Is it OK to say ‘mixed race’? No – because there are no human ‘races’. But…
Even the Guardian (centre-left, the UK’s only national daily newspaper not owned by billionaire twats) uses it to describe, for instance, Meghan Markle. (The usually brilliant Guardian style guide is silent on the subject.)
I objected to the use of the phrase on a local Facebook page and got a hostile response. People said, ‘I’m mixed race – that’s what I call myself’. But why would anyone accept that phrase as a description of themselves, loaded as it is with outmoded prejudice?
‘Mixed heritage’ or ‘mixed ethnicity’ is better. More syllables, admittedly, but meaningful.
The UK government’s thoughtful and helpful style guide Writing about ethnicity says:
- We refer to ethnicity and not race…We don’t say ‘mixed people’ or ‘mixed race people’. We usually say ‘people with a mixed ethnic background’ or ‘people from the mixed ethnic group’.
‘Mixed ethnic background’ is bit of a mouthful and ‘mixed ethnicity’ is a syllable longer that ‘mixed heritage’. Also, ‘heritage’ is easier to say, lacking the awkward ‘th’ – but ‘ethnicity’ is arguably more meaningful than ‘heritage’.
The guide doesn’t use the word ‘heritage’. It doesn’t say why, but ‘heritage’ could sound like something to do with the National Trust collection of stately homes – many of which, according to a 2020 NT report have links to the slave trade and colonialism.
I’ll use ‘ethnicity’ in this post.
Some people say they’re dual ethnicity. That’s understandable – they want people to know they have two ethnicities, two cultures, and to be aware of the challenges that brings.
However, ‘dual ethnicity‘ can be seen as pointlessly limiting – like the horrible ‘half-caste‘ – which leads to a hell-hole of racist numerical classifications such as ‘quadroon‘.
What if one of your parents had African ethnicity and the other parent had dual South Asian and white ethnicity? Would you say you’re triple ethnicity?
‘Mixed ethnicity‘ as a label gives enough information – without a number. It says, in effect, ‘Yes, as you may infer from my facial appearance, I have more than one ethnic identity. I’ll give more information if and when it’s appropriate’.
Why do skin colour and ethnic origin need describing? Mostly they don’t, but the concept of ethnicity allows people to identify themselves as, for instance, black British, Asian British, or mixed ethnicity, thereby voicing their own feelings about who they are in positive terms which include family origins, the colour of their skin, and their cultural allegiances.
Skin colour can also be useful to describe an unknown person. In the local Facebook-page incident a man harassing women in a park was described as ‘mixed-race‘.
Similarly, UK police use identification codes to describe suspects to colleagues, eg IC4: [South] Asian. (Interestingly, there’s no IC code for people whose skin colour indicates mixed ethnicity.)
(However, such ‘racial profiling’ can also be abused by the police, for instance in the controversial and problematic practice of ‘stop and search‘.)
So there may be a perceived need to describe skin colour and ethnic origin, in which case the words used matter.
‘Mixed race’ implies there are human races – but only science-denying racists believe that. They say there are different races, some of which are intrinsically superior to others. They’re wrong.
Pseudo-scientific racists, from ‘Enlightenment’ philosophers (eg Kant and Locke) onwards, tried to justify colonialism and racism by claiming Europeans are inherently more intelligent than other ‘races‘. They aren’t.
Taxonomically, it’s generally agreed that all modern humans are Homo sapiens sapiens, the only surviving subspecies of the species Homo sapiens (the only surviving species of the genus Homo).
Race is a slippery word, but in biology it’s an informal rank below the level of subspecies, the members of which are significantly distinct from other members of the subspecies.
Genetic research has confirmed the obvious: the differences that evolved between different human populations are not significantly genetically distinct. The different populations are not races in any scientifically meaningful sense.
Single-gene disorders are the only significant genetic difference between the different populations. For instance, cystic fibrosis is most common among people of north European ethnicity. Otherwise the differences, albeit visually and culturally obvious, are superficial.
