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 You are in: Analysis
Changing Face of Britain
Britain’s blurring ethnic mix

By Cindi John
Community affairs reporter

Lenny Henry and Dawn French

The United Kingdom has one of the fastest growing mixed-race populations in the world, fuelled by the continuing rise of inter-ethnic relationships.

In spite of the recent racially-fuelled violence in several northern towns and cities, these days the evidence suggests that Britons of all shades are embracing each other more than ever before.

Celebrities like comedians Lenny Henry and Dawn French, actor Michael Caine, newsreader Trevor McDonald, singer Sade and writer Salman Rushdie are, or have been, in mixed race relationships.

Rightly or wrongly quite a lot of us [British-Asian women] believe that in order to fulfil our lives it just won’t be possible if we marry an Asian man who however egalitarian before marriage very often becomes extremely sexist afterwards

Yasmin Alibhai Brown
The singer Shirley Bassey, Labour MP Oona King and writer Hanif Kureshi are high-profile examples of Britain’s burgeoning mixed race population.

Data from the 2001 census due to be released later this year is expected to confirm that Britain has one of the highest rates in the world of inter-ethnic relationships and, consequently, mixed race people.

By 1997 already half of black men and a third of black women in relationships had a white partner according to a major study of ethnic minorities published by the Policy Studies Institute (PSI).

It also revealed that other inter-racial relationships were flourishing with a fifth of Asian men and 10% of Asian women opting for a white partner.

But in spite of those findings, research carried out for BBC News Online revealed only a third of Britons think people in the UK are very tolerant of mixed race relationships.

Professor Richard Berthoud of the Institute for Social and Economic Research at Essex University was one of the PSI report’s authors.

He said their research had revealed a public fascination with the subject.

"Part of the huge interest is based on the assumption that it wouldn’t happen - there’s an implicit assumption in British society that you marry somebody of the same colour as oneself.

"But there are many people with black faces who just think of themselves as English and see no reason why they should not form a partnership with a white person," Professor Berthoud said.

Women’s motives

In the past men have led the way in inter-racial relationships but according to writer Yasmin Alibhai-Brown, an Asian married to a white man, that situation is changing rapidly, especially among better-educated women.

Ms Alibhai-Brown said: "I think in the case of African Caribbeans especially there are more middle class women than there are middle class men.

"So what they want from life is very hard to find within their own communities because there has been quite extraordinary discrimination against black men who have not been allowed to progress through the system.

"So for them it’s almost like a class reason."

For Asian women there were more "feminist" motives, Ms Alibhai-Brown added.

"Rightly or wrongly quite a lot of us believe that in order to fulfil our lives it just won’t be possible if we marry an Asian man who however egalitarian before marriage very often becomes extremely sexist afterwards."


Whatever the reasons, the result of Britain’s high number of inter-ethnic relationships is a boom in the mixed race population - currently the fastest growing ethnic group in the UK.

Figures published by the Office for National Statistics in 2001 revealed the number of mixed race people grew by more than 75% during the 1990s to around 415,000, 10% of the total ethnic minority population in the UK.

Professor Richard Berthoud of Essex University said such growth was leading to the blurring of racial identities, especially among those of black Caribbean origin.

"Our study showed around 40% of children with one black parent also had a white parent.

"But those statistics only relate to children living with both parents and since a very large number of Caribbean mothers live without their partner we don’t know what ethnic group that partner comes from.

"So it seems not unlikely that a large proportion of their children would fit into the mixed ethnic group," Professor Berthoud said.

New racial category

The census in 2001 was a milestone for people of mixed race in the UK – for the first time a "mixed" category was included among the racial groups.

It followed a long campaign by those opposed to having to tick a box marked ‘other’ .

But researchers say though the existence of mixed race people may now be officially acknowledged in statistics, serious concerns remain.

Yasmin Alibhai Brown, author of a recent book ‘Mixed Feelings’ examining the issues facing children of mixed race, said one major worry was that many organisations and public bodies in Britain had adopted policies from the US.

"The movement started there to claim all mixed race children as black - the argument was if they suffer racism nobody asks them if they’re mixed race.

"But I think big mistakes were made to drive policy makers and practitioners into accepting this rather ludicrous concept because mixed race children aren’t black and they’re not white or brown – they are themselves," she said.

Often mixed race children lived with white mothers who in many cases were the victims of racism from both whites and blacks, Ms Alibhai-Brown added.


That was a point echoed by researcher Jill Olumide of London University.

BBC News Online: Race survey

Question: "Would you marry or have a relationship with someone from another race?"

She said: "I think there is more pressure on mixed race couples further down the social order and on single mums with mixed race children.

"They’re more likely to come to the attention of social workers particularly if there are other factors like extended family withdrawing support when there’s more likely to go wrong."

As a white woman married to a Nigerian she had experienced family hostility to a mixed marriage at first hand, Ms Olumide added.

"In particular the Nigerian family were concerned and against it really, didn’t want the marriage to happen or continue.

"There’s also been name-calling and negative experiences but nothing that we couldn’t handle."

But writer Yasmin Alibhai-Brown believed in spite of the difficulties faced by some couples the trend of mixed race partnerships was likely to intensify.

She said: "More and more black and Asian and Chinese people will be marrying whites and each other. There is no stopping this, it seems to me.

"I hope it makes this country become more comfortable with its hybridity as a national characteristic."

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