Mixed-Race Relationships in Four Nations

Mixed-Race Relationships in Four Nations

Dr Anna Maguire (King’s College London) reflects on inter-racial relationships in post-war Britain and the national identities of the women involved.

When writing for this blog a number of years ago now, Simon Jenkins thought about the implications of a ‘four nations’ approach to sexuality: the conflation of ‘Britain’ with ‘England’ or even ‘London’ and the utility for historians ‘to explicitly categorise their research within one of Britain’s constituent parts’. Jenkins concluded, for his own analysis of prostitution in interwar Cardiff, that the city’s ambiguous identity meant that a ‘four nations’ approach rather than an exclusively ‘Welsh’ context would awaken new possibilities. In this post, I return to a theme mentioned by Jenkins – ‘interracial’ relationships – to explore how a ‘four nations’ approach may enliven our understandings of mixed-race intimacy and love in the post-war period.

Mixed-race relationships, particularly from 1948 onwards, have been seen as a national concern. Responses to mixed-race relationships have been seen as a symbol of anxiety around the infiltration of the former empire within the metropole, taking ‘race relations’ from the streets into the familial home. Bill Schwarz has described ‘miscegenation’ as ‘the central issue in terms of white perceptions of race, defining the boundaries of England and signifying the inviolate centre which could brook no impurity’.[1] Wendy Webster demonstrates how white woman were positioned as ‘the guardians of domestic boundaries…if black and Asian migration brought a fear of the collapse of boundaries between coloniser and colonised, black and white, it was particularly through the breaching of this internal frontier that such a collapse was imagined’.[2]

The national significance and symbolism of mixed race relationships is evident in the analysis of the discourse surrounding them.

Yet, as evidenced in sociological studies of the time, frequently mixed-race relationships occurred between Irish women and men of colour, as well as English, Welsh or Scottish women, which the national framework may not fully account for. In her 1963 book, Dark Strangers: A Study of West Indians in London, which reported research undertaken in the 1950s, Sheila Patterson uncovered a number of ‘casual’ relationships between West Indian men and white women. Most of these women ‘seem to be young girls, usually from the rural areas of England or Ireland’.[3] Similarly, along with 43 English women, 18 Irish women were interviewed by C. T. Kannan for his 1972 study Inter-racial Marriages in London. The ‘black men’s women’ in Lambeth, as they were named by respondents in Susan Benson’s Ambiguous Ethnicity (1981), included English, Scottish and Irish women. Benson further highlighted the function of Roman Catholic churches and schools in the borough which acted as focal points for local Irish, Maltese and black Catholic populations and could therefore be understood as ‘convivial’ spaces for racial mixing, if not explicitly romantic or sexual.[4] What constituted the ‘internal frontier’ if a number of the women engaged in mixed-race relationships were not guardians of domestic boundaries but represented earlier and ulterior breaches?

Given the difficulties faced by migrant communities from the Commonwealth and from Ireland in this period, particularly in regards to jobs and housing, accounting for the distinctions between white Irish, English, Scottish and Welsh women (who may well have been internal migrants) remains significant.

As Mica Nava has demonstrated, the association and identification of British women with migrants, based on experiences of marginalisation and the formation of social alliances could operate as a form of solidarity in the face of white imperial patriarchy. Did mixed race relationships between Irish women and men of colour constitute this solidarity? Or are these relationships better understood as a product of class and the negotiations of the labour and housing market in particular areas of London and other cities?

By applying a ‘four nations’ rather than straightforwardly national approach that recentres the particular circumstances and identities of Irish women for example, we can examine the enmeshed relationship between nation, class, respectability, race, gender and sexuality. We can also explore the opportunities and limits of solidarity: one of the Irish ‘teddy boys’ interviewed by Barry Carman for the BBC in 1958 after the Notting Hill riots described his antagonism towards black men as partly because of the preferential treatment he felt they were extended which the Irish were not.[5]

This ‘four nations’ approach might, too, help us understand the ambiguous identities of urban environments, not only London and its conflation with England and Britain, but cities including Cardiff, Liverpool, Belfast, Bristol, Glasgow, Birmingham, Nottingham and Leicester. Here, the actions of English, Welsh, Scottish and Irish women were collapsed once more into being a British problem, without accounting for internal migratory patterns and the politics and economics of the city that influenced the organisation of space. The internal movement from rural to urban which Patterson noted in Brixton was present in other cities beyond the metropolis: has a focus on the capital stood in for the British emphasis on mixed race relationships?

By attending to these other destinations as British and as belonging to their individual national constituents we can add a further degree of complexity to the spatiality of ‘multiculturalism’ in the postwar period.

[1] Bill Schwarz, ‘Black Metropolis, White England’ in Mica Nava and Alan O’Shea (Eds.), Modern Times: Reflections on a Century of English Modernity (London: Routledge, 1996), p. 197.

[2] Wendy Webster, Englishness and Empire 1939-1965 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005), p. 152.

[3] Sheila Patterson, Dark Strangers: A Study of West Indians in London (Penguin Books, 1965), p. 253.

[4] Susan Benson, Ambiguous Ethnicity: Interracial Families in London (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1981), p. 45.

[5] Ruth Glass, Newcomers. The West Indians in London (London: Centre for Urban Studies and George Allen & Unwin Ltd., 1960), p. 267.

Anna Maguire is a Teaching Fellow in Twentieth Century British History at King’s College London. Her work explores colonial and post-colonial encounters in Britain and the British Empire. Her doctoral research examined the encounters of colonial troops from New Zealand, South Africa and the West Indies during the First World War. She is interested too in the memory and commemoration of colonial participation. Her new research will investigate mixed-race relationships in Britain in the post-war period.

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