There are no different human races, just human populations with differences which, apart from single-gene disorders, are superficial – and which are becoming increasingly mixed!
Before pseudo-scientific racism was rumbled, racists sneered about the danger of ‘miscegenation‘; and amongst ethnic minorities there’s pressure to resist assimilation and preserve cultural heritage by not ‘marrying out‘, but – some dodgy lyrics aside – Blue Mink were right: what we need is a great big melting pot.
In the meantime, words matter. Some say ‘race‘ is a social construct that doesn’t have to be scientifically meaningful – it’s just a way of describing the different human populations.
This is where it gets tricky. On the one hand, clever racists use the social construct idea to blur the issue and keep talking about ‘race‘ despite the scientific evidence that there are no races.
On the other hand, ‘race‘ as a social construct is also used by non-racists. It’s used as shorthand for different ethnic populations by people of colour and by both black and white writers and speakers in non-racist media.
‘Race‘ is also implied in the use of the word ‘racism‘. Antiracists speaking or writing about racism implicitly accept the notion of ‘race‘ – presumably, the social construct version.
For those wanting to identify and eventually eliminate ‘racism‘, the solution to this linguistic dilemma is to nevertheless avoid using the word ‘race‘.
Despite being an arguably useful social construct and the root-word of the useful word ‘racism‘, the word ‘race‘ is fundamentally toxic and redundant.
As for the word ‘racism‘, until the thing misnamed as racism ends, that word will probably continue to be used, trailing its toxic root.
‘Colour prejudice‘ is more accurate than ‘racism‘, but it’s out of fashion – and it wouldn’t cover white-on-white anti-Judaism. We need a better word.
‘Racism’ is the wrong word. There are no races. Also, although colour prejudice is a real thing, it
makes no sense. Perhaps it’s culture prejudice, with skin colour indicating a different culture, which provokes irrational fear and prejudice.
Also, strictly speaking, there’s no such thng as the human race. It’s an inclusive and relatively harmless phrase – and the ‘human subspecies‘ isn’t catchy – but ‘humanity‘ is better.
Back to ‘mixed-race‘ – there’s no reason to say it. It’s loaded with colonial notions of white superiority. It should be left in the shameful past where it belongs. ‘Mixed ethnicity‘ is better – it celebrates our differences and embraces their mixing.
But… some people of mixed ethnicity say, ‘I’m mixed race – that’s how I describe myself. Don’t tell me what to say!’
It must be difficult enough being brown-skinned in a white world – facing microracism (‘Where are you from?’) and conscious and unconscious personal and institutional bias – without having a white saviour (I’m white, by the way – Hi!) tell you how you should or shouldn’t describe yourself.
Whitesplaining word-nerd, antiracist virtue signaller – who do I think I am? It’s like a white person telling black Americans not to use the N-word: ‘I say, you rapper chappies – you really shouldn’t use that bad word.’
Except it’s not like that. When a mixed-ethnicity person uses the phrase ‘mixed-race‘ to describe themselves, they’re not re-appropriating the word ‘race‘ in a playfully political way.
They’re giving white people permission to use that phrase – and they’re inadvertently agreeing with zealous racists, the only people who think there actually are different races.
Maybe mixed-ethnicity people call themselves ‘mixed-race‘, thinking, ‘So what? Who cares? It’s a social construct. It’s just what people say. And it’s only two syllables.’ Or maybe they’re just winding up mitherers like me. If so, Damn – you got me.
I just hope it’s not an example of that depressing phenomenon, internalised racism.
Afterthought 1: I’m a white Englishman and a recent DNA ancestry test shows I’m 36% Scottish. But I’d never refer to myself as mixed-ethnicity – presumably because it doesn’t involve my skin colour, and its still North European culture…
Afterthought 2: A commenter on this post, Paul Staddon, kindly pointed out that young people of mixed ethnicity tend to refer to themselves simply as ‘mixed’. That’s a good solution!