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The creation and intepretation of ‘mixed’ categories in Britain today

by Miri Song
2 Jul 2012 • Comment (0) • Print
Posted: Post-Racial Imaginaries [9.1] | Commons

The growth and recognition of ‘Mixed’ in Britain
It is difficult to imagine a society (such as Britain) in which ethnic and racial categories, and the powerful imagery and ideologies associated with notions of ethnic and racial difference, do not exist. The population of the UK is becoming increasingly diverse in terms of ethnicity, race, religion, and national identity.[1] While not new, one major demographic development is the significant growth of ‘mixed race’ people in Britain.[2]

Accompanying the growth in mixed relationships and people is the increased social and media attention they have received in recent years. For instance, mixed celebrities are impossible to avoid in various contemporary British (and other) media.[3] Furthermore, the BBC has just shown a whole series of programs called ‘Mixed Britannia’, in which we learn, among other things, that being mixed was by no means a new phenomenon in the earlier parts of the 20th century, whether in Tiger Bay, or in the docks of Liverpool. Various analysts have argued that, in many parts of contemporary, metropolitan Britain, being mixed, and the everyday interactions between disparate groups, is absolutely ordinary.[4]

This growth of mixed people has engendered  the creation and institutionalization of new ethnic and racial categories by official bodies, such as the Office of National Statistics (ONS). For the first time, the growth in mixed people was officially recognized by the inclusion of ‘Mixed’ categories in the 2001 England and Wales census, in which about 677,000  people (or about 1.2% of the population) were identified as mixed.

But in a much more recent analysis of the UK Household Longitudinal Survey, it has been found that the official count of the mixed population (based on the 2001 England and Wales Census) is literally half of the actual number of mixed people[5] (note that the results of the 2011 Census are not yet available). This discrepancy is due to the fact that while the Census relied upon people to self-report their identities (some of whom will not identify as mixed), the UK Household Longitudinal Survey asked respondents about the ethnic origins of their parents – a figure which suggests a much larger number of mixed people than previously found in the Census. Demographers have identified the mixed group as one of the fastest growing of all ethnic groups, estimating that it will have increased by more than 80% by 2020, compared with 2001.[6] Furthermore, the rates of intermarriage are notable among Black Caribbean (and Black African) and White Britons, non-Muslim Asian and White Britons, and Chinese (women) and White Britons.[7]

By introducing ‘Mixed’ categories in the 2001 England and Wales Census (the Northern Ireland and Scottish Censuses employed open response formats, not pre-given categories), the state is officially codifying the existence of such people.[8] In this essay, I want to critically examine issues concerning the interpretation and use of survey findings which employ pre-given categories, such as in the 2001 England and Wales Census, in which respondents are asked to choose only one mixed category.

In spite of its growing importance in demographic terms, and its entry into official classification, relatively little is yet known about the life experiences of so-called mixed people, or how this population grouping thinks about their mixedness. Numerous studies have shown that many mixed people feel pressure to identify in relation to only one race, by choosing one ancestry over another.[9] However, there is increasing evidence that a significant proportion of mixed people may be asserting multiracial identities.[10]

While the Census provides a broad overview of demographic change, what it doesn’t tell us (in relation to ethnic and racial ancestry and identification) requires more scrutiny. And in comparison with studies of Black/White individuals in Britain (a category which itself subsumes a great deal of diversity), the experiences of Asian/White, Chinese/White, and Arab/White individuals have been relatively submerged. Furthermore, while numerically small, our understandings of ‘mixture’ also need to include the experiences of mixed people with no White heritage – e.g. Asian/Black individuals. The Census categories for 2001 did not specifically provide a White and Chinese category, though they comprise a growing number of the mixed population, given the high rates of intermarriage of Chinese women to non-Chinese men in Britain.[11] Nor did the 2001 England and Wales census categories provide a separate category for White and Arab individuals. We know that any national census has its limitations, but the findings of the Census tend to be treated as ‘fact’ – rather than a limited snapshot of a population at one point in time.

