The white kids didn’t want me to play with them because I was ‘black’ and the black kids didn’t want me because I was ‘white’. I’ve got one white parent and one black parent – I can’t just be black.

These are comments from young people of mixed race,* describing an experience that is all too commonly voiced by participants in studies of mixedness. Much of the material for this article, including this particular quote, is taken from the Mixed Experiences study carried out in 2007–2010 that looked at mixedness and mental health.

Twenty-one people were recruited via the internet, using two main sites that provide support for people of mixed race. Although there was a broad age range, the participants were mostly young adults who were asked to look back at their childhoods and consider what impact being mixed race might have had. While the project was considering aspects of their experiences that may have produced risks to their mental health, there was no intention to recruit people who had any history of, or existing, mental disorder. Since the sample was self-selected, caution is needed in drawing generalisable conclusions. However, the findings point to issues that are frequently not understood or considered by those who provide services to young people across education, social care, health and youth justice.

Young people have many challenges as they grow to maturity, but young people of mixed race have the additional challenge of not being part of any one group, of always being the ‘outgrouper’, even when growing up in an ethnically mixed community. No one seems to be quite the same mix as they are, and they are uncomfortable when seen as either ‘white’ or ‘black’ when this is not how they see themselves. Black has been, and continues to be, the default position for people of mixed race, but while this is acceptable to many, it is also unacceptable to many others who struggle to acknowledge the ethnicity of both their parents as they decide who they are.

It is important for therapists, therefore, to understand the factors that are at play as these young people grow up, struggling to create an identity with which they are comfortable and through which they can negotiate their place in a world where race is a social construction over which they have little control. This is exemplified by the following quote from a young man who grew up outside the UK in a very racially mixed island and came to the UK to go to university.

'Yes, well the white crowd assumed I was black as well actually. So I was like probably pushed more to the white side when you’re mixed race.'

A more recent study by Aspinall and Song1 explicates this misrecognition and further illustrates the complexities of mixed identity:

'All of the interview respondents reported that there was frequently, or sometimes, a disjuncture between their expressed and their observed identifications. That is, there was a mismatch between how they saw themselves and how others saw them in racial terms, and respondents’ phenotype (and how this was perceived by others) was central to this process. Note that self-identification is not necessarily based upon a respondent’s actual parentage or phenotype; reported mismatch or disjuncture was quite widespread and could occur whenever others’ perceptions clashed with how one wished to be seen.'3

The challenge that being mixed presents can result in the development of strong resilience, but – where family and community support is sub-optimal – can be a factor that creates risks to mental health that are over and above those experienced by other young people. Material gathered for the Mixed Experiences study suggests that a significant number of the participants had struggled with their mental health and, in a few cases, specifically felt that the difficulties their mixedness posed were at the root of this. This might be directly, in terms of the misrecognition and racism to which they were subjected, or less directly in terms of seeing stresses in their parents’ relationship and in relationships with the wider family.

Why this subject is important

Children and young people of mixed race are not a homogenous group. They may have very different experiences of childhood, depending on where they have grown up, their skin colour, and the way in which their family, school and community supports their mixedness. This extreme heterogeneity does not allow for a one-size-fits-all assessment of their needs, and this is the challenge for practitioners, who need to be aware of the particular risks to mental health or emotional wellbeing that may be present in the lives of these young people. This is not to pathologise mixed race, but rather to ensure that the specific issues are understood and that supports that are appropriate, relevant and robust are provided where necessary.

Changing UK demographics

In the 2001 UK census, 677,117 people (1.15% of the total UK population) were identified as being of mixed race. Figures from the Office for National Statistics (ONS) show that by 2009 this figure had significantly risen to 986,600, and in the latest census in 2011, the figure had reached 1,224,400 (2.2% of the total UK population).

Whilst there are still difficulties in establishing accurate figures with regard to the numbers of mixed-race people within the UK population overall, the ONS data clearly indicate that the known numbers of mixed-race children are increasing significantly.

There are very few data sets that effectively identify a mixed-race category. Many research projects have a ‘black’ classification and ‘other’, into which people of mixed race might place themselves. It is also equally possible that people of mixed race will identify themselves as white.

Using longitudinal data, Bradford2 revealed that 15 per cent of mixed-race people who were classified as white/black Caribbean in the 2001 census had opted for ‘black Caribbean’ in 1991, and that 29 per cent had identified themselves as ‘white’. This could be a reflection of the way in which the entries were analysed. For example, someone electing to be identified as ‘mixed white’ would have been counted as ‘white’, but it may be indicative of how some people of mixed race see themselves in terms of what they experience as their predominant culture. Another possibility is that the information could have been provided by the white parent, as the head of household, and this may have been a factor in influencing this categorisation.

