Mixed race Britain: charting the social history

Mixed race Britain: charting the social history

The Guardian
2011-10-04

Laura Smith

While mixed race is one of the fastest-growing ethnic groups in the UK, there is nothing new in people from different cultures getting together

Olive was just 15 when she met the man who was to become her husband. It was 1930s Cardiff and the trainee nurse had become lost on her way home from the cinema to the Royal Infirmary. “I stopped and asked this boy the way to Queen Street. And we started talking and I think we fell in love there and then.”

The “boy” Olive met on the street that night was Ali Salaman, a young Yemeni working as a chef in his own restaurant, the Cairo CafĂ©, a popular hang-out in the city’s Tiger Bay neighbourhood. Despite being told by her priest that she was marrying a heathen, the Methodist teenager married Ali Salaman when she was 16 and they went on to have 10 children.

With mixed race now measured in the national census and one of the fastest growing ethnic groups, it is often viewed as a contemporary phenomenon. But Chamion Caballero, senior research fellow at London South Bank University’s Weeks centre, says: “There is a long history of racial mixing in the UK that people don’t talk about.”

Caballero has co-authored as yet unpublished research with Peter Aspinall, reader in population health at the University of Kent, that puts contemporary mixing into perspective.

It demonstrates that unions between white British women and men from immigrant communities were commonplace in areas where they were thrown together in the 1920s, 30s and 40s: from South Shields and Liverpool’s Toxteth to Cardiff’s Tiger Bay and London’s Docklands. The Era of Moral Condemnation: Mixed Race People in Britain, 1920-1950, shows that although they faced prejudice from some, mixed race families created new communities in which those from different backgrounds swapped cultural traditions. It also explores how official perceptions of mixed race families contrasted with the way people experienced it…

…Aspinall says the dominance of eugenics during this period was central to such attitudes. “If you look at the aims of the British Eugenics Society in the 1930s there was this explicit statement about the dangers of what they called race crossing,” he says. Marie Stopes, then a prominent eugenicist, advocated that all “half castes” should be “sterilised at birth”. Connie Hoe, the daughter of a Chinese father and white mother, was one of dozens of mixed race children who were experimented on by the eugenics society to test the relationship between physical appearance and intellect…

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