Sun, 13 Mar 2005


Portrayal of mixed-race women

Helen Kolawole, Guardian News Service, London

Why must mixed-race women always be tragic?

Personally speaking, being rebranded from half-caste to mixed race came as welcome relief. Yet, try as we might to change our image, we tragic mulatresses remain as doggedly woeful as the salivating madwoman in Mr Rochester's attic.

Confused, miserable, and in perpetual limbo, we are now apparently abundant in the world of celebrity. There is the soul singer Alicia Keys (raised in Hell's Kitchen, absent black father); the actress Halle Berry (abusive, absent black father); the Olympic medalist Kelly Holmes (runaway daddy tracked down in Jamaica); and the pop star Mariah Carey (absentee black father, racially ambiguous look).

Now another has joined our ranks. The actress Sophie Okonedo, who received a best supporting actress nomination for Hotel Rwanda, has every prerequisite for official tragic status. As London's Evening Standard said, she fought "against the odds": an absentee Nigerian father, a struggling Jewish mother, a project housing upbringing. Despite her insistence that she is at ease with her heritage, she's being fast-tracked as Britain's Halle Berry.

It is dangerous territory. Berry is rarely mentioned without reference to her "against the odds" life story, which includes spending her childhood not black enough for black folks and too touched with the tar brush for those picky whites. Are you seeing a pattern here?

No sooner had double gold medalist Kelly Holmes crossed the finishing line at Athens last year than the media had her lined up as a subtle, triumph-over-miscegenation story. OK, not so subtle if you consider that Holmes's post-Athens cuttings reveal that she's the mixed-race child of a shiftless Jamaican father raised on a project housing estate in south-east England.

Once these women have been outed as sorrowful wretches, the tribulations of their abandoned white mothers add credence to the stereotype. In the rank hypocrisy of the tabloid, the often vilified single mum is elevated to martyr. Martyr, that is, to the irresponsible ways of black men. These sympathetic write-ups are thinly veiled cautionary tales about the perils of white women having children with black men. But the divergent experiences of these celebrities' lives contrast greatly with the media's agenda.

Has Holmes revealed herself to be irrevocably torn asunder by her raging genes? No, she claims to be blissfully ignorant of race. Does rapper Ms Dynamite come across as the poor little mixed-race girl? Quite the opposite. Like Berry, she clearly defines herself as a black woman and went through an endearing phase of referring to race repeatedly in interviews.

Despite many of the UK's mixed-race communities going back generations, the British media have still to get to grips with how to portray the 700,000 Britons who registered themselves "mixed" in the last census. While they retain the right to flip out the tragedy card when it suits, there are times when it's deemed imperative to pin up the bunting and celebrate diversity.

Considering it took "half-caste" two centuries to be banished from the popular lexicon, it will be a good while before society is ready to leave the tortured mulatto wailing at the curbside.