Despite the limitations and gaps in data, it is evident that the number of young people of mixed race is growing proportionately faster than any other section of the child population. However, there are significant differences within the mixed-race category, underlining the fact, as we stated, that this is by no means a homogenous group. For example, the white/black Caribbean grouping is younger than the white/black African population.

While a wider reading of the statistical material suggests that people of mixed race are not over-represented in areas of social concern, there is some significant over-representation in a number of important domains. Owen and Statham,3 looking at disproportionality in child welfare generally, note that children of mixed race are:

'… over-represented in every category – being high for children in need (5.0%) and more than double their population percentage (3.5%) among children on the child protection register (7.4%) and among those looked after (7.8%).'3

The Department for Education and Skills4 identifies eight per cent of children in care as being mixed race, although they make up only three per cent of all children. A disproportionate number of mixed-race young people are seen in inpatient CAMHS according to a small study by Tulloch et al,5 but no national data exist. There are no national data on mixed-race young people’s use of CAMHS more generally.

The results of the Count Me In survey 20106 demonstrate clearly that adults of mixed race – if they are white/black Caribbean or white/African – are more likely than most other groups to be inpatients:

'Admission rates remain higher than average among some minority ethnic groups, especially Black and White/Black Mixed groups for whom rates were two or more times higher than average in 2010 (six times higher than average for the Other Black group). In contrast, admission rates have consistently been lower than average among the Indian and Chinese groups, and about average in the Pakistani and Bangladeshi groups.

'Detention rates have almost consistently been higher than average among the Black, White/Black Caribbean Mixed and Other White groups. The rates for being placed on a CTO [Community Treatment Order] were higher among the South Asian and Black groups.

'Although there have been annual fluctuations in seclusion rates, they have been higher than average for the Black, White/Black Mixed and Other White groups, in at least three of the six censuses.'6

While we must question the wisdom of looking at data on mixed race as if they present a homogenous category, the dramatic growth of the ‘mixed’ child population and its disproportionate representation in some areas of disadvantage demand exploration and attention in terms of a more refined understanding and appropriately sensitive service provision.

Points to consider when working with mixedness

  • Mixed is a very heterogenous category. Each child needs to be recognised for the mix of identities and ethnicities that the child embodies. Be open to exploring these where appropriate. 
  • Parents will try many ways to support their mixed race child, sometimes by thinking it best to ignore problems or, in other cases, seeing it as important to talk through any problems as these arise. Listen out for which applies to the client in the room.
  • Difficulties with identity are likely to intensify in the secondary school years. Be especially aware when listening to presenting issues of anxiety and depression. 
  • Mixed-race young people will suffer racist and prejudiced remarks and behaviours from both black and white peers. This can lead to unhealthy isolation or acting out. 
  • While it is likely to be easier to be mixed race in an inner city setting, there are still significant challenges.
  • Skin colour will play a part in identity. A child may ‘pass’ for white but still wants and needs the ‘black’ part of their identity to be fully acknowledged. Be open to any possible collusion with ignoring that part.

* The term ‘mixed race’ is used to cover mixed/dual heritage, mixed parentage and mixed/dual ethnicity. It has been chosen, as research shows it is the term preferred by people of mixed race.

Dinah Morley has worked in mental health, social work and teaching settings. She has been an assistant director of social services and deputy director of YoungMinds. She is currently an honorary researcher with East London Foundation NHS Trust, an honorary senior lecturer at City University and a fellow of the Dartington Social Policy Unit. 

Cathy Street has worked as a health researcher and senior consultant and trainer since 1998, following more than 10 years of clinical work. She was Head of Research at YoungMinds from 2000–2007, Acting Head of Research and then Young People’s Research and Development Lead at Rethink from 2008–2010. She is currently Director of the Research Centre at the National Children’s Bureau (NCB).

References

1 Song M, Aspinall P. Is racial mismatch a problem for young ‘mixed race’ people in Britain? The findings of qualitative research. Ethnicities 2012; 12(6): 730–753.
2 Bradford B. Who are the ‘Mixed’ ethnic group? London: Office for National Statistics; 2006.
3 Owen C, Statham J. Disproportionality in child welfare. London: Thomas Coram Research Unit, Institute of Education, for the Department for Children, Schools and Families; 2009.
4 Department for Education and Skills. Care matters: transforming the lives of children and young people in care. London: Department for Education and Skills; 2006. www.education.gov.uk/consultations/downloadableDocs/6781-DfESCM%20Summary.pdf (accessed 27 March 2015).
5 Tulloch S, Lelliott P, Bannister D et al. The costs, outcomes and satisfaction for inpatient child and adolescent psychiatric services (COSI-CAPS) study. London: HMSO; 2008.
6 Care Quality Commission. Count me in 2010. London: Care Quality Commission; 2011. www.cqc.org.uk/sites/default/files/documents/count_me_in_2010_final_tagged.pdf (accessed 27 March 2015).