Rarely has television lent itself so powerfully to the anti-racist cause than in George Alagiah’s new documentary series Mixed Britannia, part of the BBC’s new Mixed Race season.
In three programmes, Alagiah charts the birth and early struggles of mixed race communities at the turn of 20th century Britain.
Touring the seaports of Cardiff, Liverpool, London and South Shields, he uses a mixture of interviews and archive footage to describe the racism that surrounded seamen from the Caribbean, North Africa and Asia that settled there.
But, in the midst of the barbarity of anti-black riots and the draconian laws that followed them, he finds hope.
A small, but steadily growing number of white women defy threats and abuse to form relationships and families with those who are deliberately segregated from whites by their employers and the state.
What attracts the women to them? Alagiah isn’t entirely sure, but testimony from the wives dwells on the kindness and selflessness of “their men”—a picture entirely at odds with the stereotypes of the day.
In marrying foreigners, and having children with them, these women accepted they would face abuse from former friends, and even some from among their families.
Few would have anticipated that the reaction of the state would be worse.
One Liverpool family describes the way their white mother had her citizenship revoked because she had married their father, a Chinese sailor. Even as late as the 1950s, the pair had to obey a curfew order that meant they could not visit a cinema in the evening without the worry of how to get home.
The state feared that “race mixing” would be the trigger for more unrest, like the race riots that followed the end of the First World War. Yet one theme that emerges is the increasing integration of working class Britain.
As the numbers of mixed race families grew, the culture of the districts they lived in tended to adapt. Foods, customs, traditions all underwent change—a new society was being born.
So in Cardiff’s Tiger Bay, children of all backgrounds would join in as Muslims took to the streets to celebrate Ramadan, chanting, “Hurray, it’s the Islamic Christmas.”
And, as mixed race Muslim children learned the Quran in the backrooms of cafes and lodging houses, they were often joined by non-Muslim friends.
There is some brilliant archive footage of a blond-haired white kid practising Arabic for his North African Saturday school teacher in Cardiff.
For our rulers, and all those who clung to ideas of racial superiority, this was the stuff of nightmares.
The British Eugenics Society, up until then primarily concerned with trying “breed out” the poor, now turned its eyes to the “half-castes”.
They embarked on skull-measuring and intelligence exercises designed to prove that mixing led to “inferior stock”.
Interviewees describe how as young children they were taken to sit tests, while having their complexions assessed by men in white coats.
Patrons, such as future wartime leader Winston Churchill, lapped it up. So did the chief constable of Cardiff, who called for Apartheid-style laws to forbid sex between the races.
But the bigots were fighting against the tide. The number of mixed race families grew from the dozens to the thousands over the course of a few decades.
A new generation of British-born offspring began a battle to be accepted as first class citizens.
The next episode looks at the part played by mixed race people in the Second World War. If it is as good as the first, then we are in for a treat.
Mixed Britannia is shown on BBC Two, Thursday 6 October, 9pm. Other programmes in the Mixed Race season include Twincredibles and How the World Got Mixed Up