The Social Evolution of the Term “Half-Caste” in Britain: The Paradox of its Use as Both Derogatory Racial Category and Self-Descriptor



The term “half-caste” had its origins in nineteenth century British colonial administrations, emerging in the twentieth century as the quotidian label for those whose ancestry comprised multiple ethnic/racial groups, usually encompassing “White”. From the 1920s–1960s the term was used in Britain as a derogatory racial category associated with the moral condemnation of “miscegenation”. Yet today the label continues to be used as a self-descriptor and even survives in some official contexts. This paradox – of both derogatory racial category and self descriptor – is explored in the context of the term's social evolution, drawing upon the theoretical constructs of the internal-external dialectic of identification and labelling theory.


A broad range of generic terms are used in Britain and elsewhere to describe the “mixed race” population, that is, people who by virtue of their parentage or more distant ancestry, self-identify (or are identified by others) as having an ethnic/racial heritage that comprises two or more main population groups, frequently encompassing the “White” group.1 Such terms comprise a mix of “social categories” used by officialdom and other observers to describe this collectivity and the self-descriptors or “group identifiers” of those who are themselves “mixed race”. The heterogeneity and complexity of this vocabulary owes much to the way the wider society perceives the “mixed race” population in ethnic/racial terms and the social evolution of such perceptions and their accompanying terminology over more than a century.

Terms such as “mixed race”, “mixed heritage”, “mixed parentage”, “mixed origins”, “dual heritage”, “biracial”, “multiracial”, and “mixed” comprise the current lexicon of social categories. Some of this proliferation is, no doubt, attributable to sensitivities regarding the term “mixed race” and endeavours to find an alternative, the UK census agencies using the terms “mixed”, “mixed background”, “mixed ethnic group”, and “mixed or multiple ethnic groups”. The generic labels used by people who are “mixed race” are somewhat fewer, with “mixed race” having widespread saliency and some of the new terms – such as “mixed heritage” – taking hold.1 There are, too, some “relic” terms from the past that still insinuate themselves into this vocabulary, most notably, “half-caste”. Beyond this mainstream lexicon lies a plethora of colloquial, slang and “street” terms for the “mixed race” population, some of contemporary provenance and others rooted in a past that pathologised this population or treated it as marginal: “mixed blood”, “half blood”, “quarter blood”, “half breed”, “cross breed”, “quarter-caste”, “half-caste”, “three-quarter-caste”, “mulatto”, “mulatta”, “mestee”, “mestizo”, “mestiza”, “metif”, “mustee”, “quadroon”, “quarteroon”, “quintroon”, “mongrel”, “zambo”, “griff(e)”, “hybrid”, and others. Some of these terms may have been popularised by their use in the US censuses to fractionalise race, notably, “mulatto” in most censuses between 1850 and 1920 (after which it disappeared) and “quadroon” and “octoroon” in the 1890 Census. The offensive nature of such language is widely acknowledged in scholarly writing, Fatimilehin stating that “on both sides of the Atlantic, extremely pejorative terms have been used (e.g. half-caste, mulatto, half-breed, etc.) to describe people of mixed racial heritage”.2

In the wake of political correctness and a strengthening in policy-making of involvement of ethnic/racial communities, most ethnic/racial terms used by officialdom are now the outcome of processes of protracted scrutiny. Those adopted for the decennial census endure extensive cognitive testing, focus group exposure, small-scale testing, and large-scale trials. Over the last decade the term “half-caste” has been pronounced unacceptable by many official bodies, for example, the Judicial Studies Board has declared the term “offensive and should be avoided”.3 It is surprising, therefore, to find that this derogatory term is still occasionally used in institutional settings and by public officials and survives as a label that some young mixed race people and their families treat as quotidian. Why should this be and what explains this paradox?

This paper seeks an answer in the social evolution of the term since the early 1900s. Using the internal-external dialectic of identification and labelling theory as explanatory framework, it maps out the usage of the label in contemporary society, both as a term of choice by “mixed race” people and, less frequently, by officials and others. It then investigates how the term has evolved as both racial “category” and self-label through the decades to the Second World War – an era in which inter-ethnic/racial unions and their offspring were morally condemned4 – and then in the post-war era when racist views about “miscegenation” or “race crossing” began to be challenged.

The Internal-External Dialectic of Identification and Labelling Theory as Explanatory Framework

The internal-external dialectic of identification and labelling theory are used as a framework to explain this paradox. The usage of any ethnic/racial label is a complex outcome of the interaction between observers, officialdom, and the wider society (the “social categorisers”) and those whom the label describes (the “group identifiers”). This process has been termed the internal-external dialectic of identification,5 whereby both processes feed back upon and are mutually implicated in each other. In the case of “labelling theory”, the interaction between (external) definition by others and (internal) self definition is described as a process of internalisation. Jenkins5 links the process to authoritative labelling and its consequences, whereby the power of the labeller impinges on individual experience. Another identity effect might be resistance.

