Karis Campion Department of Sociology, University of Manchester, Manchester, UKCorrespondencekaris.campion

“You think you’re Black?” Exploring Black mixed-race experiences of Black rejection


Utilizing interview data with thirty-seven British people of Mixed White and Black Caribbean heritage, this paper draws upon the concept of “horizontal hostility” to describe how Black mixed-race experiences of Black rejection impact on self-perceptions and expressed ethnic identities. In demonstrating the effects of being excluded from a relatable collective Black identity, the paper argues that horizontal hostility is critical in the project of theorizing mixed-race. Experiences of horizontal hostility represent significant turning points in mixed-race lives as they can prompt reconsiderations of mixed-race positionings within the broader Black imagined space. Beyond the benefits that horizontal hostility offers to mixed-race studies, it provides insights into conceptualisations of Blackness – as a collective racial identity, community and politics. The article unpacks how, when and why its boundaries are policed, adding to debates relating to the future formation and maintenance of ethnic group identities and categories more generally.

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Black mixed racecritical mixed-race studiesrace and genderhorizontal hostilityethnic identityBlack identity

This paper draws on the concept of “horizontal hostility” to explore and describe the complex ways in which Black mixed-race1 people can, on occasion, encounter discourses of Black (in)authenticity in interactions with their Black counterparts and as a consequence, feel rejected from a collective Black identity. As a concept, horizontal hostility has been used to describe how divisions and prejudices can emerge within oppressed groups (Kennedy 1970; Lorde 1978). Evoking the notion of sibling rivalry between similarly positioned people, horizontal hostility helps signal the damage that internal conflicts might cause, by distracting away from the collective resistance work against dominant oppressive forces.

The paper contends that horizontal hostility offers a useful analytical frame through which to explore Black mixed-race experiences of disjuncture from Black collective identities – a topic which is seldom dealt with in contemporary theoretical discussions about mixed-race. Although a great deal of research shows that Black mixed-race subjects tend to be racialized as Black and experience very similar social locations to their Black counterparts (Brunsma and Rockquemore 2001; Song and Aspinall 2012; Joseph-Salisbury 2018), much less is known about the occasions when Black mixed-race people feel rejected from a collective Black identity. Mixed-race experiences of rejection can often come about because they are perceived as unable to fit into discrete, monolithic racial and ethnic categories. Within mixed-race studies, there has been a good attempt to develop terminology to describe these experiences of displacement, such as racial invalidation, multiracial microaggressions and monoracism (Townsend, Markus, and Bergsieker 2009; Johnston and Nadal 2010; Song and Aspinall 2012; Franco, Katz, and O’Brien 2016). However, what is distinctly lacking is an extensive commentary on how the effect of these forms of prejudice may vary depending on who it is that is doing the rejection.

Utilizing data from a larger study (Campion 2017), this paper aims to expand our understandings of mixed-race experiences by specifically asking how Black mixed-race people negotiate being rejected from a collective Black identity they feel invested in. Building on this, the paper considers the implications of horizontal hostility for identity development and self-perceptions and explores how the experience compares to dominant forms of “rejection” that come about through White systematic structural racisms. Finally, by highlighting some of the issues that Black rejection can throw up for Black mixed-race people – relating to notions of belonging and authenticity – the paper argues for the cultivation of non-essentialist conceptualisations of Black identities to help nurture continued solidarities across heterogenous Black communities.

The paper applies horizontal hostility through an intersectional lens, utilizing gender and social generation as central analytical frameworks. Both emerge as key variables that affect how acutely the experiences of Black rejection are felt. There is a plethora of work that indicates how (mixed) race and gender intersect (Mahtani 2002; Ali 2005; Sims and Joseph-Salisbury 2018; Newman 2019). However, given the tendency for samples in mixed-race studies to be skewed towards women, researchers are restrained in their ability to adopt comparative intersectional analyses. To build a more complicated picture of the differential positionalities of Black mixed-race people, this paper carefully considers how the gender identity of the person experiencing horizontal hostility can have specific effects on how that process takes shape and influence the reactions and responses to it.

