Mixed race studies are dominated by studies undertaken in the US and UK. Given the importance of social and cultural location and policy context, this is a problem. The history of slavery in the US, and in the UK its colonial legacy, generate particular structures, identities and experiences for those of mixed backgrounds, making generalisation elsewhere problematic. There are also differences in the ways sociological debates about race and mixed race have played out in these spaces (Parker & Song, 2001). While race is an important social issue, the terminology is relatively unproblematic in the US, whereas in Europe, the influence of neo-Marxist and critical thought means race is treated with suspicion as a potentially reifying construct. This argument, made two decades ago by Parker and Song, may be less salient now, given the strength of critical race theory globally. Certainly, over the last decade the publication of books such as Global Mixed Race (King-O’Riain et al, 2014), International Perspectives on Racial and Ethnic Mixedness and Mixing (Edwards et al., 2012) and Mixed Race Identities (Aspinall & Song, 2013) have begun to shift this UK/US focus to other regions, and work in my own region is burgeoning (Fozdar & McGavin, 2016; Rocha & Fozdar, 2017). If race is a story about power that is written on the body (Spickard, 2015), these stories from elsewhere, with different power relations, historical and political trajectories, and types of bodies, are important. These voices from other parts of the world are being added to the ‘we’ of the academic north.
When thinking about the ‘we’ who is able to speak, considering who ‘counts’ as mixed is also important. Elsewhere I have written about my own experience as quite a white-looking mixed person with a strong identity as mixed (Tilbury, 2007), so will not repeat these reflections here, but instead use an example of how others in Australia engage with the question of counting mixedness.
In a Facebook discussion recently, on the eve of the 2021 Australian Census, friends criticised the ethnic identification options available. Many were themselves of mixed backgrounds, or married to partners of different racial backgrounds, making their children mixed, or multiply mixed. They railed against ‘Australian’ as a response option for the ancestry question, suggesting it implies a coloniser nationalist identity. But they were also somewhat dubious about my suggestion, added into the comments, that a race question was needed in the Census. This reflects the general distaste, indeed taboo, Australians feel about naming race (Guy, 2018). Those commenting on the post suggested alternatives they might use, such as ‘world citizen’, ‘earthling’, ‘Chindian’, ‘Eurasian’, using multiple categories (English Iraqi in one box, Indian European in another), and more. Comments included one (white male) individual who noted their own DNA test showed multiple ancestries spanning the globe (listed by nation) to show their own complexity. Most participants noted they felt uncomfortable being forced to choose just two ancestries over others.
One white Australian new parent of a mixed child posted the following:
“I know you are tagging me because of how this relates to [son] but I was like should I comment on this? Because really I'm just white af
Love white people that, when talking about backgrounds, go "well I'm a quarter Welsh, a quarter english, and my dad grew up in Australia but he was actually born in New Zealand but his parents were Cornish and Australian, so I'm pretty mixed..."
No mate. Ya just white (the above background is mine)”
This young man’s tongue-in-cheek analysis, which he gave me permission to reproduce, suggests a recognition of the limitations of mainstream Australians’ engagements with the meaning of race, but also demonstrates that some are able to critique the assumptions on which such claims are made, and recognise the realities of race as both material and a social construct. This Welsh English Australian pokes fun at those who seek to represent themselves as diverse, something Spickard (2015: 291) has called ‘me too ethnicity’. He refuses to ‘speak’, because he is white. And he names the un-nameable in Australia, whiteness.
Indeed, the Facebook discussion continued, in response, with challenges to the very idea of whiteness (in the form of ‘my skin is not white, it’s pinky beige, and I’ve lived overseas’ type arguments). This refusal to name race is part of the problem, and the Australian Census categories encapsulate, and materially perpetuate, this. Census categories are important because they actively construct identity. Many other countries include race categories in their census; and the provision of mixed race categories in some censuses acknowledges mixedness as a legitimate identity (Rocha and Aspinal, 2020; Guy, 2018). This allows researchers such as Kaufmann (2018: 31), as noted in the introduction, to predict that the US will be ‘majority minority’ by 2040, and that within the next 100–150 years many regions of the world will be predominantly mixed race (Kaufmann, 2018; see also Alba, 2020). We have no such ability in Australia. The inability to identify the extent, composition and rate of growth of mixed populations in Australia means scholars, policy makers, and ethnic communities cannot accurately understand demographic trends, target and measure outcomes of multicultural service provision (Fozdar & Stevens, 2020; Stevens & Fozdar, 2021), or critically engage with the many dimensions of identity construction.