These conceptual tools are particularly appropriate in this case study for explaining the co-existence of category and self-descriptor. As Jenkins asserts, the external or categorical dimensions of identity have been substantially neglected in theorisations of identity. Such dimensions are especially important here because of the importance accorded to the centrality of power. Jenkins has written: “Identities exist and are acquired, claimed and allocated within power relations”.5 The forces that shaped power relations in this context include an inter-war eugenics movement that continued to wield influence well into the second half of the twentieth century and was largely responsible for transforming the somewhat benign use by colonial administrations of “half caste” as routine category into a term of moral condemnation; the formal façade of state institutions, as seen in the records of parliament, where the concern in the 1930s was with economic and social stability in the port cities; and a more covert surveillance by the state in the era of large-scale post-war immigration, focusing on inter-racial union formation and births outside marriage. Against this background, the paper explores how the term “half-caste” evolved as a self-descriptor. Whilst being only partially and situationally meaningful for some through its stigmatisation by eugenicists, “half-caste” maintained some saliency as a self-identity throughout the century and beyond, mediated by social class with respect to knowledge of the term's fraught past and the geographical particularities of such collective memories.

Contemporary Usage of the Term “Half Caste” in Britain

The race relations governance of the last few decades, consolidated by the Race Relations Amendment Act 2001 with its focus on positive duties, has ensured that the term “half-caste” has not been utilised for official purposes, such as data collection, monitoring and official reporting. It is not part of UK parliamentary language: Oona King, MP for Bethnal Green and Bow (1997–2005) and of black and Jewish parentage, described herself in her maiden speech as “multi-ethnic” and castigated labels like “half-caste” as “unparliamentary language”.6 Indeed, one has to go back to 1981 to find its most recent usage, by a Liverpool MP, Robert Parry, in a House of Commons debate on the Scarman report.7 Similarly, the term is not found in the official papers and reports of government departments.

Nor is “half-caste” used in scholarly writing, Ali declaring it “a term so outdated in academia that it is only used in historical context”.8 Indeed, in the many diversity guides now produced by universities and colleges and learned societies the term “half-caste” is universally proscribed. For example, the British Sociological Association condemns it as “a dated racist term which is to be avoided”.9 University style guides also invariably ban the term, the University of Sheffield's, for example, proposing “mixed race, not half caste”.10 Such policing of language is now beginning to permeate journal editorial boards.

Given the term's inauspicious and ill-fated past, it is not surprising to find that it has been purged from these visible and public fora. Paradoxically, however, “half-caste” continues to insinuate itself into everyday discourse, both in informal settings and those involving officialdom, two in particular. Firstly, in the criminal justice system examples of the description of people as “half-caste” occur in witness statements and crime reports,11 Smith finding instances of “half-caste” in his examination of over 2000 such documents across seven police areas.12 These include usage of the term as a self-descriptor: one young woman in custody claimed: “every time I'm sentenced with a white person I would cop the fucking worst mate, all the time … three of us got nicked … them two got a fine. I got three days behind my door. Them two are white, I'm half caste”.13 In the prison service, too, the race relations management team at Feltham recorded that “terms such as half-caste and coloured were still being used”.14 Self-descriptions in the write-in section of the ethnicity classification in a survey of prison staff included “half caste”.15 Even in the gathering of ethnicity data in the recording of police stops, one officer commented: “I have heard other officers make the mistake of saying to someone you're coloured, or the phrase half-caste was used by one of my older colleagues”.16

In the second official setting, schools, research identified that teachers still call pupils “half-caste”,17 a staff member in a Scottish school thus referring to a pupil in the presence of a member of HMI Inspection Team.18 School pupils described themselves in official interviews as “half caste” and referred to friends in the same way,19, 20 those in Nottingham schools being reported to “often use ‘mixed race’ and sometimes still the term ‘half-caste' ”.21 In London schools, pupils “… were more familiar with the term ‘half-caste’ [than ‘mixed race']”.22 An investigation of the educational needs of mixed heritage pupils stated: “… it was apparent in interviews that the majority of pupil and parent respondents used ‘mixed race’, whilst some were content to use ‘half caste' ”.23 The term clearly has wide saliency: in a study of teenage parenting experiences, for example, dual ethnic origin young parents used the terms “mixed race (the most common term), mixed white/Caribbean, bi-racial, mixed black white, half-caste, and mixed white/Caribbean” in self-assigning their ethnicity.24 Examples of “half-caste” occur in the responses to ethnicity questions in social and general purpose surveys.25

Some of these practices may be sustained by the perception that the term is acceptable, especially when people are seen to use the term as a self-label and to describe friends. Forums and other internet sites are one source, albeit requiring interpretative caution given cyberspace's position as a racially coded environment.26 On a website for mixed race people, a commentator posted: “I grew up in the 1980's and the term half-caste wasn't seen as an offensive word. It was no different then to using the term biracial or mixed race now. I proudly referred to myself as half-caste as did many other mixed race people in London and I presume the UK who didn't call themselves Black”.27 Others on a parenting website intimate a social class bias in usage:

‘I grew up in a very multicultural area and the term “half caste” was always used. A lot of my friends who have a black and white parent described themselves as half caste. We never thought it was a negative term. That area was very working class and I noticed when I moved to a more mixed class area, primarily middle class, people of “mixed race” found the term offensive so now I don't use it as I would not want to upset people for the sake of a couple of words. But I don't get why it is offensive. Half caste … to me just sounds like the person in question has two parents of a different race. Maybe it has some negative history …’.28