How categories in surveys are interpreted
A consideration of the use of official categories to mark out mixed people as ‘mixed’ is important in a period marked by debates and contestation about the marking of ethnic and racial difference and the relevance of ‘race’ more generally.[12] The emergence (and categorization) of mixed people also confronts us with the presumption that there exist distinct, ‘pure’ races until such races become mixed.[13]

Officialdom’s use of categories, such as in the decennial census, is derived from some discussion with experts in the field, but not very much consultation ‘on the ground’, raising questions about the validity of the 4 ‘Mixed’ categories used in the 2001 England and Wales Census: ‘White and Black Caribbean’, ‘White and Asian’, ‘White and Black African’, and ‘Any other ethnic group (please write in)’. Official categories used in surveys of mixed people do not necessarily capture the complexity of the meanings and lived experiences, or the salience of ethnic and racial identification across different mixed groups and individuals. Thus the use of racial terms, such as mixed, White, Black, and Asian, needs to be interpreted in contextually specific ways, rather than regarded as terms which convey stable and predictable meanings and experiences by those who employ them.[14]

State codified ethnic and racial terms needs to be interpreted, and not just taken at their face value. While this may appear to be a rather obvious point to make, there are still many studies (typically large scale surveys) which report findings about the identifications of mixed people which do not go on to critically analyze the meanings and practices associated with specific terms and categories. Despite the fact that the meanings and imagery of specific ethnic and racial terms remain powerful in countries as racialized as Britain (and many others, albeit in different ways), too many surveys adopt an uncritical and facile approach to the documentation and understanding of mixed peoples’ identifications and experiences.

For example, some analysts in the US, such as Harris & Sim,[15] have employed ‘forced choice’ questions on racial identification, in which mixed respondents are asked to choose only one race to describe themselves. In their analysis of a large, nationally representative data set on adolescents in the US, Harris & Sim found that, when asked to choose one race, 75% of Black/White adolescents who identified themselves in relation to more than one race chose ‘Black’ (while 17.1% chose White). By comparison, Asian/White (in the US, ‘Asian’ refers to both East Asian and South Asian origin people) adolescents were equally likely to choose White and Asian as their ‘best’ race. Respondents’ choice of a single race is then interpreted as the group in which he or she feels the strongest sense of membership. Thus, if Black/White respondents choose ‘Black’, they are understood to see themselves primarily as Black, while Asian/White respondents who choose ‘White’ would be understood to see themselves as mostly White.

Any social scientist who has carried out in-depth interviews around the topic of ethnic and racial identification will know that such stark, neat findings are likely to be significantly qualified by what we learn when we ask respondents to talk about what their survey choices mean, and why they chose specific categories (or not). One important insight we have gained in such qualitative studies is that the significance and meanings of ethnic and racial identifications can vary considerably, according to each specific context.[16] The danger, of course, is that policy makers can use such stark findings to generalize about ‘groups’ who are likely to vary considerably in many different respects.

The meanings that are attached to the use of racial terms, such as White, Black, Asian or mixed race, can be quite variable, and the use of these terms by individuals tells us very little about the relative importance of ethnic and racial identity to someone’s sense of self, or how these identities are played out in their daily lives. Moreover, three respondents who have ticked the same box, e.g. ‘White and Asian’, may feel very differently about their mixed ancestry, so that while one person may claim that it is of little significance to her, another may report that she is particularly attached to her Indian heritage. Yet a third person who ticked that box could claim that what really mattered to him was not his mixedness, per se, but his commitment to Islam. And what of the respondent on a census who reluctantly ticks one of the mixed boxes, but who, in principle, is wary about racial categorization more generally?

The use of disparate, but similar questions can also elicit quite different responses from the same individual[17] – especially if they are posed at different times, and in different settings. This can be illustrated by one respondent in a study of mixed young people in Britain.[18] In response to an open-ended survey question about how he describes himself, Sebastien described himself in this way: ‘My father is Franco-Syrian and partly Lebanese and my mother is British’. But when asked if he could name just one racial/ethnic group which contributed most strongly to his identity, he wrote ‘Arab’. Yet in response to a question about which mode of description best described him (out of a choice of 5 options, including ‘I identify with more than one single ethnic group, depending on the situation’, and ‘I identify as mixed race’, the respondent chose ‘I do not identify at all along racial/ethnic groups lines’. When he was probed in the subsequent interview about this latter response, Sebastien explained that while he valued his parents’ ancestries, he did not think that ethnic or racial background should matter in societal interactions, or form an important basis for assessing each other. This example illustrates not only the potential variability of responses from one respondent (which could suggest quite different senses of that person’s sense of self), but also the ways in which varying question formats and response options can influence the responses of research participants.

In fact, the meanings and significance of race, and of  mixed heritage, was highly variable across our sample of interviewees: While race, and/or being mixed race, was said to be entirely unimportant (or a mere afterthought) for some respondents, others talked about the ways in which race and being mixed shaped their identifications and/or their lives more generally. For a minority of respondents, being mixed was central to how they saw themselves. Yet for others, being mixed was relatively unimportant in relation to being British, or when compared with one’s religion, or one’s area of study.

