Do mixed-race people really enjoy the ‘best of both worlds’?

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Good news! The US has taken a decisive step towards racial harmony, per the 2020 census: the country has 20mn more people in the “multiracial” group than it did before, thanks to changes to how the US Census Bureau asks people about their ethnic group.

Those of us in the “multiracial” (or, in the UK, “mixed”, or in South Africa, “coloured”) group are, it’s often said, harbingers of a better future. Kemi Badenoch, the UK’s trade secretary, told The Times in a recent interview that her mixed-race children should have “the best of both worlds”. The reality, however, is more complex — the biggest change that took place between the 2010 American census and the 2020 one is that the US got a bit better at conducting censuses. One of the changes included removing the word “Negro” from the list of suggested racial groups.

Most of the time, though, being mixed-race does mean I get “the best of both worlds”. Wherever I travel in Europe, for instance, local ethnic minorities are always keen to ask, as a Senegalese man in Milan recently put it to me, where “my black half” comes from: in the hope that it’s the same place as them. But sometimes you find yourself being told that your grip on both your identities is less sure than you thought. 

Indeed, Badenoch herself seemed inadvertently to do just that when, in the same interview, she suggested that Kehinde Andrews’ new book The Psychosis of Whiteness, is flawed because he is mixed-race. Based on Andrews’ previous work, there is little doubt in my mind that his diagnosis of the problems facing multiracial societies is overcooked and his proposed solutions wide of the mark. But his understanding of race and racism has nothing to do with the presence of a white person in his immediate family tree. 

On the whole, the number of mixed-race people in a country does tell us something positive about that country. Nations that believe race to be something specific and immutable are more likely to sort their citizens into fixed boxes with no movement between them. And those that don’t collect data about race and ethnicity struggle to identify problems and tend to produce worse outcomes for minorities.

Countries in which people meet and fall in love across ethnic boundaries will produce larger numbers of mixed or multiracial children. It probably is a good rule of thumb that in a country that is getting most of its public policy choices right, the “multiracial” or “mixed” group will be the fastest-growing ethnic minority, though this doesn’t tell us anything about countries, such as Brazil, where the “mixed” group represents the largest single ethnic grouping. That suggests the country in question is doing the right things in terms of both integration and pro-parent policy.

In the UK, which has the most consistent data set, we can see that those of us in the mixed-race group are more likely than the national average to attend a good university, but we are also more likely to be in persistent poverty and are more anxious than any other minority. 

So it isn’t wholly a positive story, not least because one reason why people identify as mixed-race is that they have been “pushed out” of the majority group.

A recent study of ethnic minorities in the UK is instructive here. The study found that people from different groups experienced radically different levels of personal insult. I suspect that in part reflects different conceptions of what is and isn’t insulting.

Perhaps because those of us in the mixed-race group are more liberal, we have a more expansive view of what an “insult” is than some other minority groups. Given also the greater proportion of mixed-race Britons who went to high-quality universities, it is also possible that this difference reflects a social as well as a political difference of opinion about what exactly constitutes an insult.

But I also think because of those of us in the mixed group are more likely to have conversations about race with people who don’t know what our “real” ethnicity is, we are therefore more likely to hear unvarnished bigotry than other minorities. Some mixed-race people may only “become” mixed-race — that is, start telling census-takers and other surveys they are mixed race and not part of the ethnic majority — because they experience racism. 

I don’t know what Badenoch means by “the best of both worlds”, but I think for most parents of mixed-race children, the hope is that their kids will get to enjoy being part of two or more cultures, without experiencing any friction between them. And if they do, it is probably a surer sign that integration is succeeding than the simple fact that us mixed-race people exist.

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