Ali notes that, in her study, “… the children rarely knew that the term “half-caste” was considered, as another child said, “rude” ”.29 Similarly, a university student recalls how “… as a teenager I did not object to being termed ‘half-caste’. For the past few years I have preferred, and asked others to use, ‘mixed race’ … My father is of Asian and my mother of European ethnic origin. We do not, nor do the cultures of which we are a part, adhere to a caste system, hence I cannot be ‘half caste’. It is also a derogatory term – suggesting that I do not belong to either of my parent's groupings; that I am neither here nor there”.30

Only limited systematic data on usage is available. Amongst 58 London teenagers aged 14–18 with one “black” and one “white” parent, 39% regarded themselves as “black”, 10% as “black” in certain circumstances, 49% as “brown”, “half and half”, “mixed”, or “coloured”, and 10% “sometimes felt White” or that they felt “more white than black”, but none said they would call themselves “White”. 43% used the term “half-caste” to refer to their mixed ancestry and 24% used the term “mixed race”.31 The use of the term “half-caste” was strongly associated with coming from a working-class background. Similarly, of 51 6–9-year-olds with one white and one African or African-Caribbean parent, over half (59%) of whom saw themselves as neither black nor white, but as brown, “coloured”, “half-and-half”, or “half-caste”.32 Thus, the consistent usage of the term as a self-label is most widely reported for disadvantaged young people, some survey respondents frequently being aware of their parents' disapproval of the term.

Amongst mixed race pupils and their parents interviewed in a study of the understanding of their educational needs, the term was generally found inappropriate and derogatory:33 “My sister, she hates it when people say half-caste, she hates it so much […] She says … you're half African Caribbean and you're half English and caste means to be chucked out, so you're being chucked out of Black and White. And that's what she doesn't like, so say mixed race …” [female pupil]; “I don't like half-caste “cos it's classing it yeah? It's like, oh, we're second class, not best and all that” [male pupil]. These investigators also cite the case of a primary school where the head teacher recalled an incident in which a white/black Caribbean child had described herself in a piece of work as “half caste”. The child's parents had expressed concern that the school “… had apparently sanctioned the use of this negative type of language by the child and had not sought to engage with the issue or to challenge the use of this and similarly derogatory terms within the wider school community”. The parents had objected to the term because “it suggests that mixed heritage people are somehow incomplete in terms of their identities rather than whole people”. This wider view was endorsed by the Stephen Lawrence inquiry which found ‘half-caste’ an inappropriate term.34

The dislike of “half-caste” is especially strong amongst the well-educated, as evidenced in a survey of “mixed race” college students (n = 326).35 The generic term of choice (by over half) was “mixed”, others (“mixed heritage”, “mixed parentage”, and “dual heritage”) attracting little support. With respect to “offensive” terms, “half-caste” was most frequently mentioned, attracting three times the response of any other. A range of reasons was given, focusing on its partial recognition of their identity & its historical connotations: “ ‘Half-caste’ is terrible! Makes you sound as though you're ‘half a person' ”; “It suggests I am less than whole and has historical meanings and usage which demean us”; “It was formally used in a prejudiced/ignorant way”; “Because it would indicate two races of genetic origin”; “Because it portrays the notion that I am only half a person”; “Degrading and unnecessary”; “Half-caste has negative historical origins”; “Because it dates back to the slave trade and what cast you belong to”; “I don't see different races as castes (as in levers of class). We are all equal”; “It is indicating or suggesting that you are only half one race or that you're not a full person as you're not fully one race”; and “I presume it stems from the Hindu caste system and I don't like the implication of social inferiority or the principle of dividing any population into groups/castes – stratified into special roles”.

What the contemporary evidence shows, then, is that, though faded from public discourse in the last few decades in recognition of its pejorative usage, the continued routine usage of “half-caste” in everyday practice appears to have resulted in the acquisition of the identity by those least able to oppose it, “the subjugation of the internal moment of identification in the external”.5 Memories of the pathologisation associated with the label were least accessible to the young, less educated, and disadvantaged who saw the term as quotidian and claimed it as their self-descriptor. It is noteworthy that the official settings in which “half caste” continues to be used are characterised by asymmetries of power (schools) and in settings where identities have been “spoiled” (such as custodial or young offender institutions). The ambivalence towards the term “half-caste”, used by the disadvantaged social classes as a self-descriptor but regarded by many in the wider society, especially the well-educated, as derogatory requires an understanding of its historical origins and usage.

The Social Evolution of “Half-Caste” as Category

The term “half-caste” has a complex social evolution as both a term used by officialdom and as a group identifier. It had its origins in Britain's colonial project, census agencies and official data collectors in the late nineteenth century thereby seeking to capture those in their populations who were the offspring of mixed ethnic/racial unions. In New Zealand the term “half-caste” was used in colonial statutes in the 1860s36 and in the census from 1874 to 1921 to identify those of mixed descent.37-39 Complex definitions were also embodied in native land registration:40 “… ‘Native’ was defined as including anyone of ‘half-caste’ ‘blood’ or more. Thus anyone who was the child of a relationship between a Maori and ‘half-caste’, referred to as ‘three-quarter-caste’, was included under this definition. Anyone who was the child of a relationship between two persons of ‘half-caste’ descent was viewed as ‘half-caste’ while the child of a ‘half-caste’ and a Pakeha was denoted as ‘quarter-caste’ and considered to be ‘European' ”.

