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An interview with Dr Chamion Caballero

Dr Chamion Caballero, a senior research fellow at London Southbank University, is speaking at the Mixed race: the future of identity politics in Britain debate on 25th October. Her research formed the basis of the BBC's recent Mixed Britannia series, fronted by George Alagaiah. With Dr Peter Aspinall of Kent University, she collected histories, photographs, images and film to highlight the voices and first-hand experiences of mixed race people. The photo is from LBSU's coverage of the Mixed Britannia series.

Q What was the feedback from Mixed Britannia?

A The feedback from the Mixed Britannia series has been phenomenal. The BBC tells us that it received the second highest audience satisfaction score for a current affairs series and even now we continue to receive emails from viewers all around the world who inform us just how fascinating, enlightening and moving they found the programmes.

Q How did you become involved?

A In 2007, Dr Peter Aspinall (University of Kent) and I were awarded funding by the British Academy to explore the mostly overlooked experiences of mixed race people, couples and families in early twentieth century Britain, a period which we had come to understand had seen considerable public debate on racial mixing and mixedness. This project – The Era of Moral Condemnation: Mixed Race People in Britain, 1920-50 – unearthed a range of material and the strength of the findings was such that they inspired and formed the foundations of the Mixed Britannia series on which we acted as academic consultants.

Q Has it affected your ongoing research?

A Yes, absolutely. While the broadcast medium was a very successful dissemination route, it was nevertheless a temporary and partial one: the series is no longer available to view on iPlayer and, moreover, only provides an overview of the history rather than the more detailed account that we are able to provide through, for example, academic publications which are themselves accessed by a limited readership. With this in mind – alongside the awareness of what Dr Caroline Bressey calls the ‘absence of colour in British Archives’ – we recognised the need to identify new and creative ways to provide access to archival material on the lived experiences of groups whose histories remain somewhat hidden from public understandings. In 2012, we collaborated with the third sector organisation Mix-d and were fortunate to receive a grant from the Arts and Humanities Research Council to create the ‘Mix-d Museum’, an interactive online repository of the material we had collected on racial and ethnic mixing in 20th century Britain. We are also in the process of finalising our book based on the research behind the programme to be published by Palgrave Macmillan in 2015 as Racial Mixing and Mixedness in Britain: Social Constructions and Lived Experience in the 20th and 21st Centuries.

Q Why do you think there has been so little attention on mixed race families in the past?

A Well, it depends what you mean by ‘the past’. As our research shows, there have been periods of time in British history when mixed race families have not garnered a great deal of interest but there have also been times when they have received a disproportionate amount of public attention. The 1920s and 1930s, for example, saw something of a ‘moral panic’ around the visibility of interracial relationships between white British women and minority ethnic men. Numerous alarmist academic and local governmental reports highlighted ‘the half-caste’ problem while the media printed endless articles ranting about the ‘social canker’ presented by the ‘black’ and ‘yellow’ peril that was threatening white girls, as well as the ‘moral laxity’ of the many white girls who were willingly taking up with Black, Asian, Arab and Chinese men. The arts also repeatedly thrilled audiences by presenting the illicit attractions – but mostly the dangers – of racial mixing for white Britons. So I think it’s not so much a question of why there has been so little attention on mixed race families – who have a longstanding presence in Britain – but rather why do these families emerge, disappear and re-emerge as a focus of interest in the public eye. This is something I’ll be focusing on in the panel session.

Q Is this what prompted you to co-found the Mix-d Museum?

A Yes, absolutely. In our work generally, we realised that the historical presence and experiences of mixed race people, couples and families in Britain – as with BME British history generally - is wildly overlooked or misunderstood. The accounts and images we have gathered during our research challenge existing understandings and open up new routes into understanding the minority ethnic presence in Britain. It is wonderful to see more and more different fields uncovering and sharing this history in creative and enduring ways, such as Amma Asante’s film version of the life of Dido Belle. Importantly, these non-textbook routes help engage new, young audiences and encourage an interest in and enjoyment of history and we see ourselves very much part of this type of engagement. We’re really keen to find ways to share our work with non-academic audiences as it’s really important to us that these wonderful findings from our research aren’t just read by a handful of other academics! So we’ve worked closely with schools in piloting the Museum and the feedback from pupils and teachers has been great. The Museum is still in a pilot stage and we’re currently seeking funding to allow us to upload the mountain of material we have and make it even more interactive and informative for visitors. (http://www.mix-d.org/museum/timeline). 

Mixed race: the future of identity politics in Britain will take place in Room LG18 at 11.30am-1pm on 25th October. To pre-book, ring 01223 766766 or email: cfi@admin.cam.ac.uk