nonetheless have a solidity to them. inscribed in census forms and population statistics they present themselves as objective descriptors of an unchanging reality. On reflection though, this reality is clearly fluid, subjective and highly contingent on historical accidents.
People who are ethnically Indian, for instance – are people who were born in, or who’s parents were born in India. But does that include people to the North West of the subcontinent? Prior to 1947 people who lived in Lahore or Karachi would have been ethnically Indian, but now they live in Pakistan. So, are they ethnically Pakistani? Probably we would say they are. But if we do are we basically saying that ethnicity is only a descriptor of the current geopolitical arrangement of the territory of your or your parent’s birth? It feels like we ascribe more meaning to ethnicity and race than that.
What about someone who has one parent from Delhi and one from Lahore? Are they mixed race? It would follow that they are now, but they wouldn’t have been in 1946. That degree of volatility does not fit very well with the kind of definitional permanence we normally give to these categories.
Alright then, you may say; this is actually just a problem with ethnicity. Someone from Lahore is ethnically Pakistani because ethnicity is a fluffy, shifting changing thing. But Race, race is different. Race has some sort of genetic component, someone from Pakistan and someone from india share the genetic characteristics of the sub-continent, regardless of their ethnicity.
Let’s assume for the moment that there is something genetic about race, that isn’t present in ethnicity. Where does that leave mixed race? As a descriptive category it is surely so broad as to be basically useless. I am mixed race because my dad had a sufficiently different genotype from my mum, in this case, Indian and White (English? Caucasian? the terminology is a nightmare) but this mixture earns me the same categorisation as my neighbour who has one Nigerian parent and one Irish. What kind of racial categorisation can possibly encompass such as disparate group? Clearly when we use the term, we are not really referring to a genetic variance – and that’s before we get into the very shonky basis for assuming that racial classifications describe genetic differences anyway.
So what do we mean by Mixed Race then? It seems to me, that a common working definition would be: people who’s parents have sufficiently different phenotype that they are not obviously identifiable with one or the other? That seems to cover the definition at play, when I was identified as a half-caste and then later as mixed race at school. The fact that this definition operates would, for example, explain the hesitation we sometimes feel when someone argues that they are mixed race because one parent is Scottish but the other is English.
But there is clearly another in operation: people who’s parental background is sufficiently different, culturally speaking, that they feel that at least two different cultures shaped their outlook. This would cover people who identify as half-Scottish half English. There is a bit of this, in play if I think about the Jewish element of my background. Which, without getting to know a whole side of my family – and their penchant for a certain type of Jewish joke – you would probably never detect.
When people discuss their background, it seems to me that there is often a tension between which of these definitions is in operation. So should we decide to call one of these being “mixed-race” and another “mixed-ethnicity”?
Which is in play when I think about myself- or have to tick a box on the census form? The answer is both. Neither really seems adequate. Race is socially constructed, and an overly deterministic view of it soon collapses into contradiction. But similarly, the fact the fact that I am visibly identifiable to myself and others as not White British, has impacted on my life in a range of ways i am loathe to deny.
In practice i still generally use the term mixed-race because its one that everyone recognises and that causes no offence. But I am always aware of its limitations and it still strikes me as deficient.
So if I had the choice, what would I call myself? I had hoped to find any answer to this question by the end of this blog, but the truth is I still haven’t