(An)Other English city: Multiethnicities, (post)modern moments and strategic identifications

(An)Other English city: Multiethnicities, (post)modern moments and strategic identifications

Volume 2, Number 3 (2002)
pages 321-348
DOI: 10.1177/14687968020020030301

Jayne O. Ifekwunigwe, Visiting Associate Professor of African and African American Studies
Duke University

The interpretive turn in urban studies signals a heightened emphasis on the locus of the city as the site for both the making and unmaking of identities and differences. Juxtaposing examples from British popular culture with narrative extracts from my published ethnographic research on ‘mixed race’ family and memory, this article addresses two key problematics associated with this discursive shift. First, I explore the concept of multiethnicity as another paradigm for understanding the relationship between structures and forms of agency, particularly as multiethnicity forces a rethinking of racialized and essentialist notions of Englishness and non-Englishness; what I refer to as differentiating between the hyphen and the ampersand. Second, I assess the extent to which lived and constructed ideas of `the urban’ in general and `the city’ in particular are preconditions for the performance of multiethnicity. That is, are urban sites ideal laboratories for an illustration of the ways in which `mixed race’ and multiethnic subjectivities are intertwined?


Mulattos may not be new. But the mulatto-pride folks are a new generation. They want their own special category or no categories at all. They’re a full fledged movement. (Senna, 1998: 14)

For as long as humans have populated the earth, intergroup mating and marriages have been commonplace (Gist and Dworkin, 1972: 1). As such, it is argued that there are no discrete or pure biological ‘races’ (Rose et al., 1984). Yet, in the popular folk imagination as well as in interdisciplinary scholarship, the problematized idea of ‘mixed race’1 persists (Alibhai-Brown, 2001; Daniel, 2001; Parker and Song, 2001; Williams-Leon and Nakashima, 2001). In fact, not since the 19th-century Victorian era, when pseudoscientific treatises on the presumed social pathology of the ‘racial’ hybrid abounded, has there been such an academic interest in ‘mixed race’ studies. That said, the intellectual content and social and political contexts of contemporary scholarship are very different. Rather than being objects of the scientific gaze (as speaking subjects), scholars, many of whom identify as ‘mixed race’ or ‘multiracial’, have deployed the idea that ‘race’ is a social construct that shifts across space and time. In so doing, they seek to validate ‘mixed race’ as a legitimate psychosocial and political category.

Over the past decade, and particularly in North America, theoretical, empirical and biographical work on ‘mixed race’ that addresses the fluidity, dynamism, complexity and practices of identity politics has flourished. As we begin a new century, a body of writings is emerging that talks back and to the resurgent literature that gave birth to the ‘multiracial’ nomenclature and its contested politics (Christian, 2000; Gordon, 1995; Mahtani and Moreno, 2001; Masami Ropp, 1997; Njeri, 1997; Spencer, 1997, 1999). By critically engaging with either the problematics or the possibilities of ‘multiracial’ activism, expression and ideology, this latest phase signals the emergence of a critical discourse on ‘mixed race’ and ‘multiraciality’ from which there are no signs of retreat.

This empirical and experiential celebration and contestation of ‘mixed race’ and ‘multiraciality’ is by no means unified or essentialist. The most interesting debates have emerged from different conceptualizations of the canon. For example, conceptual and political disagreements over the categories ‘mixed race’, ‘biracial’ and ‘multiracial’ stem from the dominance of binary ‘black/white’5 paradigms in US and British ‘racial’ discourses (Leonard, 2000; Mahtani and Moreno, 2001; Price, 2000). The emphasis on socially designated ‘black/white mixes’ is said to exclude those who are socially designated and identify as dual minority ‘mixes’ that do not include ‘black/white’ and neglect certain individuals who claim triple or more ‘mixes’:

In the recent explosion of writings about multiraciality, we have seen a plethora of discussion about white/black crossings and white/Asian crossings (and we want to remind you that we are using these terms very suspiciously). But we worry that we have not yet seen a great deal of discussion about people who are of dual minority mixes, or who are not part white. (Mahtani and Moreno, 2001: 67)

This binarism also overlooks the important fact that conceptions of ‘race’, ‘mixed race’ and social status are historically, geographically and culturally specific and hence do not travel easily (Erasmus, 2000; Torres and Whitten, 1998; Whitten and Torres, 1998). The American ‘one drop’ rule, which subsumes anyone with at least one known African ancestor under the heading ‘black’ whether or not they also have European and/or Native American ancestry, differs remarkably from the more fluid notion of ‘race’ and social hierarchy in Brazil, wherein ascribed gradations between ‘black’ and ‘white’ are varied and many (Daniel, 2000; Twine, 1998; Winant, 1999). In a British context, ‘black’ as a collective ‘multiracial’ identification does not perform the same intellectual, political or cultural labour as it did in previous decades (C. Alexander, 1996; Gilroy, 1987; Mercer, 1994; Mirza, 1997; Modood, 1988). The fact that the Irish have ‘become white’ in the late 20th and early 21st centuries, along with recent racialized class and ethnic conflicts in the north of England as well as the current European/American rhetorical ‘clash of civilizations’ are all powerful indicators of the ways in which ‘blackness’/’non-whiteness’ and ‘whiteness’ are shifting and thus unstable signifiers of exclusion and inclusion (Bonnett, this issue; Hall, 2000; Hesse, 2000).

