For years, Kamal Ahmed, the son of a black African father and a white English mother, described himself as black. Now after Obama - and Lewis Hamilton - he says he can finally feel proud to be mixed-race
Sunday November 9 2008
In the good old days, otherwise known as the 70s, I used to wear rainbow-coloured jumpers, cords with a wide leg that flapped over my Adidas Gazelle trainers (brown suede, three beige stripes - absolute classics) and rode a Raleigh Arena racing bike made in Nottingham with drop-handlebars and five whole gears. It was a happy life. The only black people you saw on television were playing for the West Indies cricket team or were being made fun of in Mind Your Language on ITV. "Mixed-race" hadn't really been invented. Not yet.
Sometimes in the playground I was called jungle-bunny by children who could already see that picking on difference was a useful way of defining themselves. And getting into fights. Sometimes I was called half-caste. It bothered me, sometimes it made the tears prickle behind my eyes. Sometimes. Down the road in Southall, west London, home to a large population of Asian first- and second-generation immigrants, the National Front marched with Union Flags and swastikas painted on their Doc Martens.
Last week, 30 years later, a man in his forties from Chicago, Illinois, with a black father and a white mother became the most famous man in the world. Two days earlier, a man from Stevenage, Hertfordshire, with a black father and a white mother, became the youngest person to win the Formula One world championship.
Last week, a week full to bursting with such astonishing possibilities, I sat and read and watched a world slightly shift, one of those moments when the day before suddenly seems a whole different history. And for me - a man in his forties with a black father and white mother - it wasn't so much that Barack Obama was black, it wasn't so much that Lewis Hamilton was black, it was that Obama and Hamilton were both black and white. Just like me.
In Britain, with our long history of mixed-race partnerships, the idea that Obama "scrambles categories" - as the Spectator said - is the important bit. This is not a victory of a black man. It is a victory of a man who has a heritage both black and white. That is the unique nature of his narrative and will be the spark that, if we're smart enough, changes the debate about identity, race and colour.
Writer and civil rights activist James Baldwin talked about a "web of ambiguity" where identities swoop from tree to tree as circumstances, situations, backgrounds, change - like so many starlings finding a roost on a summer's evening.
It's very British of course, mixed-race. In America the segregation between races is still deep and largely unyielding. Here, we prefer integration over separate lives. The Policy Studies Institute pinpointed it first in a report 10 years ago and revealed that Britain's black and Asian populations were marrying across ethnic lines at a "staggering rate". Half of British-born Caribbean men, a third of Caribbean women and a fifth of Indian and African Asian men had a white partner. Not so much black Briton as brown Britain.
Language doesn't know how to define this new category and probably nor does politics. "Biracial" must be one of worst bureaucratic calumnies against the English language ever invented by people trying to define and not insult. The debate that romped and sometimes raged across the letters pages and expressed itself in the words of white and black commentators last week is aiming at the wrong end of the stick. It doesn't matter if Obama is black enough. Or Hamilton. What matters is that these two men force us to change the way we define ourselves.
Our constant, uncomfortable effort at pigeon-holing people's race reveals that we haven't really understood that the world has moved on. We needed the jolt - Obama and Yes We Can; Hamilton and racing cars - to remind us that living with a "web of ambiguity" is what the 21st century will push upon us. For the first time, if I'm really honest, I feel that I have permission, a bit black and a bit white, to just be.
This change, this new possibility, is inextricably linked to a fundamental generational change. The sophisticated, young, urban class, those who voted in their millions for Obama, see colour not as an issue but as an opportunity. They will be the next powerbrokers as the baby boomers move to the edge of the stage.
On Thursday I was filling in a survey that asked me my racial origin. There was black Afro-Caribbean and black British and mixed white and black. A decade ago I would have put black British - it was political, it defined me. But two days ago my hand hovered over my mouse as I thought about Obama and Yes We Can. Actually I am mixed, I thought, a bit black and a bit white. And here's this new hero in America who's given me permission to be that. So I clicked on mixed white and black, a small and rare nod to my mother who is from Rotherham, South Yorkshire.
My father, who died earlier this year in a nursing home in Wiltshire, cared for by a big, loud, funny and recently arrived immigrant from Nigeria, was from Sudan. He was black, he was African and he was proud.
He left the NHS in the Eighties after a career as a research scientist in ophthalmology to start his own business. I remember once asking him why. "Kamal, the people at the top are never going to let people like me get their hands on real power,' he said. "I've gone as far as I can go, I need to do something for myself." On his face was a look of resignation, common to many millions of first-generation immigrants who knew the very heights of power were not for them. Not here, anyway.
The world has shifted. Too late for my father and perhaps for many millions of others. But it has shifted. It has shifted for that little boy with the Raleigh bike. It has shifted for the first-generation immigrant who wants to join that sophisticated class where the colour of your skin is not more important than the content of your character. Politics here, too, must now shift.
Last Wednesday I listened to a recording of Obama's acceptance speech. He spoke "of the brief union between a young man from Kenya and a young woman from Kansas who weren't well off or well known, but shared a belief that, in America, their son could achieve whatever he put his mind to". I had to concentrate so that tears did not flow.
* Kamal Ahmed is director of communications for the Equality and Human Rights Commission