No Australian census prior to 1891 had used the term “half-caste Aborigines” as a population category, one explanation for which “… may have been that the term half-caste formed no part of the official language of Western Australia in censuses between 1848 to 1901. The term came into statistical usage at the time of the Western Australian census of 1891. As a result, the term did not enter the statistical rhetoric until then even though it had entered the lexicon of Aboriginal protection”.41 The term “half-caste” occurs frequently – 200 such mentions in the period 1825–1901 – in House of Commons parliamentary papers on the work of British colonial administrations. For example, the Western Australia Constitution Bill 1889 referred to “the education of aboriginal children, including half-castes”;42 an 1870 report from Hong Kong “on the present state of her majesty's colonial possessions” spoke of “the number of half-caste boys” in schools having “lately increased considerably …”;43 and correspondence with the Governor of New Zealand in 1854 mentioned “half-caste children”, “native and half-caste races”, and “industrial schools for native, half-caste, and European children”.44

Such racial labels were also applied to people of mixed descent in other parts of the world at this time. The 1866, 1878 and 1890 censuses for Maui and other districts of Hawaii used the term “half-caste” to enumerate the population.45 In the USA the offensive term “mulatto” was used by the decennial census as “a general term to include all negroes of mixed ancestry regardless of the degree of intermixture”.46 After its last use in the 1920 Census, all black people with any mixed ancestry were regarded as black under the “one drop rule” of hypodescent.47

Britain experienced little if any collection of racial/ethnic data prior to its first inclusion in social/general purpose surveys in the 1970s and census in 1991. However, with the founding of the Eugenics Education Society in 1908, a strong eugenics movement developed whose influence was to endure until the early 1960s. One of its concerns was “race mixing”, “race crossing”, or “miscegenation” and its consequences for the well-being of the nation, its programmes fostering a climate of moral condemnation of those who crossed racial lines. This only changed with the large-scale migration of people to Britain from Pakistan and the New Commonwealth countries from the late 1950s and international events such as the US Civil Rights movement.

In the first decades of the twentieth century, the parliamentary use of the term “half-caste” in Britain continued to be limited to the administration of the colonies. Its application to people in the country (rather than the colonies) began with eugenicists. In her contribution to The Control of Parenthood,48 Marie Stopes declared that “utopia could be reached in my life had I the power to issue inviolable edicts … I would legislate compulsory sterilization of the insane, feebleminded … revolutionaries … half-castes”. This sentiment presaged a body of polemical writings in the 1920s–50s by eugenicists and others sympathetic to their viewpoint about race crossing and the “half-caste” population, the outcome of which was long-lasting damage to community relations in parts of Britain and the indelible binding of the term “half-caste” to a portrayal of those in “mixed” unions and their offspring as morally reprehensible, socially marginalized, and outcast.

The work of eugenicists in Liverpool in the late 1920s – that culminated in the publication of the “Fletcher Report”49 – carried the greatest responsibility for stigmatising those called “half-caste”. It began in the early 1920s when HJ Fleure, professor of anthropology and geography at the University College of Wales, Aberystwyth, was approached by the Eugenics Society to carry out a survey of children who were the result of “race crossing” in Liverpool.50 He delegated the work to Rachel Fleming, an anthropological assistant in his department, whose primary focus was an “anthropometric study” to measure the physical characteristics of these children, published in the Eugenics Review.51 However, Fleming concluded that the “half caste” children's “adverse” hereditary often involved “not only disharmony of physical traits but disharmony of mental characteristics, resulting in great strain”, indicating at a meeting of the University Settlement on 1 December 1927 that: “… there is no doubt that the presence of increasing numbers of half-caste children inheriting disharmonious mental and physical traits, depresses very considerably the life of the Dockland population of Liverpool”.52 While Fleming went on to publish in the Eugenics Review and official publications,53, 54 it was Muriel Fletcher who picked up the mantle and arguably produced one of the most racist tracts of the century.

The first act was the creation of the Liverpool Association for the Welfare of Half-Caste Children, consisting of representatives of the School of Social Science at Liverpool University, the University Settlement, the Diocesan Board of Moral Welfare, Liverpool schools, the Women Police Patrols, and Liverpool clergy, under the chairmanship of Professor Roxby, the University's professor of geography. They appointed Muriel Fletcher, a social researcher trained in the University's School of Social Science in the early 1920s and probation officer in Stoke-on-Trent, to undertake a full survey to explore the nature of Liverpool's “half-caste” population. After nearly two years of research work and “probably the most thorough investigation of this particular problem that has so far been made”, the Association published the report in 1930. With a preface by Roxby and heralded as “an important contribution to the problem”, the methods and results of the enquiry have been challenged by many, less so its exclusive focus on “the Anglo-Negroid population” to the exclusion of the Anglo-Chinese and Lascar communities that presented “no serious problem”.