In isolation, a question asking for only one ‘mixed’ category (as in the England and Wales 2001 Census) is potentially distorting because it may give the impression that people possess a more unified and singular racial identification than is actually the case. Furthermore, the choice of one box only does not reveal whether this asserted identification is validated by other people. The issue of validation is fundamental for how mixed individuals experience their interactions with others, including members of co-ethnic minority communities.[19] Validation is typically linked with how others register a mixed person’s physical appearance, and physical appearance, not surprisingly, is often central to whether mixed people are subject to forms of racial prejudice or discrimination.

There is also the real possibility that some respondents wish to nominate more than two ancestries, since some parents and ancestors  may themselves be ‘mixed’.[20] The US census has opted for multi-ticking, where respondents can choose as many categories as they wish (though from a pre-given set of categories). At this stage, it seems unlikely that Britain’s ONS will go in that direction.

As shown by the introduction of mixed categories in the 2001 England and Wales Census, racial taxonomies and the enumeration of ethnic and racial difference is a politicized and historically variable process. In an era of identity politics, critical reflection upon the ways in which ethnic and racial terms are employed and legitimated in officialdom can be neglected. The complexity and fluidity of racial identification has both theoretical and methodological implications for our understanding of ‘race’, as an everyday lived experience, and many large scale surveys, while valuable in their own right, can only capture a snapshot of what is a complex and potentially unstable phenomenon.[21]

State (and by extension its related policy arms) reliance on survey questions which employ only one measure of racial identification (without in-depth interviews) seriously limits a nuanced understanding of the potential complexity, fluidity, and contingencies surrounding the dynamics of ethnic and racial identification among mixed young people in contemporary Western societies today. Nor do these terms necessarily capture the formative and changeable nature of identification over time. Clearly, reliance on one, especially close-ended measure of something as complicated as ‘race’, can be problematic for understanding the diverse, lived experiences of multiracial people in Britain today.

The creation of a mixed category may help to officially legitimate the existence of people who wish to be known as mixed. But there may be potential dangers in creating an official mixed category, such as in the census. Although its introduction may be an important step in recognizing the diversity and complexity surrounding both demographic change and ethnic and racial identification, it may also be a means of lumping together individuals who are not ‘purely’ of any one heritage.[22] It is also far from clear in what contexts mixed people should be differentiated from other minority groups, in terms of their needs, experiences, and even interests (and thus require specific interventions and representation).

Many analysts argue that we need ethnic and racial categories to monitor discrimination and disadvantage. These terms have also been key for minority pride and ‘the politics of recognition’ in countering denigrating understandings of minority experience.[23] Yet in recent years, some analysts have deplored identity politics.[24] and others have argued for the need to transcend racial thinking and terminology.[25]

Some would argue that a mixed category simply provides yet another essentialist intermediate category of difference which reifies existing racial categories. But then what terms should we use to describe mixedness? The use of, e.g., ‘mixed ethnicity’ versus ‘mixed race’, in my view, is more semantic than real. Whether the recognition of and mobilization around a mixed status necessarily reinscribes ‘race’ and spurious understandings of racial difference is debatable . Even if the recognition of mixed people reproduces certain notions of racial difference, is a refusal to acknowledge them and their rights to see themselves as mixed, really the answer?

In an increasingly multiethnic society in which being mixed is likely to be less and less uncommon, and where ‘super-diversity’ is evident,[26] it is important that public policy is informed by research which captures the complexity and variability among multiracial individuals who may use a variety of ethnic, racial, religious, national, and regional terms to describe themselves. Ethnic and racial labels in common usage, of course, still carry a lot of weight across many contexts, but the heretofore dominant meanings which are associated with particular terms and categories are not impervious to change.

Future research needs to address the interactions between the racial identifications of mixed young people and variables such as gender, class, and region. Increasingly, it is clear that there is no single mixed experience in Britain. Mixed experiences can differ across disparate types of mixed groups, but I would also stress that there is considerable variation within groups.


1.  Bradford, B. (2006) Who are the ‘Mixed’ ethnic group? London: Office for National Statistics, (May). [↑]

2.  I use the terms ‘mixed’ and ‘mixed race’ throughout, and recognize the socially constructed nature of these terms. I see no one term to convey mixedness as less problematic than another. Since there is no agreement about the terminology in the literature, I use both terms, and without scare quotes after the first usage. [↑]

3.  Cashmore, E. (2008) ‘Tiger Woods and the new racial order’, Current Sociology 56 (4): 621-634. [↑]

4.  Caballero, C., Edwards, R., Smith, D. (2008) ‘Cultures of Mixing: Understanding Partnerships Across Ethnicity,’  21st Century Society 3 (1): 49-63; Gilroy, P. (2004) After Empire, London: Routledge. [↑]

