The challenges of being mixed race

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How many times have you heard Barack Obama described as the first black US president?
Dr Hilary Emery warns that it is very easy to label people with mixed race in ways that do not reflect their particular heritage or identity and explains the serious c

How many times have you heard Barack Obama described as the first black US president? For the record, he is in fact the first mixed race president. I make this point to illustrate how easy it is to label people from mixed race in ways that do not reflect their particular heritage, identity or “mixedness”. Worse still, they can face discrimination and social exclusion and this can make life difficult for them, particularly in secondary school.

This was brought to light by the recent publication Mixed Experiences – Growing Up Mixed Race: Mental health and wellbeing, which reviews the available research on the challenges faced by mixed race children and young people, and presents first-hand accounts of people from mixed race backgrounds of their experiences growing up both in the UK and elsewhere.

What emerges is that after the influence of family, which plays a vital role in building resilience, it is the experience of school that is the greatest influence on mixed race children’s development of personal autonomy – and secondary school is particularly important.

During early childhood racial and ethnic identity may not be overly significant and generally friends pay little attention to racial difference. But, emerging from childhood, young people at secondary school find themselves abruptly in a different world. Adolescence is a time when one’s identity as part of a peer group is extremely important. The personal accounts in the report indicate that children of mixed race often find themselves outside these peer groups, excluded by others who were good friends at an earlier stage and often find themselves “too black to be white, and too white to be black”.

Secondary school may be the first time mixed race children have to deal with racism and prejudice from both black and white peers, and, in some cases, they have to balance the expectations of their “white” heritage against the stereotyping of their black or other identity. There is often an unrealistic expectation, from both peers and teachers, that young people of mixed race will understand both sides of their cultural heritage.

Faced with this, the young people in Mixed Experiences describe an array of tactics for “surviving”, from playing the class clown, to immersing themselves in study. For some, the challenges helped build their resilience, others just wanted to leave education as soon as possible. While these reactions may be shared by any non-white child faced with discrimination, for mixed race children these responses have been strongly influenced by the attitudes of both pupils and teachers towards their mixedness.

However, schools are responding. In 2011, when the Equality and Human Rights Commission asked IpsosMORI to research how schools in England and Wales were implementing equality duties, they found 90 per cent had implemented positive practice to promote racial equality, including work to raise awareness, tolerance and understanding, multicultural days and assemblies, forging links with schools and communities overseas, using interpreters, building links with parents, and dealing with racist incidents.

But we shouldn’t be complacent, especially as the mixed race population swells. While we should be wary of labelling mixed race children as having problems, the research shows that they do experience greater risks to their mental wellbeing as they struggle to develop an identity. Furthermore, mixed race young people are significantly over represented in the youth justice system, the child protection system and the looked-after system. Schools, in particular, need to be sensitive to these challenges and the complexity of experiences that comprise a mixed race child’s identity. A one-size-fits-all approach is not good enough.


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