Remi Adekoya is just the man to apply some balm to this country’s often polarised and paranoid debate about race.
The mixed-race Polish-Nigerian writes in a gentle and nuanced manner about the messiness of human identity, especially in its racial and ethnic aspects. And his own life story — one foot in a relatively rich poor country (Nigeria) and another in a poorer rich country (Poland) — has given him an unusually privileged vantage point from which to observe the complexities, and complexes, of race.
Members of the political class (broadly defined) in modern democracies are increasingly called upon to be both outsiders and insiders. The 42 year-old Adekoya is a model outsider-insider, and able to act as a discerning connection point between different worlds.
He has felt the humiliation of racial abuse, particularly as a young man in Poland, and even after many years of living in western countries can still feel the pull of the traditional worldviews that still prevail in much of the developing world. Yet he is also an insider, an accomplished journalist and now academic, well-connected in three different countries.
His African roots allow him to speak about race with less circumlocution and evasion than is common in the liberal West. He can write with authority about the tendency to in-group preference, about the racism of whites and non-whites and the psychological well-spring they both share, and he understands the cultural chauvinism of parents who do not want their children to be lost to the tribe or religion.
So who better to write a book not just about race but about being mixed race? Biracial Britain: A Different Way of Looking at Race is a timely antidote to the sectarian finger-pointing and moralising about race so prevalent in our contemporary debate.
This is mainly a showing not telling book: a series of 25 extended interviews with different people about the experience of growing up mixed race, framed by his commentaries and often wry reflections on his own biracial journey.
It is not an academic book. There are few facts and figures. There are people telling their stories. And Adekoya’s interviewees have been selected to provide the widest possible range of experiences spread across all relevant ethnic mixings and across time.
The basic numbers for this country are simple enough: the mixed race population of the UK is around 2.5% (about 1.6m) and is the fastest growing ethnic group, about 50% are white-black, 25% white-Asian and 25% intra-non-white. The future is beige: in his book, Whiteshift, Eric Kaufmann estimates that the UK will be 30% mixed race by the end of this century and 75% by 2150.
Mixed race people in the UK (at least those with one white parent) tend to be better integrated and, on average, more successful than their equivalents in the non-white ethnic group that one of their parents belongs to. But they still experience their own peculiar brand of joys and sorrows, and are now emerging more confidently as a distinct group to tell that story.
From interviews with younger mixed-race people, it is clear that the overt hostility towards, or pitying of, the older “half-castes” growing up in the 1950s, with two sets of grandparents who never speak to each other, has long gone. But dilemmas remain.
There is, for example, the pressure from society and relatives to identify more with one side than another. Adekoya even describes how some black activists follow their own version of the “one drop” rule of the racist American south: insisting that someone who is half or even one quarter black must identify as black.
Mixed-race people have more options for both belonging and rejection, and some of the interviewees admit to not feeling completely at home in either of their ethnic groups. Many have had bumpy rides of various kinds. There is the joy of discovery when finding a non-white father who had been absent when an interviewee was growing up. There are the accounts of people feeling pressured to “perform” an ethnicity that they have no real connection to. There is the disappointment of visiting an ancestral home and finding you are not accepted. There is even a pair of mixed-race twins who don’t get on because each identifies with different sides of their heritage.
Adekoya says he could rise above the racial abuse he encountered in Poland because of the Nigerian sense of superiority his father had drilled into him. “Nigerians firmly believe they are a special people endowed with a unique intelligence, resilience and creativity that predestines them for greatness. This is the gospel I was raised in and I was a firm believer.”
But this shield does not protect all black people. Indeed, in his reflections on so-called “colourism” Adekoya argues that the opposite is often the case. The curse of colourism is the tendency of black people in poorer, non-white, parts of the world to esteem lighter skin, which mixed race people with a white parent tend to benefit from, often with a guilty conscience.
And his answer to this is controversially pragmatic. “Colourism will not be eliminated by well-meaning intellectuals telling people it is a bad thing; it will be eliminated when the white world stops being so much richer and more successful than everyone else. Then regular black and brown folk will stop looking up to it so much and start admiring their own kind. But this will only happen if their own nations become rich and successful. I do not like that this is the way it is, but this is the way it is. Wealth and success is what impresses the world today. The road to the end of white supremacy lies in economics, not sociology, history or semantics.”
This is a powerful insight and if the economic success of Africa in the past decade is replicated in the next five then we might be able to test the hypothesis. But what if Nigeria does not become as rich and successful as Denmark in the next 50 years, even as it heads towards becoming the most populous country on earth? Are black people around the world, including in the North American and European diasporas, condemned to battle a collective inferiority complex?
This is surely too pessimistic, at least for black minorities in the US and Europe. Two ethnic stereotypes have changed dramatically in Britain in my life-time. The Irish and the Indian. The Irish shift follows Adekoya’s logic: as Ireland moved from being a poor, rural country with relatively low levels of education, to being a highly educated, post-industrial one, richer than Britain, the old stereotype of the slow-witted Irish became untenable.
The Indian stereotype has also changed dramatically as British-Indians have marched into the professional middle class in their millions and yet the reality of India has not changed that much, the country has patches of great wealth and a growing middle class but it is still home to the largest number of truly poor people in the world. Indian success in the diaspora has changed the image of Indians, not the rise of the Indian economy.
Surely that success can be replicated by black minorities in rich countries too. A critical mass of successful black professionals is already emerging in many places and that looks a better pathway to generalised black confidence than a well-governed Nigeria with a booming economy, a decent welfare state and nuclear weapons.
Half-Indian/Half-Irish Sunder Katwala, the head of the British Future think tank (and the only interviewee to be identified), is an optimist on this and says that “Britain is doing much better on race than on class”. But the reason why this does not seem more apparent is because “there is now a split between academic, media and political environments and the lived experience of the rest of the country… the problem is that the race discourse is dominated by people who spend all their time on it, we don’t hear enough from people who just get on with their everyday lives and are not defined by race.”
This is not, however, a complacent book celebrating a post-racial country; it rather reflects a messy reality in which about half of ethnic minority Britons think their colour has held them back in life, while the other half think it hasn’t.
Every mixed-raced child is a sort of gamble on the world becoming a less tribal place. And Britain’s mixed-race story is also unavoidably about the partnerships and marriages across ethnic boundaries. Adekoya observes his own parents’ difficulties with dispassionate sympathy but this is one area where a few more facts and figures might have been helpful. I wanted to know whether partnerships and marriages across ethnic lines are more fragile than those within them? And if so are they becoming more robust as society becomes more tolerant?
Adekoya does not have all the answers but, looking ahead, he sees the mixed-race identity becoming less defensive and freer to draw on multiple identities without feeling pressured to choose one. He also thinks that mixed race people have something valuable to offer in today’s atmosphere of racial polarisation.
“Growing up mixed race is a life experience that lays the groundwork for an inclusive open-minded attitude towards others… The circumstances of our mixed heritages and upbringing makes delving into the perspectives of others come somewhat naturally to us because it is what we had to do to fit in growing up.”
Barack Obama had a special talent for making different kinds of people feel comfortable around him because of his biracial life experience, says Adekoya. By the same token, Adekoya himself seems poised to become one of the most important and subtle new voices in Britain’s never-ending conversation about race.