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Who am I? Mixed-race identity and schools: What we need to know

December 7th, 2018

On May 19, 2018, the world watched as Meghan Markle became the first member of the Royal Family with mixed-race identity. The event sparked a national discussion about race and in particular about the experiences of mixed-race people in the UK. In the UK, the term ‘mixed-race’ is used to describe people with parents from different ethnic groups. The most recent Census information shows that mixed-race young people represent the fastest growing ethnic group in the UK. This is often viewed as evidence of the UK as an integrated and rapidly changing modern country (BBC, 2018). However, research exploring the experiences of mixed-race people show that there is still a long way to go to change societal attitudes towards race and ethnicity.

A study by the Department for Education showed that mixed-race adolescents are performing well at school, achieving above or at the expected national average in GCSEs (DfE, 2017). Yet there is an increasing body of evidence, both in the US and UK, showing that mixed-race young people display poorer mental health outcomes than other ethnic groups (e.g. Wong, 2012; Gutman, 2015). This is important because evidence shows that mental health is vital for academic achievement, and long-term outcomes for all adolescents (Young Minds, 2017). So how can schools better understand the experiences of their mixed-race pupils, and thus support their mental health?

My Research

I identify as mixed-race and was acutely aware of my own experiences growing up with mixed-race heritage in the UK. As part of my training to become an Educational Psychologist, we had the opportunity to conduct our own research. I was interested in understanding why mixed-race pupils may have struggles with their mental health, and what schools and families could do about it.

So, I gathered a sample of 100 adolescent girls, with a range of ethnic backgrounds, and gave them a questionnaire. This asked about their mental health, ethnicity and school experiences. I then carried out individual interviews with 12 girls who had ‘mixed-race’ heritage. This allowed me to ask more direct questions about their experiences being mixed-race in school.

What did I find?

  • Most mixed-race young people felt good about their heritage.
  • Those who had knowledge about their ethnic group, and felt as if they belonged, had higher self-esteem. Our self-esteem is how we value and perceive ourselves.
  • However, overall mixed-race young people had lower self-esteem than their peers.
  • Some mixed-race young people felt that their friends didn’t support how they chose to identify. This had a negative effect on their self-esteem.
  • Some mixed-race young people experienced discrimination because of their heritage. This discrimination was very subtle but was a persistent and had a negative effect throughout their lives.

Below are some quotes from the interviewees showing their struggles with identity and discrimination at school.

“they’ll be like “oh you’re so black” or “oh you think you’re black but you’re forgetting that you’re half white’”

“I don’t feel it’s their place to tell me who I am and how I identify. And it’s just I’m used to it, because it’s [happened] throughout my life”

What should schools do about this?

This research shows that being mixed-race in itself does not result in mental health difficulties, but it is how society and peers view that identity which may cause difficulties. Schools can intervene in the following ways:

  • Offer opportunities for pupils to discuss and celebrate their ethnic heritage, especially in secondary schools.
  • Understand that mixed-race young people may identify with only parts of their heritage.
  • Encourage families to share knowledge of their ethnic group with their children.
  • Help mixed-race young people to develop their self-esteem. Programmes such as ELSA  help staff to plan and deliver individualised programmes of support to pupils with additional emotional health and wellbeing needs.
  • Train all young people, and staff, to challenge subtle discrimination. This is often viewed as unimportant, yet as this research shows it can have a chronic negative impact on mental health.

Dec 2018 – Dr Sarah Austin Educational Psychologist

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Mixed-race identity