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Identity, Young People And Integration
The Commission For Racial Equality
Eve Ahmed

When the CRE held a seminar earlier this year about young people, identity and integration it didn't take long for the discussion to turn to the mixed-race experience.

On 21 March 2007, the CRE - in partnership with the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) - hosted a seminar on identity, young people and integration.

For several years, there has been a growing discussion of concepts relating to public policy and identity by researchers, politicians, think tanks and social commentators.

At the same time, the CRE's primary goal has been to create an integrated society, which we define as being based on three inter-related principles: equality for all sections of society; interaction between all sections of society; and participation by all sections of society.

The aim of the seminar was to bring together researchers and policy makers to discuss current issues relating to identity and integration and consider how an understanding of identity might help address policy problems relating to equality, interaction and participation.
Why identity?

An underlying question for the seminar was whether there really is a role for identity in thinking about integration. The answer was a cautious yes. Building shared identifications with places and society is one way of creating cultural changes that can bring about integration and there are three main advantages of 'using' identity in this way:

* When part of the 'mood music' of politicians - the general messages they put out - it can reach many more people than encouraging personal interaction can on its own.
* It can be a powerful force in terms of the allegiance people can hold towards their identities
* It is less abstract than talk of 'shared values' - another recurring theme in talks about integration and Britishness

However it is still a cautious yes since fostering shared identity is not an alternative to more concrete approaches like legislation or tackling inequality.

There are also dangers attached to focusing on one aspect of a person's identity at a time and, for example, it should not be assumed that civic identity (for example being British) is an individual's prime identity. We should also be cautious about 'fixing' people in single identities such as 'Traveller' or 'Muslim'. This threatens the freedom people have to define their own identities and move between identities; it risks reaffirming negative attitudes towards minority groups, for example migrants, (because it forces people into those put-upon categories); and it can give the false impression that an identity is a rigid, unvaried category.

The role of the state in identity formation is therefore difficult and problematic. Although the state cannot impose identities on people, it does have a role to play in fostering the conditions for a shared identity to develop. There are concerns then about the Government's current focus on Britishness. Many argue that this is often based on a mythical idea, focused on the past, and which suggests that people who are not British do not have similar values.

Key to fostering a shared identity is the ideal of 'democratic citizenship'. Not only can this act as unifying value in itself, it also provides the conditions to support diversity and allow different ideas to be contested.

A good deal of time of the seminar was spent discussing issues relating to mixed-race individuals but in a way that often illustrated more general points.

Recent reports in the media that mixed-race children are 'muddling through' and suffering 'identity stripping' are agreed to be unhelpful and unfounded. People often assume that being of mixed heritage is problematic in itself rather than looking at inadequate policies or racism for explanations. However, current research does highlight a series of tensions - mixed-race identities are growing but, at the same time, are under threat as they are characterised as both a cause of celebration and a cause for concern. In the education context for example, teachers perceptions of mixed-race pupils has been found to be very different to those of the parents and the pupils themselves which can lead to problems in how they are treated.

Diversity and complexity
There was a strong feeling that the mixed-race population should not be thought of as a single coherent group as there is no empirical evidence to support this idea. The diversity of mixed-race experiences is vast. For example there is more variation in the way White/ Asian and White/ Chinese people describe themselves than amongst White/ Black individuals. This might be related to the history of the 'one drop rule' (the American idea by which anyone with African heritage, no matter how remote was regarded as Black) and a tendency therefore to describe the latter as 'Black'.

Much of the discussion focused on identity choices and the key role that physical appearance plays in how others perceive mixed-race individuals. The mixed-race experience cannot be understood in isolation either but need to be thought about in the context of race, racism and racialisation. For example, a Jamaican and Ghanaian family are likely to see themselves as mixed whilst others may not at first.

Although individuals have very little control over other people's perception, whether you are seen as White or not-White was thought to be more significant than the fact of being of mixed heritage, per se. That said, a mixed White individual, for example who is visibly White may avoid everyday racism but may have more issues around balancing identities than a mixed White/ Black individual.

Beyond race, things like age, gender, class and where someone lived were also thought to be important factors in understanding mixed-race experiences.

For example middle class mixed-race individuals may not feel economically disadvantaged but still may encounter racism as a visible minority. Also differences between White/ Asian and White/ Black individuals may be down to class differences rather than ethnicity. It is therefore important to consider the diversity of experiences found amongst the mixed-race population, although it is almost impossible to understand which identities are in play at any one time.

What does this mean for policy?
The seminar concluded with a discussion of how an identities approach, or an understanding of identity, might contribute to policy-making. A number of principles emerged:

1 Keep back
It is important to recognise that Government is involved in ascribing identities and perpetuating stereotypes (even benignly) - there are dangers in policy makers focusing on particular identities without allowing space for individuals to negotiate their own identities. Consideration must be given to how to create an open sense of Britishness that allows different identities to develop. Young people need to be given the opportunity to voice their own identity, to define who they are rather than having it imposed on them from above

2 Look at 'both sides' of identity
Identity can be enabling - not just problematic. A person's identity should not be seen as a barrier to integration but thought should be given to how it can be used positively.

3 Consider the diversity of groups
It is important to look at the diversity of experience within a group before making categorisations.

4 Look at the whole picture
The focus of policy makers should be on whole identities not just on one particular aspect - so race should be considered alongside, class, age, gender etc.

5 Public sector heal thyself
Policy makers should not just focus on individual identities in themselves but should try to address how inequalities can arise from treating group identities in a certain way

This paper was first submitted as part of the e-conference mixedness and mixing 4-6 September 2007.

Click here to visit our forums and read the comments posted about this paper or to add your own comments.

Please note
The opinions expressed in this article are not a statement of CRE policy.

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