While Roxby sought to reassure that “no question of race prejudices was involved”, the language used by Fletcher was inflammatory. She wrote that “in Liverpool there is evidence to show that the Negro tends to be promiscuous in his relations with white women” and “… to become assertive and somewhat conceited”, treating these women in “a contemptuous manner”. She then characterised the white women as “those who … had an illegitimate child by a white man … those who are mentally weak … prostitutes, and younger women who make contacts in a spirit of adventure”. She claimed that many of the unions were “of a temporary nature”, the women having intercourse with other men while their husbands were at sea, and that “the coloured men in general despise the women with whom they consort”. The offspring of these unions, she asserted, “… find their lives full of conflict both within themselves and within the family”. These families “… have a low standard of life, morally and economically, and there appears to be little future for these children”. Of the juveniles (aged 14 upwards), she said: “All the circumstances of their lives tend to give undue prominence to sex … their moral standards are extraordinarily low”. How much of this tirade can be attributed to naivety, including the need to assuage her sponsors, is unknown: Fletcher does show a (frequently unacknowledged) genuine concern for the welfare of the children, piloting a number of experimental training schemes and recommending the appointment of a special “Welfare Worker” to develop an adequate social organisation.

The response to the report was predictable. Its reception in press and academic reviews signals the prevailing ideologies. That under the banner “Cross-Breeds” in the journal Man by Professor HJ Fleure,55 a member of the Eugenics Society Consultative Council in the 1930s, was “… very glad to welcome a study of an acute social problem”, defined as: “… the conditions of upbringing are such that the continuation of the birth of numbers of these children in our mist is a serious social danger”. Fleure considered the city of Liverpool, the steamship companies concerned, and the investigator “… to have placed the British public under a great debt by taking the matter up”. The Times56 published extensive extracts from the report but, tellingly, offered nothing of its own commentary or judgement. Others viewed the report and its legacy much more harshly.

The Liverpool “half caste” community and organisations that had offered Fletcher help in identifying her interviewees felt betrayed and her report caused difficulties for the local missionary societies that had welfare programmes of their own for this community.57 Fletcher had to leave Liverpool for her own safety but it was the damage done to race relations in the city that was the real legacy of her work rather than the improvement in the position of the “half caste” population she had hoped. There is, indeed, little evidence that the Liverpool Association for the Welfare of Half-Caste Children subsequently did anything to help this community. That legacy has been described, thus: “It could be deemed the official outset in defining Liverpool's ‘half castes’ as a problem and a blight to the ‘British way of life’ in the city. … the pathological stigmatizing via eugenics did much harm for both the children and the broader black community for decades later. It also established more permanently in the city's ideological institutional infrastructure the negative nomenclature defining mixed heritage children: ‘Half-caste' ”.58

Parliamentary committee reports support that judgement. In 1969 the Deputy Chief Constable of Liverpool and Bootle Police Authority informed the Select Committee on Race Relations and Immigration: “There is only one problem as far as the police are concerned which confronts them at the present time, and that is the half-caste youth, the boy aged between 15 years and 20 years”.59 Another witness declared: “… they do not commit offences on their own, and invariably the companions are also half-caste”. A decade later the Home Affairs Race Relations and Immigration Sub-Committee took evidence on racial disadvantage in Liverpool.60 The Merseyside Anti-Racist Alliance's first Annual Report “Merseyside against Racism”, recounted an incident in which The Listener reproduced a commentary from the BBC TV programme “Merseybeat”, which reported “… racist remarks made by Liverpool police over so-called “half-castes” with disreputable backgrounds and with “no recognisable home life”. According to the Sub-Committee evidence, “This incident suggests that the Merseyside police may be the carriers of deeply-held prejudices concerning the local black community, including a hostility to black/white intermarriage. This has been historically, a frequent source of antagonism towards local black people and their families … and particularly to young people of mixed racial origins”. The Listener article concluded “… the half-caste community of Merseyside – or more particularly Liverpool – is well outside recognised society”.61

Similar pathologisation of race mixing and “half-caste” children occurred in Cardiff at this time. In 1929 the city's Chief Constable argued that legislation similar to that of the 1927 South African Immorality Act should be passed to prohibit “inter-racial” sexual intercourse,62 the year in which the Daily Herald was reporting that “… hundreds of half-caste children with vicious tendencies” were “growing up in Cardiff as the result of black men mating with white women”.63 There were then estimated to be over 500 half-caste children in Cardiff,64 Muriel Fletcher putting the total at 370, the largest such community in Britain. The House of Commons clearly saw them as a problem: “… the authorities in the city are at a loss to know how to deal with the problem. People will not employ these half-castes, and they are going to be quite a problem in the future”.64 A decade later, an anthropologist, writing of his community survey in Cardiff, reported: “In respect both of education and occupational opportunity, the chances of the half-caste offspring have so far been extremely meagre”.65

In the 1950s the Eugenics Society was again propagating its views on “race crossing”, with the publication of West Indian Immigration by GCL Bertram,66 then the Society's General Secretary. This survey focused on social, biological, and eugenic considerations, claiming with respect to the latter that “there is … an inconvenient lack of precise knowledge about the long-term implications of human genetic mixtures taking place in our time”. Further, it advocated “careful consideration” of the idea of restricting immigration by quota and of the advisability of “imposing upon all immigrants of whatever origin or type, certain tests of quality so as to limit the arrival of those with [physical and mental] attributes below the general average for the United Kingdom”. According to the Galton Institute's newsletter, the broadsheet “… was circulated to all MPs and favourably reviewed in The Times”.67

