That Britain is becoming more ethnically diverse is well known. But the implications of the changing nature of that diversity are less often considered. For the first half century after the Windrush docked in Tilbury in 1948, the rise of multi-ethnic Britain was primarily the product of Commonwealth migration to Britain. But that has been only one part of a broader global mix since the turn of the millennium. Another major change – the rise and rise of mixed-race Britain – could prove as important in challenging, disrupting and changing the way that we think and talk about race.
Why real life gets harder and harder to categorise
The way mixed-race Britain has shifted from the margins to the mainstream of our national conversation about race is very well captured by the census – both in the questions it has asked, and the answers we have given.
It wasn’t until 1991, in the 19th decennial population survey, that ethnicity emerged as a category of British census classification. A conscious decision was made to leave out ‘mixed ethnicity’ as a category: the thinking was that those who were of mixed ethnicity would much rather pick a group anyway, so the guidance notes to those filling in the form invited them to select “the ethnic group with which they identify”, or to tick a residual “any other ethnic category” if they preferred.1
By 2001, however, ‘mixed ethnicity’ had become a category in its own right, with four different sub-sections.2 In the past, the rise of mixed ethnicity was seen as a marginal issue, acknowledged as messily blurring the boundaries at the edge of the picture. But today that way of thinking is harder to sustain: mixed ethnicity has been the fastest-growing ethnic group of the last two decades, and is likely to become the biggest single minority group in the next one.
Yet even this turns out to be only half of the story. Research by the Economic and Social Research Council suggests that there are about twice as many people of mixed ethnic parentage as the census captures.
So what? Does ethnic mixing really matter?
There’s a long sociological tradition that considers the possibility and rate of inter-marriage, and wider social attitudes towards it, as one example of integration. The rapid rise of mixed-race Britain does show that integration is happening; it’s a potential counter to the widespread sense that ours is an anxious, fragmented and polarised society.
In the 19th century, George Bernard Shaw argued that the aim of social policy should be “to keep the entire community intermarriageable”, and that this was the best test of equal social relations. Shaw was thinking primarily of social class, but he broke a taboo by suggesting that principle should apply across ethnic groups too. “Marriages of black and white: Startling plan by Mr Shaw”, reported the Daily Telegraph in 1931.
Today, this is the subject of so little public controversy – unless one delves into the darker recesses of the internet – that it can be surprising to learn how rapidly that shift in social norms came about. While there have been relationships across ethnic lines for as long as there has been inter-ethnic social contact, the subject was considered taboo or controversial until recently.
When Prince Harry was born, in 1984, a majority of respondents to the British Social Attitudes survey said that they would be uncomfortable if their children married across ethnic lines. That remained as high as 44% as late as 1993. British Future surveys found that this had fallen to 15% by 2013, and just 5% among the under 24s. The public reaction to the marriage of Prince Harry to Meghan Markle demonstrated this shift, though 12% of people were unhappy to have a mixed-race royal.
In such a short space of time, British society has become significantly more inter-marriageable across ethnic lines, both among university graduates with professional jobs, and among working-class communities – which, contrary to stereotype, often have more lived experience of inter-ethnic contact than the middle-classes. Yet what sociologists call “assortative mating” – people’s tendency to choose spouses with similar educational attainment – could at the same time, make our society less inter-marriageable across social class, between those who went to university and those who did not.
The more gradual rise of ethnic diversity
While demographers are very good at projecting numbers into the future – they cannot tell us what those numbers might mean when we get there. Yes, Britain’s ethnic diversity will rise over the decades ahead, but it may not do so quite as exponentially as simplistic linear projections suggest.
Linear projections of exponentially growing ethnic diversity often seem to rely on something close to the ‘one drop of blood’ rule, the historic American principle that classified a person with a single black ancestor as non-white. That does not seem to fit well with the emerging evidence of how people actually identify.
Being mixed race in Britain has a different dynamic from in the United States. In the US, it is more firmly a minority identity – and three-quarters of those of mixed ethnic descent marry somebody from a minority group. By contrast, in Britain, three-quarters of marriages of those of mixed ethnicity are to somebody white, often making ethnic identity a matter of choice more than ascription by the second and third generation.
This voluntary assimilationist trend among white European and Jewish migrants is long familiar: the white Irish group has, by some distance, the oldest demographic profile, in large part because the British-born children and grandchildren of Irish migrants mostly identity as white British, rather than Irish (despite a “tick the Irish box” census campaign in 2011 aimed at them). It has seemed more counter-intuitive that something similar may happen among ethnic minority populations too, but the British Caribbean population has done precisely this, dividing across the black, mixed and white British categories over three generations.
Eric Kaufmann, Professor of Politics at Birkbeck College, University of London, has suggested that advocates of migration and ethnic diversity might consider shifting from the celebration of accelerating diversity – telling those who are anxious about change that it will speed up ever faster – to investigate the reassuring power of this integrationist story instead.
Rejecting simplistic multiculturalisms
The rise of mixed-race Britain puts extra pressure on the type of ‘community of communities’ multiculturalism which was, for example, set out in the influential but contested Parekh Report into the Future of Multi-Ethnic Britain from 1998. This saw Britain as “both a community of citizens and a community of communities”, arguing that this could generate “conflicting requirements” between being both a liberal and a multicultural society. The practice of British multiculturalism in the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s relied significantly on a conflation of ethnic minorities with faith communities – which had difficult implications for the share of women and younger people in particular.
As a mixed-race Englishman of Indian and Irish parents, who had become a lapsed Catholic agnostic by the time I left university, I found that a ‘community of communities’ multiculturalism risked offering a too neat and tidy a model of inter-ethnic federation, which felt both unfeasible in practice and somewhat unattractive in principle.
Mixed-race Britain has a growing number of role models – strikingly among 20- and 30-somethings in sport and popular culture, from Formula One champion Lewis Hamilton to singer-songwriter Zayn Malik – but these personalities had the good fortune not to have to entertain claims to leadership of the mixed-race community. This group was always rather too mixed for that to work.
With some honourable exceptions, such as Tariq Modood’s emphasis on the value of national identity, multicultural thinkers were often slow to grapple with this central challenge: that if a politics of recognition matters to minorities, it is surely going to matter to majorities too. Unless a politics of racial polarisation is attractive, it is important to ensure that the shared identities that underpin citizenship are meaningful across majority and minority groups.
Polarise or depolarise?
One of the big questions of our time might be: polarise or depolarise? It is certainly harder to be mixed race in an atmosphere of sharp racial polarisation, where the competing grievances of minorities and majorities create increasing pressure to ‘pick a side’.
But it would be a mistake to believe that a growing mixed-race population means that the ‘bridgers’ must inevitably prevail. US politics and society in the age of Obama and Trump offer a cautionary warning: if Obama made an eloquent case for bridging – both white and minority America may turn out to have a stronger appetite for polarising the question of race in America.
Many people of mixed ethnicity are somewhat more likely to feel they might have some skin in the game on both sides of that question. But it would surely put too much pressure on even a fast-growing minority group to provide the answers: the future of race relations surely depends on what everybody else wants too. The success of a multi-ethnic society may depend on whether it is possible to construct a robust inter-ethnic consensus on what fairness demands, or whether disagreements about opportunity and prejudice drive a politics of mutual grievance and incomprehension.
The rise of mixed-race Britain will change the way we think about race. What it may also illuminate is that demography is rarely destiny in either society or politics: so much depends not only on what is driving social change, but also on how we choose to respond.