A broader historical and geographical vantage point also highlights the cross-cutting ways in which the global processes and erotic projects of slavery, imperialism and diaspora(s) have created similar shifts in the local making, management and regulation of status and power as articulated through the everyday discourses and practices of ‘race’, ‘mixed race’ and social hierarchies. These trends are manifest in the long tradition of intellectual engagement with issues of mestizaje (Latin America, Spanish Caribbean), métissage (French Canada, francophone Caribbean, francophone Africa), mesticagem (Brazil, lusophone Africa) and miscegenation (anglophone Africa, anglophone Caribbean, Australia) as comparative examples of scholarship on the contested notion of ‘race’ mixture. All of these interwoven and historically located positions rupture allegedly stable racialized fault lines and at the same time (paradoxically in the case of some) reinscribe ‘race’ – a term predicated on scientifically dubious criteria.

In the historical moments of slavery and imperialism, ‘mixed race’ communities were socially engineered and managed. Yet, it is worth pausing for a moment to ponder why the circumstances are ripe in certain contemporary social and political milieux for the (re-)emergence of a politicized ‘multiracial’ movement and not in others. For example, in the USA, organizations such as RACE (Reclassify All Children Equally) and AMEA (Association of MultiEthnic Americans) unsuccessfully lobbied the US Congress and marched on Washington demanding the inclusion of a ‘multiracial’ category on the 2000 census (Fernandez, 1996; Nakashima, 1996). Not wanting to upset the very powerful American caucuses of colour, in particular African Americans, as a compromise solution the Census Bureau introduced the ‘tick all that apply’ option which means that, for ‘statistical’ purposes, those who tick more than one box may be subsumed under one ‘racial’ heading such as ‘black’ or ‘African American’. On the other hand, in Britain, changing demographics suggest that ‘mixed race’ families and their children will be a formidable force in the future. Although this may be demographic fact, other than the support group People in Harmony, the ‘mixed race community’ displays minimal public signs of the degree of politicization evident across the pond. In fact, it was previous responses to the 1991 census as well as consultation with focus groups, and not external pressure, that motivated the Office of National Statistics to deploy the ‘mixed ethnic’ option with a free text field for the 2001 census (Aspinall, 1997; Owen, 2001). Since the 1970s, in Brazil, once heralded as a model of ‘racial’ democracy, political movements such as the movimento negro have re-emerged, suggesting that all is not well in ‘racial paradise’ (dos Santos, 1999; da Silva, 1999; Ribeiro, 1996). In (post-)apartheid South Africa, in light of the ‘official’ dissolution of apartheid categories and the everyday persistence of racism in the new guise of economic apartheid and heightened conflicts among and between Africans, Asians and ‘coloureds’, historically ‘coloured’ communities are having to redefine and reposition themselves (C. Alexander, 1996; Marais, 1996; Rasool, 1996).

Whatever the global context, political motivations for either the social engineering, suppression, dismantling or reconstruction of the ideas and practices of ‘mixed race’ are contingent. As Small reminds us: ‘the analytical enterprise . . . must continue to focus on structural contexts, institutional patterns, and ideological articulations as they are expressed in the light of local histories’ (2001: 129). ‘Multiracial’ or ‘monoracial’ identity politics is frequently governed by unresolved and played out tensions between the sovereignty of the state and the public sphere as they collide with both individualized expressions of multiethnic and/or ‘multiracial’ identities as empowerment, and monoethnic and/or ‘monoracial’ collective mobilization in the competition for economic resources and civic recognition (Body-Gendrot, this issue). This dialectical dance performed by structure and agency is succinctly described by Burroughs and Spickard:

There is a real split, then, as yet unresolved, between the compelling logic of multiethnicity and its promise for mixed individuals on the one hand, and the practical political imperatives of monoethnically defined groups on the other, in an age that has not yet wholly given up monoethnic definitions. (2000: 247)

In the second and third sections of this article, I will explore in greater detail the specific extent to which the restricted and racialized natures of ‘white’ English group membership and the compulsory ‘black’ non-English designation limit the ‘[multi]ethnic options’ (Waters, 1990; see also Song, 2001) of individuals who identify as ‘mixed race’ and/or multethnic as these affiliations and identifications are constructed, played out, maintained and transgressed in the specific contexts of ‘the urban’…

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