In fact, the review was by one of their own, Richard Pilkington MP and Eugenics Society Fellow, who argued that the broadsheet “… should surely be welcomed since the problem is likely to grow as transport facilities expand so rapidly”,68 adding: “The fact that miscegenation often arouses strong emotions and prejudices must not prevent the fullest study of all the implications involved – political, social, biological, and even theological”. The Times also published an uncompromisingly critical review under the banner “Racial Mixture” by the head of the department of social anthropology at the University of Edinburgh.69 While the journal International Affairs reviewed James Wickenden's Colour in Britain favourably, it passed no judgement on the Eugenics Society's broadsheet.70

By the early 60s there appears to have been a turning point in the pathologisation of “race mixing” and the “half caste” population, although by then the damaging legacy of such work was substantial. Within informed opinion there began a campaign against the use of the term and an attempt to find alternatives. A report published in the UK by UNESCO in 1959 commented: “Quite apart from any emotively powerful socio-historical connotations, there are some words whose very semantic structure seems to assert a kind of derogation. For example, the words “half-caste” – with its implication on the one hand of something to be ranked in a scale of social value – and “mulatto” – in its first syllable faintly reminiscent of the hybrid progeny of the horse and ass, and in its ending evoking memories of the sinister stiletto – having a colouring whose effect on sentiment may be far more complex than is usually recognized”.71 UNESCO had, indeed, been influential earlier in the decade in the publication of a “Statement on Race”,72 which had questioned the foundations of scientific racism and morally condemned racism.

This period of inter-war eugenics may be seen as the one in which an identity as “mixed race” was stigmatised, a “process by which the reaction of others spoils normal identity”.5 “Half-caste” became a racialised term associated with marginalisation, deviance, social alienation, and economic unproductiveness. This “spoilt” public image accords with labelling theory, the authoritative labelling of others within often institutional social settings. As Jenkins has indicated, power is crucial to the process: “Significant in the processes whereby people acquire the identities with which they are labelled is the capacity of authoritatively applied identities effectively to constitute or impinge upon individual experience. This is a question of whose definition of the situation counts (put crudely, power)”.5 Before examining whether those of “mixed race” internalised this identity, it is appropriate to examine other forces that shaped power relations.

The contributions of the Eugenics Society, a pseudo-scientific political movement, to debates on “race mixing” received only limited and qualified attention, at least in the formal façade of state institutions. While the term “half-caste” had frequently been used in parliamentary papers up to the 1920s in the context of administration of the colonies, there is no record of the use of this term in a “home country” context between 1920 and its first appearance in 1951–52 (and, indeed, only 19 mentions during 1920–2004). In Commons debates, however, “half-caste” arrives somewhat earlier, appearing 30 times throughout the century (fig. 1). In 1935, for example, Arthur Evans asked the Minister of Health whether he would take action to remedy the “conditions of the coloured and half-caste population domiciled in the city of Cardiff”, suggesting “appointing a small Royal Commission, say, of three persons” to investigate the problem of these populations in dock areas.73 David Logan, a Liverpool MP, also asked that the Minister “consider the question of alien seamen who come to this country for three years, who have children, and who, on going back to their native country, leave them here”.74

Figure 1.

Occurrences of home country mentions of “half-caste” in Hansard, 1900–2008.

Source: Hansard online (Millbank Systems)

The following year several MPs asked the Minister of Labour questions about the “half-caste” population, including whether his attention had been drawn to “… the increasing number of half-caste children in Cardiff, Liverpool, Glasgow, and other ports” and what steps were being taken to meet “… the difficulty which occurs in finding employment for boys and girls who are the result of miscegenation in these ports”:74 the worry of MPs was that “in such employment the standard of living of the community is not lowered owing to the unfortunate position of these people”. Logan tellingly interjected: “Are the words ‘half-caste’ a misprint? Should it not be ‘half-fed' ”? North Camberwell's MP asked the Minister whether “he proposes to confer with the Colonial Office as to the possibility of bringing about a reduction in the number of coloured and half-caste population in the ports of Cardiff, Liverpool, Glasgow and Hull”.75 Another MP asked the Secretary of State for the Home Department “whether he is prepared to confer with the Colonial Office and the Board of Trade as to what steps can be taken to mitigate these evils” (“the increasing difficulty which arises from the growing numbers of coloured and half-caste people in the ports of this country”).75

The issue of the welfare of the offspring of unions between black American servicemen stationed in Britain during the Second World War and native British women provides further evidence of the state's use of terminology. Between August 1944 and August 1948 officials in the Home Office, Ministry of Health, and Colonial Office sought a range of solutions in inter-departmental correspondence and with voluntary organisations.76 The salient terms used by these departments were “black babies” and “coloured babies”, “half-caste” occurring on just two or three occasions. A woman health inspector in the NW Region used the term “Negro child”. “Coloured babies” was also the term of choice of voluntary bodies such as the Soldiers', Sailors' and Airmen's Families Association, the National Council for the Unmarried Mother and Her Child, and League of Coloured Peoples. In reporting these issues, the press constructed these babies as “black” or “half-caste”. The Daily Mail wrote of “dusky ‘problem babies’ ”,77 the Sunday Pictorial “ ‘black’ babies” and “half-castes”,78 and the National Co-operative Press's Reynolds News “half-caste babies”.79

The “half-caste” issue was on the parliamentary agenda, again, in the 1950s: in 1954 the MP for Cardiff North, asked the Minister of Labour whether he would make a statement “… concerning the difficulties of the half-caste child in entering skilled occupations”,80 but received short shrift from the Minister who retorted: “I have no information to suggest that there is any general difficulty. It is the policy of the Youth Employment Service to make its facilities available without any distinction of race or colour”.80 In substantially more extreme language, Duncan Sandys, MP for Lambeth Streatham, voiced the view in parliament in 1967 that: “… the breeding of millions of half-caste children will merely produce a generation of misfits and increase social tension”,81 which, surprisingly, went without punishment although strongly condemned by other MPs.

