9 Barbie dolls and sprinters are not enough Mixed race Britain is on the rise, and it’s about time politics caught up
It’s 2002, and my mother is in the hall downstairs, seething down our white rotary phone to my Head Teacher. I have returned home from school to tell her that some kids saw us together at last nights parents evening. They have started a rumour that she is ‘a Paki’ and I am adopted. Aged 12, I am as confused as I am mortified.
Born to a black Jamaican father and a white British mother in the 1950s, my mother had hoped she’d left this shit behind in her own childhood. Following suit with her own interracial marriage to a white man, they’d settled in South Yorkshire to have a Dulux chart of three kids. People saw the five of us together and did cartoon-style double takes. Racist thoughts were verbalised far less often in these days.
With only two ethnic minority families in my village as a child- mine being one of them- I grew up with white dolls and white friends in a white world. Whoopi Goldberg in Sister Act 2 and the boys in Cool Runnings were my imaginary siblings. I was half of my community, and half of these fictional characters, so I constructed a jigsaw puzzle identity of my own choosing. When hauled up in front of the entire school the following week for an anti-racism assembly (mortification level now off the scale), this rumour became part of my identity too.
We don’t have to look far for mixed-race representation in popular culture today. The official award ceremonies (#OscarSoWhite is just begging for a revival) may not be recognising us, but the film and television industry is improving. I can find familiar faces here. Reggie Yates and Maya Rudolph resemble members of my family far more than Sister Mary Clarence and Sanka ever did. The music industry takes steps too. Spice Girls had a token mixed race girl; Little Mix has a token white girl.
At either end of the mixed race representation spectrum we have Fashion and Sport. The former has let us down numerous times; John Galliano’s racism and Raf Simons Dior whitewashing are neither forgiven nor forgotten. The latter, though, is a trailblazer, with Lewis Hamilton, Tiger Woods, Jessica Ennis-Hill and Theo Walcott spanning many disciplines.
Mixed race celebrities signal widening level of acceptance, and can be worthy, important role models. We may even see a real-life mixed race Princess in the form of Meghan Markle soon. Every new hero takes us one step further from school children who can’t comprehend that a child and her mother might be a different colour.
Yet there remains one area of society that has failed to represent me, almost entirely, and that’s politics.
It’s 2009, and a mixed race man is now in arguably the most powerful role in the world. Major corporations are at last prompted into action. Mattel gives birth to a mixed-race Barbie. Disney introduces us to a black Princess and invites us to her interracial wedding.
So our pop culture is progressing. The US political sphere has just taken a huge leap. Yet British politics remains almost entirely stagnant. Prior to Obama, in 2005, the UK had 15 ethnic minority MPs, but even with his appointment this figure only rose by 12 at our next election.
The mixed race victories, while rare, are still significant. Oona King, despite failing to make the nomination for London Mayor in 2010 is the very next year honoured with the title Baroness. In 2015 we get our own shot at a mixed race leader, with Chuka Umunna announcing his Labour leadership bid (though this ended disappointingly). Mixed-race MPs like James Cleverly, Helen Grant, Chi Onwurah and Clive Lewis are appointed.
We celebrate the victories of our fellow minorities too, both in the UK and abroad. Sadiq Khan’s appointment as London Mayor signals a big step, and in popular culture, we cheer for our Mo Farah and Kendrick Lamar. We try to cheer louder than the roars of Twitter eggs’ proclaiming that Bond is supposed to be white; louder than journalists telling us to ignore the huge significance of casting Noma Dumezweni as Hermione Grainger.
It’s 2017, and the UK has just 41 ethic minority MPs. Only a fraction are mixed race.
Compare this to the fact that 1.2 million of us in the UK identify as mixed race. For so few MPs to be representative of the 3rd largest ethnic group in the country is more than unacceptable; it’s embarrassing. We are predicted to be the largest ethnic group of all in just three years time, but politics isn’t following the same trajectory.
In the world of politics, the mixed race community continue to share the victories of our black cousins. We stand alongside them as they take the blows. Dawn Butler, mistaken for a cleaner. Gina Miller trolled and told that as ‘a coloured woman’, she is not human. Diane Abbot described as an ape in lipstick. Abbot hits back as she says: “our leaders need to make it clear that there is no place for racism in public life.”
We need this and so much more. Just as our leaders must keep working to eradicate racism in public life, they need to tackle what is happening behind their own closed doors. They must make changes that are visible and transparent and decisively punish racism wherever it occurs. Meanwhile, many Brits bemoan Trump’s outlandishly white cabinet, but the UK needs to get its own house in order and fix the deficit in representation here.
The people who are leading our country should be the ones setting the example, not lagging behind. To accept our lack of substantial role models is to perpetuate complacency in the pitiful progress there has been in current and past generations. As Umunna said in 2015: “we still have some way to go before we have a form of politics that represents modern Britain.”
We do. Disney princesses and Spice Girls are fantastic- but we deserve better.