Page last updated at 10:10 GMT, Friday, 23 January 2009

Time to embrace mixed-race heritage

By Leon Mann
BBC News


Leon's parents speak about their experience and perceptions of race

It was a moment that will live long in our memories and be cemented in history. The inauguration of Barack Obama means many things to many people, not least those who have struggled against racism and inequality in their lives.

Maybe the racism I have experienced, as the son of a white father and a black mother, explained why this moment was so profound to me. The verbal abuse I once suffered from ignorant strangers will never leave me. Nor will the treatment of my ancestors - and the legacy that left.

I certainly never envisioned ever seeing a non-white as the American President in my lifetime. Like many, I think this offered real hope to the marginalised.

As President Obama said in his speech, if someone who may not have been served in a restaurant 50 years ago can become President the ambitions of those once persecuted for their ethnicity surely can know no bounds.

Now the most powerful man in the world, President Obama has also helped to open up the discussion on people of mixed race.

Much has been made of his background - it is now well known that his mother was from Kansas and his father from Kenya.

New Nation editor Lester Holloway on the terminology of ethnicity

However, the media have variously described him as black, mixed-race and African-American - frustrating sections of communities for different reasons.

Those in favour of mixed-race felt using black ignored his white heritage. Others preferred black, feeling mixed-race was a divisive term and a way of downplaying black achievement. Some went as far as to tell me that it was a term used to divide and rule.

"African-American" appeared to be a safe bet. At his first press conference as President Elect, Obama threw in the term "mutt" to cause greater confusion. Self-deprecation or taking ownership of an abusive term? Only he really knows.

As someone with a black mother and white father I felt a personal frustration that there was no agreed way of describing him across the media at the time. I wondered, had no one asked him? Or Lewis Hamilton, when he won the F1 Championship for that matter?

Rarely was I ever asked to define myself - instead I was offered various labels by others who seemed to see broaching this subject as too sensitive, maybe expecting a horror story about my conception.

I grew up in north London. My father Terry is from England, and my mother Beverley was born in Jamaica.

Speaking to my parents about the term "mixed race" I learnt even they had differing views on the issue. My father felt dual heritage was a better term than mixed-race; my mother preferred black in my case.

Barack Obama
Obama himself used the term "mutt" to describe his ethnicity
My father said: "Certainly there were nowhere near the numbers of children from mixed-race relationships around when we got together in the early 1970s. The whole self-esteem thing is a crucial thing for me; [it's about] having a positive identity."

I've always felt most comfortable describing myself as black politically, but mixed-race culturally. Promoting the positive sides of both of my heritages was an important issue for my parents.

My mother told me: "When I made a cake, I made sure I put a black character image on it."

I was a product of the 70s. My friends Josh and Natalie have a mixed-race child whom they only see as "Ruby". At six, she's a product of the new millennium.

"I see Ruby as Ruby - no colour, no race, even though I know in my mind she is mixed-race," says Josh.

"Obviously I want her to feel comfortable describing herself as she wants to," adds Natalie. "But I would just like her to be aware of her history."

But, pushed to define her in racial terms when filling out forms, they are unequivocal that she is mixed-race - a possibility census forms did not allow me until 2001. I had to make do with "other" - whatever that meant.

I certainly would have appreciated more discussion about people of mixed race as a youngster
Leon Mann
Organisations including the Multiple Heritage Project, People in Harmony and Intermix have been working hard to encourage discussion and awareness around mixed people - not just those from African-Caribbean backgrounds but other mixed backgrounds too.

Their work has been questioned by some, but welcomed by many who are ready to discuss their identity and experience as different to that of "mono-racial" friends and colleagues.

I cannot help but wonder if people who are role models for young people today -such as Hamilton, Rio Ferdinand, and Leona Lewis (all mixed-race) - started talking more about their backgrounds, it would breed more confidence in youngsters to feel comfortable defining themselves - instead of being told what they should be.

I certainly would have appreciated more discussion about people of mixed race as a youngster.

Mixed-race is the fastest growing ethnic minority group in the country, some figures projecting that by 2020 this group will be the largest minority in the UK.

A study released as recently as last week claimed that one in 10 children in the UK lives in a mixed-race family. If that isn't good enough reason to start talking about this issue, then I'm not sure what is.

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