The abandonment of the term “half-caste” was slow, persisting long into the post-war years. Other fractionation – “Octoroon” – a colonial term used on just three occasions in Commons debates during 1879–1916, was the subject of Commons questions as late as the 1980s and 90s: in 1984 the Secretary of State for the Home Department was asked if he would “… set out in full the Metropolitan Police identification parade code, the origins of the code and why terms such as mulatto, quadroon and octoroon are still used”82 (although official documents appear to made no reference to these terms). Similarly, in 1995, the Secretary of State was asked “if the ID codes for Negroid types, including mulatto, octoroon, and quadroon have been removed from the pocket books issued to Metropolitan police officer and other forces”,83 his reply that “the pocket book issued to officers in the Metropolitan police service was updated in 1993 without these classifications” suggesting usage to a surprisingly late date. These various examples point to a conservativeness in the use of derogatory language and an unwillingness to challenge it in public discourse. We have less evidence on the use of “half caste” in everyday interactions between officialdom and mixed race people. The cases of identity parades and Metropolitan police pocket books suggest wider saliency, as does a 1950s report by the children's charity Dr Barnardos, routinely referring to a child in care as “half-caste”.84

While the evidence of Commons debates points to a primary concern with the social and economic welfare of the mixed race population in port cities, the unpublished records of the Home Office indicate a more worrying concern with surveillance and moral issues. When its Immigration and Nationality Department wrote in 1961–64 to Manchester City Police about Commonwealth immigration, enquiring about “intermixing, miscegenation, and illegitimacy”, the Chief Constable's Office used only the terms children with “one coloured parent” and “two coloured parents”.85 It is the Home Office that talks of “half-caste children” and “mixed families”, concluding that the statistics “… bear out our conclusion that there has not so far been a great deal of intermixing and miscegenation”. Such Home Office enquiries to chief constables can be tracked back to 1957, information being sought on the number of immigrants in their area, the state of the integration process, living conditions, level of crime, illegitimacy rates, and involvement in brothels.

Historical Use of “Half-Caste” as a Group and Self-Identifier

If “half-caste” had become a spoiled identity by the Second World War, and a term used in official contexts till the early 1970s, what were the consequences of this for those thus labelled? Was the identity of “half-caste” – being seen and treated as a “half-caste”, the public reception of the identity – consequential for their individual experience, either through a process of internalisation or as a resisted identity. Evidence on this matter is largely absent. This stigmatised segment of the population was amongst the poorest, most disadvantaged, and most voiceless in society.

Firstly, some commentary on such usage is available for Britain's colonies. In New Zealand wider societal use of the term “half-caste” to describe the mixed Maori-Pakeha population is reported in a study of marriage between Maori and Paheka: “The children of a mixed marriage are also usually very readily accepted by their grandparents, both Maori and Pakeha. In the wider community such children are nearly always looked on as Maori if their ancestry is at all obvious (the term “half caste” seems to be used less now than formerly), and their problems are therefore those of the Maori people”.86 Based on an extensive study, Metge claimed that in the 1960s self-identifying Maori were prepared to acknowledge their Pakeha heritage using “half-caste” and other terms: “From my own experience … I would suggest that more and more are refusing to make a clear-cut choice and insisting that they are both, not just on occasion but as a general rule. They express their position by using such terms as ‘half-caste’ (especially on the East Coast), ‘half-and-half’, ‘Maori and Pakeha’, ‘a bit of both' ”.87

In Australia, “half caste” was the salient term for persons of mixed aboriginal descent throughout much of the twentieth century. Its quotidian use in the 1930s is revealed in the files of the Departments of Family and Children's Services and Native Affairs and in correspondence of the Chief Protector of Aborigines and police constables.88 However, “half-caste” was an outsider's term not generally used by the Aboriginal community, as made clear in evidence to Australia's Senate Committee on the “Stolen generation”: “… these distinctions (regarding “half-caste”) are non-Aboriginal distinctions; that once she (a woman of mixed Aboriginal descent) was born, even though naturally she is saying her father was non-Aboriginal, she was accepted into the community and the father who was the husband of her mother accepted full responsibility for the upbringing of Rene in the tribal relationship to her country. The distinction of half-caste is ours, not theirs”.89

In Britain one of the few sources of first hand accounts of “half-caste” as a community term is that by social anthropologist Kenneth Little, who interviewed “half-caste” people in Cardiff in the 1940s.90 Little (who used the term “children of mixed blood” and occasionally “hybrid”) records: “the term ‘half-caste’ is the name in general use by the outsider. It is as well to note, however, that it is rarely if ever used within the community, and is very unpopular among the young people concerned, who usually prefer to be referred to as ‘coloured' ”. He cites a letter in the South Wales Echo and Express of June 1932: “I am a young girl of Barry, but being half English would like to know why young men despise girls of my type, whereas one sees many half-caste men accompanying white girls”. This person uses the term “half English”, Little adding: “note that the writer does not apply the term ‘half-caste’ to herself”.

