The Ambiguous Ethnicity

Danielle Jefferies

Having parents from multiple ethnic backgrounds has its unique issues. The words that you and others use to describe your ethnicity can have powerful implications for your identity, sense of belonging and power and when your ethnicity is described using the ambiguous word ‘mixed’, it can feel like you barely have an ethnic identity at all.

When it comes to ethnicity, words are powerful tools in creating identity. Anthropologist Susan Benson has discussed extensively the issues of power and racism embedded in slave names (Injurious Names, 2006), exploring how identity can be taken from an individual purely through the words used to describe them. Whilst the indignity of slave names is arguably much more significant to identity than the words used to describe ethnicity, the core ideas in Benson’s work can still be used to understand the latter’s impact; they too are words immersed in history and emotion which have strong connotations with profound positive and negative effects on identity.

When names do not fit your view of yourself, you can be left feeling uncertain about your identity. I was never ashamed of being ‘mixed’, but as a child in the 2000s I often felt dismayed by having to officially label myself as the ‘Other’ in questionnaires, especially when surrounded by children who did not have to think twice about who they were. Not having a recognised ethnicity was a subtle early indication that I did not fit into the society I lived in.

Eventually ‘Mixed/ Multiple ethnicity’ was introduced as a category in the England and Wales census in 2001, finally giving the 1.4% of the population of ‘Other’ ethnicity a secure identity in society. Thankfully, these days very few people are un-accounted for in the tick options for ethnicity, and I take some comfort in my ethnicity now having a widely recognised name (‘Mixed white and black Caribbean’). However, problems could quickly resurface as the number of mixed individuals in society gradually increases. The census shows that the mixed population grew by 8% in the decade between 2001 and 2011 and the category will only get more diverse as the mixed keep ‘mixing’. It only takes me to have children with someone who is not ‘White’ or ‘Black Caribbean’ for my child to be labelled as the ‘Other’, just as I once was.

Moreover, official documents can only go so far in giving people a sense of identity in the everyday life. Most people will only have a handful of words in their everyday vocabulary to describe ethnicities. Words like ‘Black’ and ‘Asian’ are common as they have meaning behind then; whether it is a stereotype of skin colour, culture or personality; these words are used because it’s useful language. They can indicate certain deeper characteristics that people feel are important to identity, such as your family ancestry, where you feel you fit in society and what you value in life. It also gives you a sense of belonging by connecting you with people who are supposedly similar to you in some way. ‘Mixed’ is rarely used in everyday language as it has no single unified set of characteristics and therefore little real meaning. I have witnesses countless people awkwardly struggle to find a word to describe my ethnicity because there is no one word that can accurately define a mixed person’s sense of ethnic identity. ‘Black’, ‘white’, ‘tanned’, ‘exotic’ and ‘caramel’ are just a few of the words that have been used to describe me. None of them are right, but I feel that they at least they have more meaning behind them than ‘mixed’. They either suggest that I am similar to others or they attempt to acknowledge my differences, rather than suggesting I am an unknown entity.

My feelings about my ethnicity were most authentically described for me by Benson in her ethnography of mixed children living in London in the 1970s (Mixed Race Children in South London, S. Benson, 2008). Benson describes how the children either identified as black or white, rarely as mixed. Their choice was based on the ethnicity they associate with more, or in other words, the description that holds the most meaning for them. The words ‘black’ and ‘white’ had powerful associations for each child. Choosing one of them gave them a sense of belonging. ‘Mixed’ provided little meaning to them in a society where race divides were strong. Benson picks up on the unique struggle to find identity when ethnicities can seemingly only exist in isolation rather than combination. Despite mixed being a more widely recognised identity these days and race relations improving, ethnicities are usually still viewed as separate entities. This leaves the mixed without a distinct sense of belonging as they often exist between opposites.

Words are also important to political identity, and the politicisation of ethnicity can add to the feeling of existing between irreconcilable identities. The current ‘Black Lives Matter’ campaign combating racism uses the word ‘black’ as a political tool. A word so immersed in emotion creates a powerful statement to the world. Whilst I support the movement, it does cause confusion to someone who has never been sure if they count as ‘black’ or not. A part of my political power is almost removed by having a voice which does not have a strong and defined identity attached to it.

Being mixed is definitely not something I would ever want to change, but the identity struggle cannot be overlooked. Words have the power to create an identity, evoke emotion and make a political statement. However when words, such as ‘mixed’, have little meaning and an unclear message they can leave people feeling inaccurately represented in society. The growing mixed presence in society is a relatively new thing that does not yet have a single word that can represent the vast number of ethnicities it includes. Such a word may never exist. Consequently the mixed have to find identity and belonging despite the ambiguous words, at least for now.