Tuesday, March 3, 2015

Mixed Race in Manchester - Intersections of Class and Mixed Race Identity

I spent the last three months of 2014 living in Manchester, England helping my mother-in-law through chemotherapy and navigating the National Health Services bureaucratic red tape to secure caregiver support and the like.  While I wasn't able to keep up with this blog, I did manage to work on my first novel and make note of how I was perceived differently than I normally am in the U.S.  Now these perceptions draw on my specific interactions so my observations are certainly not generalizable to all but I found the comparisons revealing.

Longsight Market

In the African and South Asian (think Pakistani, Bangladeshi, Indian) community of Longsight, being mixed race (as determined by skin color, hair texture and physical markers of mixed race identity) was not as common as in other parts of Manchester which were predominantly white.  In Longsight, I felt like the odd person out and though I have traveled to England many times before (mostly London and Manchester), I was not cognizant of being one of the few mixed folks in the bunch until I stayed more than a week in the area.  Home to mostly first generation immigrants to the U.K., Longsight appeared to demonstrate a kind of "racial insularity" that I had not experienced in other parts of the city.  Mixed race couples were, in fact, quite rare to find.  Africans stuck with Africans and Arab-Asians stuck with Arab-Asians.  Very rarely did I see interracial couples or children in this part of the city.  Simple conversations between Africans and South Asians weren't common either. Shops catered to either African/Caribbean folk or South Asians and only one vegetable grocer catered to both groups.  After several weeks of enduring stares because of my appearance and folks being fascinated or confused by my American accent, I wanted to find out if being in Longsight specifically had any bearing on my experiences.

Part of my bus commute route through Longsight

So when possible, I started venturing out of Longsight into different parts of the city including Manchester City Centre, Deansgate, Salford and Wythenshawe.  In these areas I saw more white English, East Asians, Jewish folk, and what I like to call "2nd Generation Black and Asian Brits".  These "2nd Generation Black and Asian Brits" tended to be in their 20's and 30's.  These Black and Asian Brits spoke English with proficiency, talked about football (soccer), shopped on the High Street, were well connected to technology and in many cases looked to be coming and going to professional jobs.  What stood out more than anything about these Black and Asian Brits, away from Longsight, was that they interacted socially with people of different races unlike the twenty and thirty year olds I saw in Longsight.  Whether on the bus, at the gym, walking near University of Manchester, younger generations of Brits interacted and conversed with people of different ethnic, racial and cultural backgrounds with an ease that just wasn't in Longsight. 

Now, it might be easy to simply say this was a function of younger people being more open and inclusive of difference which I'm sure plays an important role here.  But what I observed and later shared with my cousin-in-law and husband (both originally from Longsight) was that socio-economics or class played a significant function in shaping interracial interactions than one might expect.  I saw more interracial couples and groups of friends in more affluent parts of town.  My cousin-in-law who is married to a white English woman and has three bi-racial children lives in the suburbs and said that as a family they felt more uncomfortable in Longsight than they did in predominantly white, affluent parts of town.  Conventional wisdom, at least from a U.S. perspective, would assume that a mixed race family might be more accepted in the "Black" part of town regardless of socio-economic circumstances.  Yet, in a more racially insular place like Longsight, socio-economics may play a key role in determining one's educational level and exposure to different cultures.  Could Longsight's African and Asian communities be less tolerant of mixed race couples and families due to a lack of economic mobility making them cling to their culture and traditions to the exclusion of embracing difference in others?

My experiences in Longsight contrasted with other parts of Manchester seem to bear this out.  I traveled to Salford, an area that was once known for racial intolerance of Blacks, to get my hair done on two different occasions.  In both instances, I had to walk a few miles along a main road to/from the bus stop and at no time did I experience stares or was made to feel uncomfortable in any way.  I saw people of all different races and went into an African/Caribbean shop for ginger beer, a fish and chips restaurant (chippy) owned by Chinese and a mini mart owned by an Indian family. I saw mixed race couples and when I went to this "Black" hair salon, I wasn't the only mixed race Black woman getting services.  But as soon as I traveled back to Longsight, the East Asians got off the bus just outside of "Longsight" Proper and few whites even got on the bus and I was often the sole mixed race person on the bus for the remainder of the journey.  The difference between the two communities apart from the demographics?  Clear indicators of higher income in Salford (which is a working class community by UK standards) from bigger homes, cleaner streets, wider variety of shops and slightly higher prices for goods and services (including my hairdo).  

In most mixed race studies, the obvious emphasis is placed on race but based on what I observed, an argument can be made that we need to study the intersections between class and mixed race identity to see how the former shapes the latter.  Are mixed race identities more accepted in more economically affluent areas?  Do the children of immigrants feel safer to interact with different races intimately and socially in areas where residents have higher class statuses than areas with less economic influence?  How does class shape or affect interactions between mixed race and mono-racial folks?  Could a mixed race person's perception of hostility from monoracial people be more of a function of perceived economic mobility of mixed race people versus their monoracial counterparts?

Lately, I find myself wondering if my experience would be different in the U.S. with regards to mixed race identity and class.  And of course, this naturally leads to me to wonder if this will have any bearing on my feminist identity as well.  Until that extended stay in England, I never really gave class much thought to how I might be perceived as a mixed person.  Does my lighter skin automatically suggest an economic advantage, real or imagined, which affects how I am treated on a daily basis?  I certainly can recall a moment in high school when a fellow classmate, a dark skinned girl, said "Not all of us can be light and smart."  Honestly, I think I focused more on being called light that I forgot until recently how she might have conflated my mixed race identity and lighter skin as an economic advantage.  If that is indeed what is happening, then we need to explore the "currency" provided in mixed race advantage where Light or Mixed=beautiful+smart+wealthy.  Scary, it doesn't seem like we're ever really moving forward.

It's not enough that light skin Black folks in the U.S. have a distinct economic and social advantage over their darker skinned counterparts.  Now the light vs. dark skin debate has been misappropriated for capital gain (I'll leave the obvious ethnic sexism alone this time).

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