Racialized Lives: Ethnic Mixing and Mixed Ethnicity in Britain

by Karis Campion

Racialization has had a deeply personal impact on the lives of people in Britain, but history shows us it can be challenged.

First published: 06 March, 2015 | Category: History, Labour movement, Racism

In Racism, Class and the Racialized Outsider, Satnam Virdee presents an original, alternative history of the English working class, interrogating the dominant scholarly arguments which, he claims, have too often portrayed it as synonymous with the working white male.  Focusing on a period spanning 200 years (1780-1990), Virdee thoroughly explores how the boundaries which have encompassed the working class as a distinct social (white) category have been continuously in flux.  

The book details important events and developments over this period when the boundaries of the working class were extended to include what Virdee refers to as ‘racialized outsiders’.  Importantly though, whilst Virdee offers a close analysis of the specific conditions in which the boundaries of the English working class protracted to subsume working class ethnic Others, he does not shy away from dealing with less collective periods for the working class, when boundaries were tightened to exclude those same Others.  It is racialization which, as he often explains in the book, has historically been a key factor in encouraging the working class to retreat from becoming a multi-ethnic collective.

Virdee documents the Chartist movement and the period which followed in the 19th century as one key moment when the boundaries of the working class were tightened in order to exclude.  The Irish presence in the struggle and the potentially multi-ethnic working class solidarity movement which might have followed, unsettled the state.  In response, it utilised various tactics to racialize the movement.  It was constructed as something ‘foreign and alien,’ more aligned to the wishes of the Irish Catholics who led it than ‘an authentic expression of the wishes of the English masses.’[1] Alongside this racist rhetoric, a new version of British nationalism was conjured up.  ‘The nation was re-imagined as an Anglo-Saxon Protestant nation’[2] by elites, and sections of the English working class were gradually incorporated into this.  Within this image of the nation, there was little space for the Irish Catholic working class, and this racist rhetoric and method of rule would eventually lead to the downfall of Chartism.  

The history of ethnic mixing in Britain

The process of racialization has emerged as a recurrent theme in the first year of my PhD work researching the history of mixed ethnic identity in Britain, with a particular focus on the Mixed White and Black Caribbean group.  The period under focus is post-1945 up to the present day.  However, in my research thus far I have extended my historical analysis of mixing farther back, identifying when mixed race and mixing have become salient (or not) in British history, and exploring the possible reasons for this.  

What is evident is that mixing becomes a salient issue when racial meanings are attached to the phenomenon and to the groups involved in it.  This attachment process, which creates groups as distinct racial categories, is racialization.  The consequence of this is that mixing and mixed race have come to represent the crossing of racialized boundaries.  Thus, not only do they become salient; more significantly, they become problematic.  

To understand how this process develops, it is important to understand the contexts in which the racialization of particular groups occur and the consequence this has for the movements, relationships or issues that they impact upon.  In Virdee’s analysis, the 19th century is identified as a key historical juncture in which the Irish working class were increasingly racialized within the Chartist movement.  This also features as a significant period in which black Britons were increasingly racialized in my historical analysis of mixing.  Contrary to common assumption, there was a substantial black presence in Victorian Britain – which Virdee importantly acknowledges in the book and which has also been the focus of a recent London exhibition and feature film.[3] Moreover, evidence suggests that there was a sizeable black population in Britain as far back as the 18th century.[4]

Mixed relationships as a result of this black presence were a likely consequence, and they occurred mainly amongst the lower classes who worked side by side.[5] These early incidences of mixed relationships in Britain serve as an example of inter-ethnic unions within the working class.  This extends Virdee’s argument that racialized outsiders have always been a part of working class struggle.  But they go further, since they represent the most personal and intense forms of inter-ethnic encounters within the working class.  These were multi-ethnic working class unions which took place outside of labour movement struggles, at home.  

Racialization and ethnic boundaries

So what is the importance of racialization here?  An historical approach to analysing this process allows one to comprehend the complexities of racialization over time.  In Virdee’s book, he notes that the racialized outsider took many different forms in different periods.  Most often, it was the waves of migration which determined who was the best fit for this category.  From the Irish Catholics, to the Jewish immigrants, to the workers from the Caribbean; all of these groups at one point or another became racialized outsiders in Britain.  The non-white black Britons I described above were not racialized as ‘black people’.  In the context of the 18th and 19th centuries, black Britons are better described as British colonial subjects.  ‘Black’ as a descriptor emerged later out of black political projects of the 20th century.  The civil rights and black power movements that swept across America in the 1960s challenged European aesthetics which had continuously conjured up negative connotations of the Negro slave.  Black became beautiful – a symbol of power and resistance.  The momentum of the American Black Power movement was later felt on the other side of the Atlantic.  In the UK, throughout the 1970s, the term black was increasingly used as an umbrella term for ethnic minority groups in their collective resistance racism.  