The proliferation of mixed-race studies emerged circa 1990 onwards (Root 1992; Tizard and Phoenix 1993; Ifekwunigwe 1999; Parker and Song 2001; Olumide 2002; Aspinall 2003; Twine 2004). An important critique of some methodological approaches within the field, is that they have tended to adopt “ahistorical” and “present-tense” analyses that focus on the individual day-to-day micro-politics of mixed-race experiences (Mahtani 2014, 46). By drawing a sample from a wide range of adult age groups who have come of age in the 1960s through to the 2010s and using a life-history approach, the paper hopes to respond to these concerns. By tracing the unique historical consciousness of the participants, horizontal hostility is shown to be experienced differently within changing structures. This emphasizes the need to analyse the temporality of mixed-race identity which accounts for how broader social histories are embedded into the personal histories and social identities of mixed-race subjects.

Multiracial microaggressions, monoracism, misrecognition?

The literature on mixedness in the US context, compared with the UK, appears to have a more developed language for identifying and describing the specific prejudices that mixed-race people experience because of their mixedness. A significant sub-section of the work produced has appeared in psychology journals, taking influence from psycho-social frameworks that emphasize the negative impact these experiences can have on the identity development, mental health and self-esteem of mixed-race people (Townsend et al. 2009; Johnston and Nadal 2010; Franco et al. 2016). For example, Johnston and Nadal (2010) have critiqued the concept of “microaggressions” – a term that describes the everyday, subtle forms of racism experienced by people of colour (Pérez Huber and Solorzano 2015, 297). The authors suggest that the specific ways that multiracial people of colour experience microaggressions are often unaccounted for and attribute this erasure to the long history of “monoracism” in the US context. This term describes the exclusionary process by which “individuals who do not fit monoracial categories may be oppressed on systemic and inter-personal levels because of underlying assumptions and beliefs in singular, discrete racial categories” (Johnston and Nadal 2010, 125). In response to the perceived absence of mixed-race experiences within the broader debate about microaggressions, Johnston and Nadal (2010, 126) offer an extension on the concept through their conceptualization of multiracial microaggressions;
multiracial people may be targets of “traditional” racial microaggressions … in addition to multiracial microaggressions, which are daily verbal, behavioral, or environmental indignities, whether intentional or unintentional, enacted by monoracial persons that communicate hostile, derogatory, or negative slights toward multiracial individuals or groups.

A number of other studies on mixed identity have introduced terminology which could be regarded as part of, and closely related to, the concept of multiracial microaggressions. “Racial invalidation”, for instance, identifies the unique prejudices mixed people can experience including; “accusations of racial inauthenticity, imposition of racial categories and forced choice dilemmas” (Franco et al. 2016, 96). These themes have been taken up in empirical research in the UK, where phrases such as “racial mismatch” have been utilized to describe how mixed-race subjects can have their expressed identities invalidated by external actors (Song and Aspinall 2012). Despite the significant inroads that have been made, what these debates tend to lack, is a more direct line of questioning that critically asks how mixed-race people perceive “non-mixed” people of colour as engaging in these subtle practices, and how encounters with these can easily slip into forms of rejection. These questions are important because they help advance a more detailed analysis of how emotional responses to “racial mismatch”, for instance, might vary depending on who it is that is doing the “misrecognizing” and invalidating racial claims.

In thinking about Black mixed-race experiences, incidents of Black rejection are seldom discussed in the literature. Instead, research often emphasizes the sameness of Black and Black mixed-race experiences within White hegemonic structures of power, where Black populations can regularly be “undifferentiated” and treated as a homogenous mass (Tate 2005, 85). Research on British mixed-race populations consistently shows that, in comparison to other mixed groups, respondents with Black heritage are the most likely to report being “pigeon-holed into their minority race” (Song and Aspinall 2012, 740). This is a transnational finding in studies on mixed-race identity (Brunsma and Rockquemore 2001; Khanna 2010; Song 2010; Joseph-Salisbury 2018). Without seeking to challenge these valid claims to sameness across the Black and Black mixed-race experience in Britain, this paper seeks to complicate existing understandings by dealing with some of the more nuanced conceptualisations of Black identity that are present within diverse Black communities.

Gender, colourism and Black mixed-race

One significant marker of differentiation within Black communities is skin tone. A great body of work has traced how this distinction has historically been enforced upon, rather than willingly chosen and upheld by Black communities themselves (Gabriel 2007; Hunter 2013). Such was the case in patriarchal racist Caribbean plantation societies, governed by wealthy White male “masters” who would engage in violent sexual unions with enslaved women. The brown-skinned “mulatto”2 descendants that these exploitative relations produced, were regarded as “potential allies for the whites” (Heuman 1981, 47) in societies like Jamaica where, “by the early eighteenth century slaves outnumbered their masters by a factor of eight to one” (Hall 2017, 68). This desire to maintain White control through strength in numbers produced a situation whereby, after Whites, the most privileged of the mulatto class came to be “the primary inheritors of the plantation legacies of their European grandparents and forefathers” across the British Caribbean (Hope 2011, 167).

