Discover more from Mixed Messages
Sunder Katwala: “There’s a fluidity to mixedness that I think is underestimated”
The thinker and author on not feeling a tug of war, breaking the binary and getting comfortable in the middle
Hi, welcome back to Mixed Messages! This week I’m speaking to author and director of independent, non-partisan think tank British Future Sunder Katwala, who is of Irish and Indian heritage. Sunder’s new book, How to Be a Patriot, explores race, nationhood and belonging in these increasingly polarised times. It was really interesting to hear Sunder’s perspective on identity and mixedness, especially through the lens of sport and the progress we might take for granted. Prepare to think differently and read Sunder’s story below.
Tell me a bit about your family background.
I’ve got a lot of different identities – my parents came to this country from India and Ireland. My dad converted to Catholicism but didn’t really stop being a Hindu. I was quite strongly Irish Catholic.
Mixed was the term that made sense to me. I like everyday, accessible words over complicated terms like ‘minoritised communities.’ Mixed is reflective of that I have a mix of things going on. I can see the downsides of the term, people ask if I prefer ‘dual heritage,’ but I’ve got three or four heritages.
I didn’t grow up feeling that this was some enormous pressure or tug of war. The argument against mixed relationships when you hear old radio footage was that it can be selfish to have this relationship and foist this terrible crisis on these children who will be neither one nor the other, but I didn’t have that. When I was growing up, mixed was becoming slightly celebrated more than treated as some terrible anxiety.
Has your sense of self been consistent?
It definitely shifts over time. Growing up near Liverpool, I got very into football. Really, I found out about identity through sports, watching football, cricket and the Olympics. These became sites of identity conflict, where I saw overt racism against players like John Barnes in the ‘80s. By the time I was in my 20s, football was already on the front foot of being a place which is trying to be especially inclusive. It’s quite aspirational.
You’d definitely feel more alienated from what people were trying to project or exclude you from when you’re a teenager, but I was also lucky because it was softening and shifting at exactly the time when I’m thinking about this. The group that is like ‘you will never be us, who are you anyway,’ was slightly losing the cultural buy-in.
Did you ever speak to your family about being mixed?
I’m not sure we did talk about it. Indian culture is a bit distant to me, but I’m very interested in Indian and Irish history. I can follow what’s going on there more than music or Bollywood. Knowing what happened was quite important to me.
With my children, I try to give them space and treat them as a bit of a laboratory of what’s going on. When they were all under six, I ticked mixed-white and Asian on forms, and now it’s quite interesting to hear what boxes they’d like to tick.
My daughter said ‘people treat me like I've got white privilege most of the time, so I think I’ve got white privilege.’ But on her CV, her name is still going to be different. She’s still got some skin in the game. It’s almost as if it would be overclaiming to claim that status, whereas other people do exactly the opposite. You can decide. There’s a fluidity to [mixedness] that I think is underestimated.
I’d love to talk to you about your book – what made you want to write How to Be A Patriot now?
I thought I was writing a very different kind of book. By the time I was 21, I didn’t have a problem with being mixed-race Indian, Irish, Catholic, agnostic, a bit Scouse and a bit Essex unless other people had a problem. Being mixed-race was a bit trendy, being Indian was getting more status, being Irish was ok, so I’m not trying to write a book that says how difficult it is to be British or ask if this country will ever find a place for people like me. By the late 1990s, things were going quite well for me and the country in a way that I wasn’t expecting when I was fourteen – then, it felt quite aggressive.
Having got my own sense of confidence at nearly 50 years old, I wondered what the point was of me being confident if everyone else is at loggerheads. This book is about multiple different culture wars or identity fights: the history wars, Brexit, Scotland, race, faith, Muslims… it’s all going on at once. [This book] is me wondering if anyone else is in the middle, and slightly feeling that most people are. Most people are in the middle thinking that we’ve changed quite a bit but we could go a bit further.
The younger groups are more sceptical. If you were growing up in the ‘80s or ‘90s, you saw things change for the better. I don’t think people who have grown up in the last ten or fifteen years feel that they’ve inherited that progress. They take for granted that they shouldn’t be getting beaten up by the National Front.
With the white British group as well, there are people who feel like they’ve lost their country just because I feel like I can belong to it. Why is that? Can I find my sense of identity in this post-imperial whiteness? People like me have got a sense of identity in post-imperial Britain, because if you’re Indian Irish and your parents meet in the NHS, you’re definitely British. By 20, I very much got that sense of standing.
I also think that if you’re born here, you start with a sense of standing. Something distinctive about British ethnic minorities is the Commonwealth background, and this very grounded claim to be British. You don’t find that in other European countries like France and Italy.
Do you think there’s a stereotype around being mixed?
I think there’s a way of talking about race becoming more prominent in white liberal America that’s unhelpful and doesn’t reflect British identity or history. I think these discourses are very national.
The mixed experience is in a complicated position here, which has to do with debates about hierarchy and privileges and if there’s mixed-race privilege. Obviously there’s always been some mixed-race privilege – my kids can choose whether to be identified as white. The mixed group might have advantages, it might have challenges. But then you’ve got some quite aggressive polarising politics from the left around race and privilege hierarchies where you’re calling people coconuts, which I think is a racial slur, or white-adjacent.
It's important to notice the size and scale of the mixed group. It’s growing, but the mixed group also isn’t a group. I can attach to people who are Catholic but not that keen on it, or people from India, but that doesn’t give me a massive amount of common ground with someone who’s Black Caribbean and French.
What’s one of the best things about being mixed for you?
When I went into book publishing and journalism, I decided not to make race and identity the thing I would most focus on. Then the 7/7 terrorism attack happened, and I thought ‘this is really important.’
You have a level of confidence and legitimacy if you're a British born minority, maybe mixed-race in particular, to lead a conversation where you ask if it’s possible to think about different points of view and how they integrate.
Can you define your mixed experience in one word?
Hopeful. People might say that it was a difficult hand to be dealt, but I'm optimistic by experience, not just by instinct. I think we're moving into an age where people are inhibiting the progress that I saw. I just want to make it less binary and make the nuance interesting. The nuance isn’t just kumbaya, you can take positions.
Enjoy Mixed Messages? Support me on Ko-Fi! Your donations, which can start from £3, help me pay for the transcription software needed to keep this newsletter weekly, as well as special treats for subscribers. I also earn a small amount of commission (at no extra cost to you) on any purchases made through my Bookshop.org affiliate links.
Mixed Messages is a weekly exploration of the mixed-race experience, from me, Isabella Silvers. My mom is Punjabi (by way of East Africa) and my dad is white British, but finding my place between these two cultures hasn’t always been easy. That’s why I started Mixed Messages, where each week I’ll speak to a prominent mixed voice to delve into what it really feels like to be mixed.