The consequences of crossing ethnic boundaries via intimate relationships with white British subjects are profoundly different depending on whether the black subject has been racialized as a black British colonial subject or a black ethnic foreign Other.  The idea of the former, an interaction between two British subjects, was seen to represent less of a threat than the latter.  But this was subject to change as groups became racialized in different ways and the notion of Britishness and the British subject changed.

The key point here is that prior to the 19th century, ethnic Others had long been present in Britain and were indeed a part of the working class.  As Virdee argues in his book, it was throughout the 19th century that ideas regarding who and what the British nation should be significantly developed.  Over the course of the 19th century there was an increasing belief in the superiority of white subjects over ‘the dark races’,[6] and as Virdee reminds us, the Irish were not spared from this.  They too were positioned outside of the category of whiteness.  It is this which set the conditions for the questioning of inter-ethnic unions to flourish within the eugenics movement.  In the 1920s and 1930s, mixed race people and mixed relationships were increasingly considered as social issues in Britain.  It is at this point that the idea of the threat of the ‘half-caste’ in Britain’s port towns and cities became prominent, and it is then that the potential for a multi-ethnic English working class became limited.  This was evident in the 1919 race riots in London, Cardiff and Liverpool where mixed relationships were not uncommon.  The riots erupted at a time of economic decline following WWI and an increased disapproval, fear and condemnation of mixed relationships which had been rumbling under the surface within these communities following the return of British soldiers.

Fast forward almost one hundred years and the mixed race group is the fastest growing ethnic group in Britain and the working class is as diverse as ever.  However, without doubt, these groups have continued to be racialized.  Historically, black men in relationships with white women have been constructed as hyper-masculine and highly sexualised and the white women who cross racialized boundaries by entering into relationships with black men (racialized outsiders) have in turn often been constructed as promiscuous.[7] Although not as explicitly as in the early 20th century, mixed relationships continue to be racialized.

Furthermore, as diverse as the working classes have become here in Britain, new members have become racialized outsiders as the labour market shifts over time.  Like the Irish workers before them, new members, such as Polish migrant workers, are not quite white enough, not quite able to be seen as a legitimate member of the English working class.  Moreover, since 9/11, working class Muslims have continued to occupy the position of the racialized outsider, with no room to manoeuvre into the English working class in the collective way it once could.  Even the white members of the English working class are themselves not free from the complexity of racialization.  The stigmatization of ‘Chavs’ on benefits and the notion of the ‘underclass’ positions them outside the boundaries of the employed white working class.  The group becomes residualised and are constructed as a different shade of white – a ‘hyper-whitened white working class’.[8] Or alternatively, at times, they are racialized as a fragment darker than white, in accusations like the one from David Starkey after the London riots that ‘the whites have become black’.

Racialization prevails, but under what circumstances?  This is what Virdee’s book helps us to comprehend.  He does a brilliant job of bringing attention to the conditions in which top down racialization from the state can flourish and fragment the working class, and groups more generally.  But he has also pointed out that members of the working class have countered racialization through a bottom-up process of anti-racist collective action.  This is an important lesson from the book.  We must celebrate when racialized ethnic boundaries are broken, but must also be aware that they might be redrawn just as quickly as they were torn down.  

Karis Campion is a Sociology PhD student at The University of Manchester and is part of the ESRC Centre on Dynamics of Ethnicity (CoDE).

This article is part of our series, Race and Class in Britain.



[1] Virdee, S. 2014. Racism, Class and the Racialized Outsider. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, p.30.


[2] Ibid., p.33.

[3] See Black Cultural Archives exhibition on the history of black women in London 24th July – 30th November 2014 in Brixton, Black Chronicles II photography exhibition exploring black presence in 19th and early 20th century Britain at Rivington Place, London 12th September – 29th November 2014 and the film Belle, the story of a mixed race daughter of a Royal Navy officer living in 18th century Britain, released 2013.

[4] Fryer, P. 1984. Staying Power. London: Pluto Press.

[5] Caballero, C. 2005. ‘Mixed race projects’: perceptions, constructions and implications of mixed race in the UK and USA. University of Bristol.

[6] Ibid., p.56.

[7] For discussion on the stigmatization of the white mothers of mixed race children see; McKenzie, L. 2013. Narratives from a Nottingham council estate: a story of white working-class mothers with mixed-race children. Ethnic and Racial Studies, 38(8), 1342-1358.

[8] For discussions on how the white working class are racialized as a distinct ‘white category’ see; Raey, D. (2007) `A Darker Shade of Pale?' Whiteness, the Middle Classes and Multi-Ethnic Inner City Schooling. Sociology, 41(6), 1041-1060.

All comments are moderated, and should be respectful of other voices in the discussion. Comments may be edited or deleted at the moderator's discretion.

Remember my personal information

Notify me of follow-up comments?