Guy (2018) argues this omission is evidence of the self-congratulatory ‘colour-blind’ approach Australia takes to diversity. In not ‘seeing’ race, Australia pretends that it prioritises universal humanity over racial distinction, and that racism is a thing of the past. This omission is not simply an oversight therefore, suggests Katz (2012), but a fundamental part of Australia’s race relations milieu, a wilful unseeing.
Rather than colour-blind, Australia is race averse. As a colonial settler nation it carries some guilt at its dispossession and continuing oppression of the Indigenous peoples. The infamous ‘White Australia Policy’, introduced in 1901 as the first piece of legislation of the federated colonies, was a suite of legislative instruments designed to stop immigration by non-whites, and to remove those non-whites already in the country. This explicitly race-based policy, enacted through a dictation test, continued until the late 1960s. Simultaneously, mixed Indigenous children were being removed from their families, to be raised in institutions. The Stolen Generations is the name given to those Aborigines and their descendants who, over generations, were removed, based on the logic that the coloniser should keep the nation ‘pure’ for British settlers and ‘breed out’ Aboriginality (see Guy, 2018; McGregor, 2002). Racial mixing was seen as an opportunity to gradually extinguish colour and culture, in these children. As well as leaving Australians averse to naming race, Guy (2018) argues this history has left a legacy of a ‘preference for whiteness’, even if that whiteness is minimal (as in the case of some mixed race people). These related histories are fundamental to how mixedness is experienced and engaged with currently.
But there is a fourth pillar to be considered along with the legacies of colonisation, the White Australia policy and the Stolen Generations, and that is the legacy of multiculturalism. Multiculturalism became policy in the early 1970s and has come to be the foundation of a distinctive Australian identity (Brett & Moran, 2011). However rather than celebrating racial diversity, the selective ‘colour blindness’ that invisibilises Australia’s colonial history of dispossession, racist migration policy, and the removal of Indigenous mixed children, was also the basis of policies of multiculturalism, which privileged culture over race, and recognised cultural difference while ignoring the very real effects of racial disadvantage (Perkins, 2004). This became evident when former Prime Minister John Howard said he would prefer Australia had a multiracial policy rather than a multicultural one (Norrington, 2010). Howard’s preference was for a nation made up of people of different colours sharing a single culture, with national identity primary.
In terms of policy and practice, multiculturalism was a way of invisibilising race. There remain limits to Australian multiculturalism, as Ghassan Hage (1998) noted in White Nation, with the power to ‘tolerate’ difference and govern inclusion into the national community still resting in the hands of the (unnamed) White majority. Rhetorically, though, Australia as ‘the most successful multicultural country’ is a strong theme in representations of the nation (Busbridge, 2020), and, I have argued, frames how mixedness is seen. While Hage’s critique is valid, there are very high levels of support for multiculturalism in Australia (consistently at about 84% according to the Scanlon surveys overseen by Andrew Markus, see Scanlon Institute, 2020). Australians like to see themselves as multicultural and perceive that this is what is distinctive about them as Australians, as opposed to those from other countries (Brett & Moran, 2011). This fourth legacy creates a particular social and political environment that allows pride to be taken in mixedness, at least of a certain type.
The concern with naming race generated by colonisation, White Australia, the Stolen Generations, and perpetuated by multiculturalism policies, has meant that acknowledging racial difference, and being able to count race-based mixedness, remains limited. In practice, scholars attempting to identify levels of mixed race from the Australian Census data, to identify the mixed ‘we’, must creatively combine ancestry, language spoken at home, country of birth of parents and other measures. This shows mixedness on the rise (Fozdar, 2019; Fozdar & Stevens, 2020; Khoo, 2011). Higher proportions of young people identify as having mixed ancestries, and the actual proportions of those identifying as mixed are increasing overall. Thus, of the Australian population, 28% in 2006, 30% in 2011, and 34% in 2016 identified as having multiple ancestries. This is not mixed race data however. Calculating the proportion of those with Australian/European and non-European ancestries, only 7% of the total population (just over a quarter of those with multiple ancestries), are mixed but this ethnic and racial diversity is growing (Fozdar, 2019; Fozdar & Stevens, 2020). Compared with the increase in multiple ancestries overall (which would include our Facebook contributor), however, we find a slower rate of increase for European/non-European mixes, suggesting race remains a barrier to intimate relations. While this calculation uses a proxy for race, it does suggest that a significant proportion of the population have racially and/or culturally mixed backgrounds. Thus, a demographic trend seen as “one of the most powerful indicators of integration of immigrants” and an “indicator of the progress of multiculturalism” (Khoo, 2011: 101–102), demonstrating acceptance of cultural difference, is occurring in Australia.
