Speakers' Corner: Marvin Rees on cultural identity
ACOUPLE of years ago I got talking to an older lady who opened her conversation by asking where I was from. I said Bristol. My great grandfather was Charlie Bryer. The Bryers were well known. My Bristol roots are strong.
She persisted "But where are you FROM" so I relented and told her I had a Jamaican father, Welsh grandfather and English grandmother.
"Oh" she said, quite sincerely. "It must be really difficult for you being neither one nor the other!"
It was pointless to take offence so I asked about her identity. She rejected European and British and was adamant about being English.
Bridal hand tied bouquet (Roses)
2 Bridesmaids (Roses)
Groom & Best Man button holes (Roses)
Discounted rates apply to larger Bridal party requests.
Not to be used with any other offer.
Contact: 0117 2448228
Valid until: Tuesday, December 31 2013
"But those are 'white' identities," I said, "so why do you think whiteness is enough to divide me but not enough to define you?" I have often reflected on that conversation.
I didn't talk openly about my racial mixedness during my recent campaign to become Bristol's first elected mayor and it wasn't something that was raised with me openly.
I felt the issues surrounding my ethnicity and candidacy were obvious and that I didn't need to labour the point.
Having said that, it didn't escape my notice that 50 years ago I would have struggled to get a job working alongside my white grandfather at the Bristol Omnibus Company.
Right up until 1963, they had refused to employ Black and Asian people for their bus crews and here I was running to become Bristol's leader. But two reports out this week led me to want to share some thoughts.
The first was the 2011 census which shows Bristol and Britain becoming increasingly diverse. One in seven people living in Bristol were born outside the UK, double the number ten years ago.
The second draws on the census and is called "The melting pot generation". It states that Britain's mixed race population is now over 1 million "making mixed race Britons one of the largest and most rapidly growing ethnic groups in 21st century Britain".
My mixedness has been one of the defining features of my life in Bristol. It meant I experienced overt racism – verbally abused, chased by angry groups. It meant I experienced suspicion – I'll never forget in the aftermath of the riots, a school mate tested me asking whose side I'd be on if there was a war between black and white. It meant I grew up in a state of "racial limbo", unable to make use of the simplistic catchall identities of black or white presented to me.
But it was in this limbo that I found space away from the social/political noise around me to take a quite a sophisticated approach to the question: what does it mean to be me as opposed to someone else?
I raise this now because while the growing numbers of mixed heritage people and the changing social attitudes they evidence indicate some progress, the increasing diversity shown in the census will also sow the seeds of change as people feel that what has marked them out as distinct is being diluted.
And it is because so much of our inherited identity has been built on the idea of race (sometimes conflated with national identity), that I am particularly sensitive to the racial dynamics around this challenge. It's a challenge that is being compounded by the dire economic circumstances we face.
I want to suggest that the insights into identity gained by mixed heritage people who have struggled (sometimes at great cost) with the challenge of being whole while being different could inform a very healthy approach to how we build a future Bristol that is whole but different.
It is in my mixedness that I have found an identity that is all/and rather than zero/sum.
It does not cancel out difference or suggest that there could be a gloriously just future if everyone was mixed. It does not want to eliminate difference.
But I am using my experience to suggest that the most assured identity is dynamic and multi-dimensional and pulls on different aspects of the person or group at different times.
I suggest that the identity categories I/we have been presented are of limited use and I/we need to take that into account when we are working out who we are.
That creates an openness to the idea that who we are will have a different emphasis at different times precisely because we do not fit neatly into any particular identity box.
This contrasts with the world I experience that required one sentence definitions of identity.
The challenge will be testing whether the insights of individual people who have lived across identity frontiers can be scaled up to inform the identity of our city and country. I think our future could depend on it.