Commonwealth Games Festival: What it’s really like to be mixed-race in Birmingham

How does it feel to grow up with mixed heritage in one of the most multicultural cities in the country? A new exhibition shines a spotlight on the experience

Birmingham is one of the most diverse cities in the UK. At last count, over a quarter of people living in the city were Asian – compared to the national average of 7% – and nearly 10% were Black, three times the figure for the rest of the UK. The West Midlands also has one of the largest mixed-race populations in the country, second only to London. I’m one of them, with mixed Indian and white heritage.

Growing up, I never felt disconnected from my Punjabi roots. I had plenty of British Asian friends and made many trips to Soho Road or melas. But in my twenties, I began to question what it meant to be mixed-race and how I fit into such a diverse group of people. It’s part of the reason I started Mixed Messages, a weekly newsletter on mixed-race identity, to explore mixed identity in all of its many forms and facets.

Those themes are the focus of Unapologetically Other, an exhibition showing at the Midlands Arts Centre during the Birmingham 2022 Commonwealth Games Festival. Showcasing work by the recently-formed Mixed Rage Collective, the exhibition explores mixed-race identity through poetry, film, photography and more. Bright, bold and challenging, the show offers a celebration of the artists’ roots, but also expresses anger at daily microaggressions and a lack of representation.

The idea for the collective was sparked after conversations between Sevonah Golabi and fellow artist Niall Singh, who has Scottish and Punjabi heritage. “We spoke about how we’re mixed-race but people don’t always see it. I told her that I appreciated these ‘mixed rages’. That’s where the name came from,” Niall tells me. “It was a very cathartic experience. We’ve created a little community, and it’s become a safe place to say those things,” he adds.

Having moved to Birmingham ten years ago, Niall says it’s “normal” to be mixed here: “I feel much more comfortable when everyone’s from somewhere else, rather than being the only person who feels like an alien in a white space.” It’s part of the reason why Mixed Rage Collective member Jane Thakoordin, who is of mixed-white British and Guyanese heritage, moved to the city after her daughter was born: “We wanted to move somewhere that had more diversity and would enable her to feel as though she wasn’t unusual.” Having lived in Luton and Glasgow, Jane now embraces “Brummie culture” as part of her DNA. “Birmingham has a massive mixed population and is proud of its differences – that’s really important.”

But for Sherrie Edgar, the experience of growing up mixed in the Midlands hasn’t been quite as comfortable. “My family is South Asian, Dutch and Irish. I was born in Coventry, where over 33% of the population is non-white British. There are pockets where you can feel acceptance, but I tried to fit in, denying any form of difference. I realise now that there weren’t many mixed-race South Asians, which is why I steered away from who I was,” she says.

I put the question of what it was like to be mixed-race in Birmingham to those outside of the collective, like author Kit de Waal, whose Brum-based novel My Name Is Leon was recently adapted for the small screen. She says she stood out as a mixed-race person in the 1960s: “There were perhaps four or five [mixed] families in Birmingham – we became a tribe, because we were the only people who had that life experience.”

With mixed Black Caribbean and Irish heritage, Kit remembers being called “half-caste” and “coloured,” but that she came from two minorities. “At one point it would have been better to be Black than it was Irish, certainly when the bombings were going on in Birmingham,” Kit shares. “I think it’s all made me who I am. I’m very proud to be both.”

Kit recalls a childhood spent around the Irish community in Digbeth, Camp Hill and Sparkbrook, and the West Indian community in Small Heath, where she was born. “Whichever community you were with, you weren’t quite of that community. You were more likely to be accepted by the West Indian community – you stuck out like a sore thumb in the Irish community,” she says.

Cole Martin as Leon in My Name is Leon, kissing his baby brother on the forehead (Credit: Ben Gregory-Ring/BBC/Douglas Road Productions)

Someone who has studied Birmingham’s mixed community in depth is Dr. Karis Campion, the author of Making Mixed Race: A Study of Time, Place and Identity. Karis is mixed-Black Caribbean and white, and grew up in Handsworth.

For Karis, the importance of neighbourhoods in mixedness is underexplored. “We talk about mixedness as a demographic or group of people. There are shared experiences, but in the book I think about what it means to be mixed-race in Birmingham compared to in London or Liverpool, and also what it feels like in different parts of the city,” she explains. “I found that people were racialised differently moving through the city. One interviewee remembered being seen as mixed-race in Selly Oak, whereas in Handsworth he was just seen as a Black boy. It’s important to focus on identity at a neighbourhood level, and the histories of those places. In Handsworth, we had migration, the riots, carnival… All of those histories are present in lots of ways and we pick up on them without necessarily being conscious of that,” she says.

Birmingham is a chosen and inclusive home for many of Mixed Rage Collective, but there are hopes that the exhibition will shift perceptions of mixed people in the city – and outside of its borders. “We’re talking about taking [the exhibition] to another place where it won’t be so comfortably received. We’re not saying Birmingham is a utopia, but the conversation here is a celebration of mixedness. For other parts of the Midlands, it might be interesting to have a real conversation.”

Jane agrees, saying that the group feel they’ve got the beginnings of something really solid. “We’re almost daring ourselves to take the movement as far as we can, and keep it political. Yes, we want an understanding of people’s experiences, but also how that radiates out into the wider world.”

See Unapologetically Other at Midlands Arts Centre until 14th August. This exhibition is free to all

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