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Diversity of multiracial identification and experience in Britain today

Research from the University has revealed that while there is evidence of a growing consciousness and interest in mixed race identities among 18-25 year olds in Britain today, Britain cannot yet speak of a coherent or unified mixed group or experience.

The research, which was conducted by Peter Aspinall, Dr Miri Song and Dr Ferhana Hashem from the University’s School of Social Policy, Sociology and Social Research (SSPSSR), set out to explore the ways in which mixed race young adults thought about and understood their ethnic and racial identifications.

It also examined how mixed race young adults make choices about the way they identify in racial/ethnic terms across a variety of social contexts and different situations, and what these choices mean in terms of friendship networks, membership in groups, and possible political and other affiliations. It also explored the kinds of strategies different kinds of ‘mixed’ people adopt in their efforts to assert their desired identities.

The study, which was funded by the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC), is the largest and most detailed of its kind ever undertaken in the UK.

Key findings include:

  • Respondents’ unprompted open response descriptions of their racial/ethnic identity were often detailed, and showed that the 2001 Census ‘Mixed’ categories (like ‘White and Black Caribbean’) considerably simplified these descriptions. For example, around a fifth of respondents named three or more groups.
  • In questions exploring the fluidity of identity, 45% of the sample reported using some kind of switching strategy between identifications, depending on context. Around a quarter (26%) changed racial/ethnic identification between secondary school and university. 38% described their racial/ethnic identity differently in conversations with friends to the way they reported it on official forms.
  • In a ‘forced choice’ question (where respondents were forced to choose the group, or ‘race’, which was most important to them), many were not able (or unwilling) to prioritise only one group. This suggests the growing prominence of ‘mixed’, hybrid identification. Furthermore, some respondents who refused to choose claimed to transcend racial identification and categorization completely.
  • In general, the identity options perceived and experienced by Black/White mixed young people were more constrained than those of other mixes involving ‘White’, such as ‘Chinese and White’ , ‘South Asian and White’, and ‘Arab and White’. Many, though not all, part-Black respondents reported that they were seen as monoracially Black. This finding is interesting, since Britain has never had a codified ‘one-drop rule’ (in which anyone with a known Black ancestor was known as Black) as in the USA. The differences were statistically significant.
  • In general, respondents across all the groups reported that they were often misrecognized by others (that is, how other saw them did not match how they saw themselves). Interestingly, while this misrecognition was a source of distress or irritation for some respondents, others reported that they were quite indifferent to how other people saw them.

The findings of this research have been published in a number of journals, including Anthropology Today, Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health, Social Policy and Society, Critical Social Policy, Sociological Review, Sociological Perspectives, and Ethnic and Racial Studies. They were presented to the Annual Conference of the American Sociological Association in August 2009.

The report is available online at

A monograph, titled Mixed Race Identities, will be published by Palgrave/Macmillan in late 2011.


Story published at 4:37pm 5 November 2010

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