There is also a small, but growing, number of people who identify as of mixed Indigenous heritage; an even more difficult calculation given Indigenous people tend to identify as Indigenous rather than mixed (Gardiner & Bourke, 2000). In the 2016 Census, 40.2% of the 2.8% of respondents who listed Aboriginal ancestry reported being of mixed ancestry. Walker and Heard (2015) demonstrate high rates of out-partnering (80% or more) for Indigenous Australians. Such calculations are difficult and dangerous however, as Kowal warns (2016), and even these opportunities for self-classification may work to invisibilise populations and their oppressions. Since the 1960s Indigenous Australian activists have encouraged a pan-Indigenous identity, considering “all Indigenous people as a diverse but unified cultural, racial and political group”, regardless of mixedness or otherwise (Kowal, 2016: 20). Here, Aboriginality is seen as a combination of self-identification, descent and community acceptance, regardless of other racial ancestries. Kowal goes on to argue that for Indigenous people “their ‘mixedness’ is irrelevant to their indigeneity” (2016: 20). Thus calculating Indigenous mixedness should not minimise self-identified membership of the Aboriginal community, and ongoing oppressions and disadvantage must be acknowledged regardless of ‘proportion’ of ancestral background.
This has been of some controversy where Aborigines who are not easily recognisable as Aborigines have been challenged as inauthentic (Fozdar, 2019; Kowal, 2016), and condemned for opportunism, particularly in relation to use of affirmative action policies. The equivalent in the US is what Spickard (2015: 344) has called ‘passing for Black’. Bodies are recognised as raced by others, and thus “intercorporeality positions identity as an extra-individual accomplishment” (Klocker & Tindale, 2021: 212)—not being ‘seen’ as Aboriginal may invalidate one’s own sense of identity.
But some people of Indigenous background challenge this position. Yin Paradies (an academic who describes himself as an Aboriginal-Anglo-Asian Darwinian [as in the city of Darwin] living in Melbourne) suggests that the strategic essentialism of pan-Aboriginality, while useful politically, has had some negative impacts, including leaving “an increasing number of Indigenous people vulnerable to accusations of inauthenticity” (Paradies, 2006: 355) due to a lack of cultural markers such as language, class, morality, cultural knowledge, and most importantly ‘Indigenous looks’. He refuses to privilege one aspect of his own identity over others, despite an imperative “that anomalous individuals choose to be either exclusively Indigenous or exclusively non-Indigenous” (Paradies, 2006: 357). Paradies’ preference is to create a hybrid space of multiplicity.
So the ‘we’ in Australia is messy and complex and unclear, and the fact is that the Census data can only tell us so much. This lack of Census categories affects identity, as noted, and may feed into the lived experience of inclusion or exclusion. Katz (2012) suggests the missing race category obscures racial identity, perpetuating the myth of White Australia, making it difficult to monitor discrimination and racism, and reducing the ability of non-white groups to develop their own identity, agency and politics of resistance (see also Luke & Luke, 1998). Guy argues leaving out the race question in the Census means mixed people “do not have a state-sanctioned space to identify” (Guy, 2018: 477), leaving them unable to “fully inhabit a mixed race identity” (Guy, 2018: 470). Whereas in the US there is an established mixed race community, with its own association, website and activities, and indeed a multiracial movement, in Australia there is no recognition of mixedness as an identity and no collective identity category available as the foundation for in-group solidarity. As Guy says “the racial ecology of Australia does not recognise …mixedness as a whole identity” (2018: 477). Those of mixed race disrupt the assumed singularity of race, threatening dominant majority norms, hence the default to whiteness. This presumption of whiteness perpetuates the ‘breeding out’ logic of Australia’s history—it ‘de-racializes’ those of mixed backgrounds.
It could be argued, however, that the lack of a singular community and ‘whole’ identity is not surprising given the range of mixed identities, and the differential experiences associated with being, say, African/White, versus Asian/White, versus African/Asian, and so on, and first versus second generation experiences. Add intra-Asian mixedness to the list and things get even more complicated in terms of identification and homogenizing (Abidin, 2016). Add Indigenous mixed and a whole new range of complications arise (Trigger & Martin, 2016). And does it even make sense to talk about a mixed community and identity, given the other cross cutting axes of nationality, language, culture, religion, class, gender, sexualities and so on? Paul Spickard (2015: 352) has been asking this question for over two decades now, contemplating “is there a groupness in mixedness”? He concludes that sharing common experiences as mixed does not provide the basis for enduring group identity.