BBC says “mixed race” is mainstream in the UK

By Sean Carey

Around 2 million people in the UK — roughly 3 per cent of the total population — come from “mixed race” backgrounds. This finding comes from a study by Dr Alita Nandi at the University of Essex’s Institute for Social and Economic Research (ISER) using data from the UK Household Longitudinal Study for BBC 2’s Newsnight programme. The big surprise is that the estimate is twice the number recorded in official statistics.

If this figure is accurate then there are more people of “mixed race” than any single, traditional ethnic minority – for example, “Black Caribbean”, “Black African”, “Indian”, “Pakistani”, “Bangladeshi” or “Chinese.” The “mixed race” group has its fair share of celebrities: Formula One driver Lewis Hamilton, Surrey cricketer and 2006 Strictly Come Dancing winner Mark Ramprakash, Manchester United soccer players Ryan Giggs and Rio Ferdinand, pop singer Leona Lewis, and double Olympic champion Dame Kelly Holmes. But now, according to BBC News home editor Mark Easton, “in multiracial Britain, ethnicity is increasingly not the point. Mixed race is mainstream.”

The mixed race news story hasn’t come out of nowhere. In fact, BBC 2 television is currently running a Mixed Race Season so Dr Nandi’s statistics produced for Newsnight were part of a high profile PR campaign. The first offering on 27 September, Shirley, was a critically acclaimed biopic of Welsh singer, Shirley Bassey, who is of Nigerian and English descent and born in Cardiff’s Tiger Bay. Bassey, famous for singing the theme to three James Bond movies, was brilliantly played by the young, upcoming actor, Ruth Negga, who is of Ethiopian and white Irish heritage.

Last week’s programme was the first of a new three-part series, Mixed Britannica, presented by George Alagiah, Sri Lankan–born BBC 1 television news anchor who is of Tamil descent and married to Frances, a white British woman. The couple have two “mixed race” sons. So Alagiah declared a personal interest in the subject.

The Mixed Britannica series explores the history of relationships of people from different ethnic backgrounds in the UK. Not surprisingly, the first programme broadcast covered the port areas which have been home to seafarers from around the world since the mid- and late-19th century – Yemenis in South Shields, Chinese in Liverpool and the Limehouse area of London’s East End, and Black Caribbeans and West Africans, Somalis, and Yemenis in Tiger Bay.

One of those interviewed was Connie Ho, who was born in Limehouse in 1921 to a Chinese father and a white, English mother. Ho told Alagiah how she and other children of mixed ethnicities were taken to a room above a local restaurant to have their facial characteristics measured and eye colour recorded by eugenicists. This was at the same time that scientists in Germany were about to embark on a series of gruesome experiments with people from Jewish and other despised minority groups. It was only after the Second World War when the full horror of the Holocaust was revealed that British scientists realised the possible impact of their pseudo-scientific studies and pulled back from any further research that might stigmatise and threaten the lives of particular groups of people.

The documentary used archival film footage and still photographs to good effect. The Shah Jahan Mosque in Woking, Surrey, which was opened in 1869 by orientalist Dr Gottleib Wilhelm Leitner, to provide visiting Muslim students with a place of worship was featured. It is the oldest purpose-built mosque in the UK and is an immense source of pride for the 10,000-strong Muslim (predominantly Pakistani) community that now lives in the Woking area. It was highlighted because it was the place where 22nd Sultan of Johor, reputed to be one of the world’s richest men, married a Glasgow-born white woman, Helen Bartholomew Wilson, the former wife of his physician, in 1930.

Alas, the programme missed a golden opportunity to explore differences in past and current media representations of ethnically mixed relationships amongst members of social and political elites, especially because the couple were featured in an article in TIME magazine in 1931 after their return to Johor, which lies at the southern tip of the Malay Archipelago, for the coronation of the Sultana. The journalist covering the event, using a vocabulary which lays bare the racist and colonial arrogance of the dominant “Imperial” culture of the time, wrote:

In Johore Bahru, capital of Johore, last week Sultana Helen appeared at her coronation in a Paris gown of shell-pink Venetian lace. Like Queen Mary’s on state occasions, her bosom blazed with enormous diamonds. Her neck could not be seen beneath its ropes of pearls, and the diamond earrings of Dr. Wilson’s former wife reached almost to her shoulders.

As the Coronation ritual proceeded Sultana Helen made her responses with a soft Scottish burr. At last, with the Lesser (female) Crown of Johore firmly planted on her Nordic head, she rode with swart Sultan Sir Ibrahim triumphantly around Johore Bahru, received the abject homage of its groveling, grinning populace.

Cooler than the nearby island of Singapore, Johore is just the realm for a Scottish Sultana. Officially the Sultan is “independent,” but accepts a thumping yearly British subsidy and does as he is told. In greatest breadth Johore is only 100 mi., in greatest length 165 mi. Mostly covered with green forests, Johore supports an easy-going population of 337,000 who export rubber, import strong drink, including Scotch.

The Sultan and Sultana divorced in 1938. Apparently, they remained on good terms. Even after the Sultan remarried in 1940, he continued to give his former wife an emerald on her birthday and a diamond on their wedding anniversary.

At the end of first episode of Mixed Britannica, Alagiah struck an optimistic note that although many of the communities which he had surveyed were often the subject of high levels of prejudice and discrimination from the white ethnic majority, enclaves like Limehouse, Tiger Bay and Laygate in South Shields “were truly multicultural before the term was conceived.” Put simply, their existence meant that although the UK was subject to many of the same pressures that affected Germany (and the US), there was never an attempt to ban ethnically mixed marriages or accept racial segregation.

(A version of this article has also appeared on the Anthropology Works blog.)

Dr Sean Carey is a research fellow in the School of Social Sciences, University of Roehampton.

* Published in print edition on 14 October 2011

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