Within these patriarchal plantation societies, gender complicated how mixed populations accumulated their wealth. In these contexts, mulatto women were perceived as less threatening “to the superiority of the white male”, in comparison to their male counterparts (Mohammad 2000, 30). Mulatto women were much more likely to be taken as partners and mistresses by Whites than mulatto men (Livesay 2018). Although these relations were often achieved through violence and coercion, they nevertheless enhanced the chances of elevated societal positions. Evidence also indicates that mulatto women tended to have higher manumission rates than men and made up a large proportion of the “free coloured” population (Higman 1976). Subsequently, after Abolition, mixed women generally occupied a higher status in gender relations with Black men (Hall 2017). Therefore, in societies like Jamaica, brown skin has come to denote an inherited colour-class position from the country’s historical plantation society and overtime, has become a distinctly female “Jamaican beauty ideal” (Tate 2013, 220). The fallout of these hierarchical structures is observable in our more contemporary histories, where “brown” light skinned women can still come to be regarded as “prizes” for some Black men (Mohammed 2000, 36). This process of ascribing economic, social and cultural value to lighter skinned people of colour is described in the current context as colourism and/or shadeism (Gabriel 2007; Henry 2013; Hunter 2013).

In contemporary racist, heterosexist, patriarchal societies, women of colour continue to be implicated by interlocking systems of oppression that are legacies of these colonial histories. As a consequence, feelings of self-worth can often be determined by women of colour’s physical appearance and sexual attractiveness to men (Thompson and Keith 2001). In light of this they can, unwillingly, find themselves pitted against other women in competition for male approval. In a world in which Whiteness is a yardstick for beauty, Black mixed-race women who tend to be lighter skinned are the likely winners of this competition, over their darker skinned Black female counterparts (Hunter 2013). Understandably, the systematic racism, sexism and colourism experienced by darker skinned Black women can create frustrations which, in some cases, can result in “interpersonal conflict” with Black mixed race women (Sims and Joseph-Salisbury 2018, 3). In contrast, Black mixed-race men, who are more likely to identify as Black and be racialized as such, are less likely to report experiencing gender-specific tensions with their same-sex Black peers (Joseph-Salisbury 2018). Furthermore, skin shade appears to operate differently within the social schemas of Black male friendship groups, where darker skin can constitute a form of capital (Joseph-Salisbury 2018).

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This paper uses data from a study based upon thirty-seven semi-structured interviews with Black mixed-race men and women living in Birmingham, UK (Campion 2017). The study received ethical approval from the research ethics committee at the University of Manchester. It has been noted that participants in studies on mixed-race “are generally ‘self-selecting’ in the sense that they tend to identify strongly as ‘mixed race’ and are often actively involved in or conscious of debates around mixed race identities/families” (Caballero 2013, 3). In light of this, I actively avoided recruiting respondents from groups, forums or online websites that provide services specifically for mixed-race people and their families, to reduce the likelihood of obtaining a biased sample. A “fixed purposive sampling strategy” was used to recruit participants (Bryman 2016, 414). Informal networks were utilized and recruitment posters were distributed on neighbourhood Facebook pages, in Black hairdressers, leisure centres, libraries, community centres and colleges across the city. The term “mixed-race” was not used on the poster. I did not want to discourage the participation of people who had mixed backgrounds but did not identify themselves as such. Instead, “White and Black Caribbean heritage” was chosen as an appropriate catch-all term that would appeal to a broad mixed-race audience.

A balanced sample by social class was achieved to some degree. This was a desirable outcome given that samples in mixed-race research tend to comprise of mostly middle class participants (Small 2001; Caballero 2004; Mahtani 2014). Taking parents’ occupations as a proxy for class, the majority of participants came from traditional working-class backgrounds. Just over half had university degrees, mostly the younger participants. For clarity on the final spread of the sample by age cohort and gender see Table 1. The sample was split relatively equally by gender but was slightly skewed with regards to age because the oldest participants were hardest to recruit. Snowball sampling was used to help achieve the participation of hard to reach groups (Bryman 2016).