11 December 2012

Mixed Britain: Changing the way we think about race?

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The 2011 Census results show that those of mixed ethnicity are among the fastest-growing groups in the population. But how will this change the way we think and talk about race in Britain?

Bristol University’s Professor Tariq Modood, Runnymede Trust’s Omar Khan, and writer and broadcaster Kenan Malik offered their answers to this question:


In my view, the results from the 2011 census will demonstrate that decade on decade Britain is becoming a more multicultural country, because the census results are expected to confirm five significant trends, each of which are making us more ‘multi’, writes Tariq Modood, Professor of Sociology, Politics and Public Policy at the University of Bristol.

Firstly, despite the fact the majority of Britain’s non-white ethnic minorities are born and bred in Britain (and we know from surveys that they feel a strong sense of identification with Britain) the vast majority still also identify with their ethnic origins. Not at the expense of their British identity but as a way of adding to or qualifying their Britishness.

Secondly, the non-white and ethnic minority population is growing both in absolute terms and as a proportion of the country as a whole. Thirdly, the salient minority identities are increasing in number – new identities, like Arab have been added to the latest Census, as Britain becomes more diverse.

Fourthly, those people who do not identify with just one ethnic category, typically because their parents are from different groups – ‘mixed race’ people – continues to grow. Lastly, those identifying with a minority faith are also growing as is most evident in the case of Muslims.

So, how should we respond to what the census shows us about the society we are becoming?

We should celebrate the growth in mixed-ness and the positive news that it carries about how different ‘races’ are forming unions. We must not, however, take this to be the sole paradigm of how our multicultural society is and should be, for as we see ethno-religious communities continue to be an important and expanding source of identification.

So the multiculturalism we should celebrate must not be of one kind: it must equally make space for those of mixed unions and those for whom their membership of their faith community is central to who they are.

They are both part of the British future.

Tariq Modood is Professor of Sociology, Politics and Public Policy at the University of Bristol


The 2011 Census, perhaps the last of its kind, is an invaluable resource for understanding modern Britain – and for helping policymakers think about how to respond to various social issues, writes Omar Khan, Head of Policy Research at Runnymede Trust.

Much has been made of the fact that ‘mixed race’ is the largest growing group over the past decade or more. While it is indeed true that people whose parents have different ethnic backgrounds are increasing all the time, we should be cautious in assuming that this growth means that race or racism are less pressing concerns.

In many ways, mixed race people are not a single group at all. They not only do not typically share a common identity (does a Jewish-Indian really share an identity with an Pakistani-Somali?), but the social outcomes for different kinds of mixed race people are decidedly variant. That is, boys with one black parent have educational and employment outcomes that are more statistically similar to boys with two black parents than they do with the mixed race ‘group’ generally.

It is hardly surprising that both in terms of identity and social outcomes, most people continue to identify and have shared experiences with their parents and wider family than with the varied mixed race ‘group’ to which they putatively belong.

And it’s worth emphasising where the 2011 Census may be the last of its kind that the ethnic categories in the Census and other government statistics are not simply a concession to the importance of people’s identity, but a way of determining the nature of our society and how policymakers at the national and local level should respond to the various needs of our citizens. On the balance of evidence, the statistics continue to show that race matters, and the mixed race category confirms rather than undermines this fact.

Omar Khan is Head of Policy Research at Runnymede Trust.


As a social development, news that those of mixed ethnicity are among the fastest-growing groups in the population is clearly to be welcomed.  I doubt, however, that it will transform the ways in which we think about racial or group differences, says writer and broadcaster Kenan Malik.

Where once notions of belongingness and difference were viewed primarily through the lens of biology and race, today they are shaped much more by our understanding of culture and identity. But contemporary cultural ideas of group differences borrow heavily on old racial notions. We tend to think of identities as fixed, of cultures as bounded and of individuals as determined by the characteristics of the group to which they are deemed to belong.

When we talk of Britain as ‘multicultural’ we often perceive of it as a society composed of different cultures all dancing around each other. All too often we put individuals, especially individuals from minority communities, into particular ethnic, cultural or faith boxes and define them according to the box in which they have been put.

All this echoes the ways in which people used to understand racial differences and identities. Ironically, even ‘mixed race’ is coming to be seen as an identity in this fashion. So while greater social interaction is to be welcomed, it is unlikely to change social perceptions of race, identity and difference.

Kenan Malik is a writer, broadcaster and presenter.


Read British Future’s report The Melting Pot Generation: How Britain became more relaxed on race in full.

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