Navigating Mixedness in Modern Britain Today: An Interview with Natalie Morris, Author of Mixed/Other
The mixed population is the fastest-growing ethnic group in the UK, and having a mixed heritage doesn’t have one single or simple meaning
BY JENNIFER HAKIM
"Hearing other people’s understandings of their own privilege helped me reconcile mine and sit more comfortably in the duality of having privilege and experiencing racism."
BY JENNIFER HAKIM
6 May 2021
In Mixed/Other: Explorations of Multiraciality in Modern Britain (out now), Mancunian writer and Metro columnist Natalie Morris explores the multifaceted experience of mixed-race people in the UK. Examining identity, dating, family life, beauty, culture, and more through a plethora of people across the UK, Mixed/Other shines a light on what it means to be mixed race today.
Throughout her career, and being half Jamaican and half white-British herself, Natalie Morris has always been outspoken about diversity and issues of race. In her work for Metro.co.uk, she covers race, mental health, women in sport, and women in the workplace. Her landmark weekly series ‘Mixed Up’ gives a voice to under-heard narratives and explores the nuanced realities of being mixed-race in this country.
The mixed population takes in every combination of heritages imaginable and is growing fast. And yet despite the plethora of backgrounds that are encompassed under the term 'mixed', it became clear to Morris through the course of her work as a journalist that there is a collective identity, recurring themes and experiences that suggest a commonality of mixed-race existence. From identity struggles to the openness and closeness of family life, the complexities of dating and relationships, to the feelings of cultural guilt and disconnect, the experience of existing outside of easily-defined labels of identity creates a unique experience in its own right.
At a time when ethnically-ambiguous models fill our Instagram feeds and our high street shop windows, and with the phenomenon of an interracial marriage within the British royal family raising questions about one of the country's most established institutions, in Mixed/Other, Morris provides a voice to those who have up until now, not been included in the narrative.
We caught up with Natalie Morris to discuss the release of Mixed/Other, her work on diversity and racial issues, and why having a mixed heritage in the UK today doesn’t have one simple meaning.
The Spill: When did you start working on Mixed/Other, or thinking about writing the book?
Natalie Morris: I started work on Mixed/Other in 2019. People tend to think it was part of the reaction to the summer where BLM boomed and increased public interest in race issues, but I started writing quite a bit before any of that happened, and I started thinking about it even earlier. It began as a weekly column for Metro.co.uk in 2018 – interviewing people with all different kinds of heritage. The reaction I got from these articles, the many DMs, and emails from people telling me that they felt seen and less alone made me want to create something bigger.
TS: How was this experience compared to your job as a journalist, and what was the process like?
NM: The process of writing a book was entirely different to my day job. I stepped completely out of my comfort zone and that was a big adjustment. I’m used to quick deadlines and ticking things off my list every week, so to embark on a project that took almost two years was a big change – it felt like I would never get it finished at times! As a journalist I’m used to removing myself from the narrative, focusing on my subjects, or the issue I’m working on, so it was quite a shift having to put more of myself into the book. It made me feel more vulnerable than I have ever been.
TS: Have you learned anything surprising while working on the book, and compiling other people’s experiences?
NM: One thing that has been really interesting has been understanding the way different people process their privilege as mixed individuals – and how much that privilege varies depending on where you are and who is seeing you. Interviewing so many different people with different heritage makeups, different appearances, different ways that they are racialised, made me reassess my understanding of ‘mixed privilege’. I saw how context-dependent that privilege is, and how disempowering it can feel to have no say when that privilege can be employed and to what extent. Hearing other people’s understandings of their own privilege helped me reconcile mine and sit more comfortably in the duality of having privilege and experiencing racism.
TS: What do you feel is still missing in the media discourse or mainstream conversation about mixed heritage and mixed identity?
NM: In the book, I draw upon lots of academic studies and theories that have been part of the conversation for 30 years or more now, but in the media and in many mainstream discussions about mixedness, I think there is still a lot of catching up to do. We are missing a lot of the nuance, we are still excluding people who don’t fit the narrow blueprint of mixedness; whiteness is still so frequently at the heart of these conversations. As a result, the discussions are frequently flattened and reduced to something that doesn’t reflect the broad spectrum of our experiences as mixed people.
TS: Focusing on the UK, do you feel like we are making some progress in genuinely ‘celebrating’ and respecting mixedness – as opposed to fetishising it or rejecting it altogether?
NM: I think in recent years there has been more of a tendency to ‘celebrate’ mixedness, which can be problematic in itself. When Megan and Harry’s son Archie was born, he was referred to as a ‘bridge’ between cultures in the mainstream media, there is still this belief from some that the mixed population will be a ‘golden generation’ leading us into a post-racial, colour-blind future, which is just hopelessly idealistic.
I think the conversation has improved since I was growing up, there is more space now for people with mixed heritage to claim their own identities, and more acceptance and understanding of those who exist between the existing racial categories – and I really hope that continues.
TS: You’ve recently written about the problem of racial ambiguity as an aesthetic and the trend of ‘mixed-race beauty’, and often write about anti-racism - how are these pieces received by the British public, and how do you protect yourself from online attacks?
NM: I always experience huge amounts of backlash when I write about anti-racism – in any capacity. I receive racist comments and emails telling me to go home, or calling me a race-baiter etc. I even had to speak to counter-terror police in the summer when my details were shared on a far right website. It’s a really awful reality of being a journalist at the moment, particularly with the high levels of access that social media affords people.
Thankfully, there is also an incredibly supportive online community of like-minded people and other journalists and media professionals, who are writing about similar issues, and there is a real solidarity in that space. I do think media companies need to do more to protect staff and ensure racist comments and personal attacks aren’t getting through – it shouldn’t just be an accepted part of the job.
Personally, I try to protect myself from racist comments by not engaging, by using the block/mute buttons liberally, and gaining reassurance and support from my friends and inner support networks. It usually works, but it doesn’t always prevent the visceral, physical reaction caused by being attacked online.
TS: If you were to summarise it, based on your experience and writing this book, what would you say it actually means to be mixed in Britain today – and is there a simple answer?
NM: The beauty of mixedness is that there is no one single answer to this question. There is no singular story of what it means to be mixed, no tidily explained experience that can sum it up. By its nature, to be of mixed heritage is to have infinite variety in our histories and lived experiences. Despite this, through my interviews and the many conversations I have had over the last two years, it is clear to me that despite being a wildly heterogeneous group, there are recurring themes and feelings that connect us – and I have loved finding a sense of belonging in these transcendent nods of recognition.
TS: Finally, what is the main message, or biggest takeaway you want readers to keep after reading Mixed/Other?
NM: The main takeaway I hope stays with people is that mixedness is a vast and varied collection of experiences – and that we lose so much when we attempt to limit this group to a singular descriptor. The mixed population is the fastest-growing ethnic group in the UK, and as such we need to ensure we have the language to have better conversations and to cultivate acceptance and understanding, rather than exclusivity.
Mixed/Other by Natalie Morris is published by Trapeze (hardback, £16.99), out now and available in major book retailers.