The Office for National Statistics tells us that there were 1.2 million people in England and Wales who identified as being from “mixed/multiple ethnic groups” in the 2011 census – amounting to 2.2 per cent of the overall population. Furthermore, the BBC reported in 2009 that the ‘mixed race’ ethnic group was the fastest growing in Britain and is expected to be the largest minority group in the U.K. by 2020. Some researchers, however, have suggested that people of mixed race are more susceptible to mental illness than people of other ethnic backgrounds. It is evident that human behaviour and emotion is often shaped by larger forces in the social environment: could race – and more specifically being mixed race – play a significant role in our relationship with mental health?
Race is a complex concept which can be difficult to define. It can even be deemed as a social construct and can have different definitions in different parts of the world. What constitutes being of ‘mixed race’, therefore, may be similarly hard to interpret. However, Mix-d.org – a website dedicated to all things mixed – argue that “academics refer to someone being of mixed race when she or he is a descendent of two or more groups currently believed to constitute distinct racial groups.”
Identity – or the lack thereof – can be a common theme in the mixed race experience. Sociologist Sheldon Stryker says the term ‘identity’ can be used “to refer to common identification with a collectivity or social category.” However, for mixed race people, this process of forming an identity may be difficult due to descending from multiple ‘categories’ – if your father is black and Caribbean and your mother is white and Irish, for example, what do you choose to identify with?
Catherine Street and Dinah Morley, in their book Mixed Experiences, argue that “those with mixed race backgrounds were more at risk of mental health issues because of their struggle to develop an identity”. Morley argues that a very common experience is “too white to be black, too black to be white”.
But why is our identity so important? Tajfel and Turner’s ‘social identity theory’ argues that it plays a very important role in how we evaluate ourselves. The theory proposes that our identity and the sense of pride we associate with it has a considerable impact on our self-esteem. Furthermore, the theory argues that we often make comparisons between our ‘in-group’, the social group that we identify with, and opposing ‘out-groups’ – the purpose of such comparisons being to improve our sense of self-worth. As Leon Festinger’s ‘social comparison theory’ also states, “people evaluate their opinions and abilities by comparing respectively with opinions and abilities of others.” This ties in to Hogg and Abrams’ ‘self-esteem hypothesis’, which also proposes that there is a correlation between identity and self-esteem.
Consequently, we could say that mixed race people’s difficulty in forming an identity may lead to the creation of a poorer sense of self-esteem, and leaves them feeling inadequate in comparison to those who perhaps feel more assured and comfortable in their identity. Again, the difficulty that mixed race people may experience in fitting in can potentially leave them feeling marginalised and excluded, increasing the risk of mental health problems.
Returning to Mixed Experiences, Street and Morley cite Dr. Toyin Okitikpi’s study of twenty Afro-Caribbean men and twenty white women in inter-racial relationships, where they conclude that “these relationships are subject to intense scrutiny from wider family and beyond, unlike mono-racial relationships”. This implies that social attitudes towards mixed race couples are a lot more negative, suggesting social stigma and taboo. Furthermore, “interactions with the outside (racist) world create tensions for inter-racial partnerships, which inevitably affects the children of those partnerships”. From this, we could infer that racism aimed at mixed race people is also still a concern. As if issues surrounding identity conflict wasn’t enough to make mixed race individuals feel ostracised, the existence of discrimination only makes it worse.
In terms of statistical, quantitative data, Udry et. al’s Health and Behaviour Risks of Adolescents with Mixed-Race Identity discovered that mixed race adolescents were at greater risk of ‘substance use’, ‘suicidality’ and of feeling ‘depressed/blue.’ The theme of identity again resurfaces, as Udry et. al comment: “some across-the-board explanation must be inferred. The most common explanation is stress associated with identity conflict.” This study was, however, conducted in America in the mid-1990s – whether or not it is representative of the current climate is up for debate.
Overall, research does suggest that a sense of vulnerability hangs over the mixed race experience. Identity conflict and feelings ostracisation and marginality, as well as issues relating to racism, can make mixed race people arguably more susceptible to mental illness than people of other ethnic backgrounds. It is important to note that mental illness does not discriminate – being of mixed heritage does not automatically equal mental health problems, nor is one exempt from mental illness by virtue of being from any other background. It is apparent, however, that there are risk factors for mental illness that are seemingly more prevalent amongst the mixed race population – beyond the fetishization and curiosity, there is an elephant in the room that is yet to be addressed in full.