5.  Easton, M. (2011) Britain: More mixed than we thought. BBC online. Available at: (accessed 17 November 2011).  [↑]

6.  Bradford (2006). [↑]

7.  Platt, L. (2009) ‘Ethnicity and Family: Relationships Within and Between Ethnic Groups: an Analysis Using the Labour Force Survey’, ISER, University of Essex; Song, M. (2009) ‘Is Intermarriage a Good Indicator of Integration?’, /Journal of Ethnic and Migration Studies / 35 (2): 331-348.  [↑]

8.  Aspinall, P. (2009). ‘Does the British state’s categorisation of “mixed race” meet public policy needs?’ Social Policy & Society 9:1, 55-69. [↑]

9.  Rockquemore, K. & Brunsma, D. (2002) Beyond Black: Biracial Identity in America. Thousand Oaks CA: Sage; Root, M. (ed.) (1996) The Multiracial Experience. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage; Zack, N. (1996) ‘On being and not-being Black and Jewish’, in M. Root (ed.), The Multiracial Experience (Thousand Oaks: Sage).  [↑]

10.  In the US see Rockequemore & Brunsma (2002); Roth, W. (2005) ‘The end of the one-drop rule? Labelling of multiracial children in Black intermarriages’, Sociological Forum, 20 (1): 35–67. In Britain, see Ali, S. (2003) Mixed-Race, Post-Race, Oxford: Berg; Ifekwunigwe, J. (1999) Scattered Belongings, London: Routledge; Tizard, B. and Phoenix, A. (1993) Black, White or Mixed Race? London: Routledge; Olumide, G. (2002) Raiding the Gene Pool, London: Pluto Press.  [↑]

11.  Platt (2009). [↑]

12.  Song, M. (2003) Choosing Ethnic Identity. Cambridge: Polity Press;  Banton, M. (1997) Ethnic and Racial Consciousness, Harlow: Addison Wesley Longman. [↑]

13.  Parker D & M. Song (2001) (eds), Rethinking “Mixed Race”. London: Pluto Press.  [↑]

14. Song, M. & Hashem, F. (2010) ‘What does “white” mean? Interpreting the choice of “race” by mixed race young people in Britain’, Sociological Perspectives, vol. 53, no. 2.  [↑]

15.  Harris, D. & Sim, J. (2002) ‘“Who is multiracial”: The Fluidity of Racial Identity Among US Adolescents’, American Sociological Review 67: 614-27.   [↑]

16.  Cornell, S. & Hartmann, D. (1998) Ethnicity and Race: Making Identities in a Changing World (Thousand Oaks, CA: Pine Forge Press).  [↑]

17.  Lopez, A. (2003) ‘Collecting and tabulating race/ethnicity data with diverse and mixed heritage populations: A case-study with US high school students’, Ethnic and Racial Studies 26 (5): 931-961; Harris & Sim (2002).  [↑]

18.  Aspinall, P. &  Song, M. (forthcoming), Mixed Race Identities, London: Palgrave Macmillan.   [↑]

19.  Song, M. & Aspinall, P. (2012) ‘Is racial mismatch a problem for young mixed race young people in Britain?’, Ethnicities, published online February 17, 2012, DOI: 10.1177/1468796811434912.  [↑]

20.  Aspinall, P. & Song, M. (forthcoming) [↑]

21.  Stephan, C (1992) ‘Mixed-heritage Individuals: Ethnic Identity and Trait Characteristics’, in Racially Mixed People in America (ed.) M. Root (Newbury Park: Sage).  [↑]

22.  Song, M. (2010) Is there “a” mixed race group in Britain?’, Critical Social Policy vol. 30, no. 3; Berthoud, R. (1998) ‘Defining Ethnic Groups: Origin or Identity?’ Patterns of Prejudice 32 (2): 53-67.  [↑]

23.  Taylor, C. (1994) ‘On the politics of recognition’, in (ed) D. Goldberg, Multiculturalism, Oxford: Blackwell, 75-106.   [↑]

24.  Malik, K. (1996) The Meaning of Race, NYU Press.  [↑]

25.  Gilroy, P. (2002) ‘Race ends here’, Ethnic and Racial Studies, 21(5): 838-47. [↑]

26.  Vertovec, S. (2007) ‘Super-diversity and its implications’, Ethnic and Racial Studies, 30(6): 1024–54.  [↑]

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Miri Song is a professor of sociology at the University of Kent. Her work concerns 'race' and 'mixed race', ethnic identity, immigrant adaptation and the second generation.
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