“But I’m not black” says my sister. We are in the car with our mother driving home from the airport. “Yes you are” I say, mildly annoyed. Since childhood, our white mother has always told us we are black and should describe ourselves as such, even though we are half white. Right now, however, our mother appears to be supporting my sister’s argument, and beneath my growing angst I realise it may be wrong of me to impose my personal view of our ethnicity on to her. And yet I persist.
“No, I’m mixed race” she says. “Yes,” I say “but you’re also black”. “No, I’m as much white as I am black, but nobody calls me white so why should I call myself black?” “Do you really not know?” I say. “If you mean the one drop rule, then yes of course I know” she says “but why should a theory derived from the civil rights movement in the US decades ago apply to me now?” It’s an interesting point…
Let me back track to the conversation that sparked this discussion. In my kitchen at home one evening I’m talking to my lodger. She is of the same background as my sister and I (her father is black her mother is white). We are talking about her imminent return to Suffolk after a year in London. “I’m going to miss London,” she says. “There aren’t many brown people in Bury St Edmunds”. I’m amused by the comment. “You don’t describe yourself as brown do you?” I ask, slightly bemused as it’s been a while since I’ve heard the term. “Yes, I’m not black and I’m not white, I’m brown”. “Oh that’s interesting,” I say, “what does your dad [a black American] think about that?”, “He’s fine with it” says my lodger.
Over the next 20 minutes or so my lodger and I discuss the merits of the various labels that could be applied to us. I tell her that my own perception of the label ‘brown’ is the derogatory, condescending term ‘brown babies’ used in the British post-war years to describe children of white mother’s and black US soldiers. I also explain my concern that mixed race people often refer to themselves as brown out of some residual sense of lingering shame at the thought of calling themselves black. It must be remembered that in the eyes of most of the world, being black is something that only relatively recently emerged as something to be proud of. This is especially so in England where immigration of black people in large numbers only really began in the 50s and 60s. The generation of the earliest immigrants from the Caribbean still to this day refer to themselves as coloured. Because that is what they were told they were. Because being ‘black’ back then was undesirable. The term coloured today is racist, and yet older generations, including my white grandmother, still use it innocently, as if it is the correct term.
At school in the late 80s/early 90s, the awful term half-caste was commonly used. My siblings and I would come home from school describing ourselves thus, having been described as such in the playground or even by teachers. My mum would tell us never to describe ourselves as such, nor allow others to, explaining that the term comes from the Indian caste system and essentially means you are half a person. Of a lower class. Thank god that term is largely eradicated now along with terms such as mulatto or indeed yellow.
I suppose the term half caste came about from a genuine embarrassment in this country about the new phenomenon of mixed race babies. Until a turning point in the 60s and 70s, it was rare for a white woman and black man to have a baby, or vice versa. It is this embarrassment around issues of race that I have a problem with and may be why I am not a fan of the term brown. To me, it feels like an attempt to sanitise, ‘pretty up’ or get out of simply saying black. It is ‘black’, made more palatable for society. To me there should be no sense of shame or compromise with the word black. It should be something to be proud of. That is what was drummed into me by my mother, and indeed my father, and has stuck with me. “People will see you as black and you should be proud to be black, never deny that you are” was their message. “But Rachel [my sister] is lighter than some Italian people” we would argue. “She’s still black” would be our mother’s response.
For me, the black pride factor runs deep in this debate. Many black people require black success stories and role models to identify with, to motivate and to stimulate personal pride. If a half black person achieves success and calls themselves a black man or woman, this represents a greater fillip to black empowerment, than calling themselves brown or even mixed race. Barack Obama describes himself as African-American. What would it do to the psyches of other African-Americans in the States if he instead described himself as multiracial, bi-racial, mixed race or dual heritage? I feel it would be a disservice.
But am I wrong? Is it me who is living in the past? Is it not the choice of each individual to decide their ethnicity, even when those individuals come from the same background or even the same family, like my sister and I? Surely she has the right to call herself mixed race and my lodger to call herself brown? In the months since my lodger used the term brown, I’ve heard it quite frequently, most often from people of Indian or South Asian origin. So, is it just me that’s still living in a 1980s PC ‘Right On’ world where we march against ‘the bomb’ and acid rain and Thatcher and people calling themselves brown?
I tell my sister I find the term ‘mixed race’ unsatisfactory. “It’s meaningless. It doesn’t even describe which races one is a mix of. Ethiopian and Italian? Korean and Mexican? Iranian and Jewish?” In an, ideal world I would describe myself as half English half Jamaican. When I ask my half Norwegian half Guyanese friend he concurs. Yet these are our parents’ nationalities, not really our ethnicities. I think dual heritage is a prettier term. For me, ‘mixed race’ is just the latest in a line of flawed terminologies that the government and equalities agencies haven’t really thought through. I think it will be replaced fairly quickly with another generic, unflattering term.
My sister recounts the a time when a chatting with two childhood friends she said to one “please don’t call me half caste it’s incorrect” and the other joined in “yeah, and don’t call me Indian”, to which my sister had to politely point out “but, you are Indian!”. The unfortunate interjection somewhat devalued the original point but it neatly highlights my previous point; that some people actually are embarrassed or confused about who they are.
Then, she makes the final point that another mixed race friend, a well educated young woman, until only recently referred to herself as half caste. I am shocked.
It seems political correctness is not the solution to everything where individuals are concerned. This is the essence of the debate. Is it the right of individuals to call themselves whatever they want? Whether that be black, white, brown, mixed race, coloured or even half caste? Is it unacceptable for others to label people with official, political or ideological terms?
I think it’s fair to say I have mixed feelings on this one.
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