He gives some indication of the preferred terms used by community members:

‘The term “half-caste” is generally eschewed, but is sometimes used by a coloured person to describe another to an outsider and is usually accepted without particular offence from the latter. All persons possessing a dark colour, or any African blood, prefer as a rule to be referred to simply as “coloured”, and that is their usual description of themselves. Many of the West Africans and West Indians, however, like to be termed “African”, or more formally “men of African origin”, and amongst themselves they designate each other more specifically as “Gold Coastian”, etc., though here again, somewhat as with the term “Nig”, the phrase “black man” is also employed. The term “Negro” is less popular, and is disliked by some, mainly on account of its former implications of slavery’.

Muriel Fletcher offered no insights into how her “half-caste” interviewees identified themselves. However, Christian provides some evidence in the in-depth interviews he conducted with twenty African/European adults living in Liverpool.91 He compares respondents born between 1935 to 1945 (within the era of moral condemnation) to those born between 1960 to 1975 (when attitudes had begun to change) to see how racial labels changed. Earlier generations were more likely to use multiracial terms such as “half-caste”, while the more recent generations were more likely to describe themselves monoracially as black (such as “Black British” and “Liverpool-born Black”). Evidence (that of the Chairman) taken in Liverpool by the Select Committee on Race Relations and Immigration in 1969 supports this finding: “Last evening in meeting some of the coloured people they showed a resentment of the term “half-caste”. I said I as Chairman preferred “of mixed colour”. I merely pass that on”.92 Similarly, the Working Party of the Liverpool Youth Organisations claimed that “… Liverpool-born coloured children are often referred to by teachers as “half-caste” in spite of the objectionable nature of this term”.93 A research lecturer at the University of Liverpool referred to this group “… as the Afro-English, as the term half-caste is pejorative”.94 A decade later the Home Affairs Sub-Committee on Race Relations and Immigration was complaining that reports in the local media (Daily Post and Liverpool Echo) “… often use offensive and unacceptable terms such as ‘half-caste' ”.95

Thus, the limited amount of testimony of “mixed race” people themselves during this earlier period and living in Cardiff (Little published his findings in 1948) indicates that they perceived “half-caste” as an outsider's term that they would use to describe others but would not choose this term to refer to their own mixed descent, perhaps because it was not a community term or they saw it as “spoiled”. While there is some evidence that in Liverpool those born in the 1930s and war years used the label “half-caste” to describe themselves (when the use of this term was probably salient in the city), subsequent generations rejected the use of this label to identify themselves and also to identify others with it. Thus, in the internal-external dialectic between self-image and public image, self-image was not necessarily displaced by the authoritative and stigmatised labelling of others.


The evidence for “half-caste” as social category has shown that in Britain a generic term used by colonial administrators was co-opted by the eugenics movement to stigmatise and pathologise the children of those in “mixed race” unions, many living in poverty in the port cities of Liverpool and Cardiff. This language then became mainstreamed until at least the early 1970s, for example, in parliamentary debates. Though there was a shift from the moral condemnation of such unions to a more neutralist stance after the Second World War, the stigmatisation enshrined in such categorisation (including terms like “race crossing” and “racial mixing”) persisted. This, in turn, increased the urgency for a new language of inter-racial relationships and their offspring, manifested in such terms as “mixed race” and “mixed parentage” that emerged in the last decades of the century. Only in those institutional settings where power counts, where authoritatively applied identities may be least able to be resisted – such as schools, young offender institutions, prisons, and the criminal justice system – does there remain some residual use of this pejorative term.

However, the “view from below” revealed a more complex history than that of a “top down” imposition of a label that was then uniformally internalised as an identity. The unfolding of “half-caste” as a spoiled identity in the 1930s made the term only partially and situationally acceptable as a self-descriptor to those it described. Power relations shaped the complexities of local situations, resistance to “half caste” as a label being most notable in Liverpool and Cardiff where stigmatisation by the eugenics movement had been strongest. As social attitudes changed in the second half of the century, including revulsion to the terrible toll of Nazi eugenicist doctrines, educated people felt unable to dissociate the term from its fraught past and abandoned “half-caste”. However, its entrenchment in the popular lexicon enabled the term to live on in the collective memory of some communities. Amongst the young and disadvantaged there was not this fracturing in continuity of usage as there was no “remembered past” of the term's stereotypical use.

There is also the interesting possibility that amongst these disadvantaged groups, new migrants and their children, especially those from the African continent, may have helped to sustain or replenish the pool of users of the term “half-caste”. According to one of Nassy Brown's Liverpool informants, people with such migration histories might have had no perception of the derogatory meaning attaching to “half-caste”: “Well, to start with, growing up in Nigeria it was acceptable to call people of mixed race ‘half-caste’ because to a lot of Nigerians it was not an abusive term. It was purely a biological description of somebody who comes from a mixed race”.96 In some of Britain's former colonies, the term “half-caste” may never have acquired a reputation as an offensive epithet as it did here through the activities of eugenicists, such that when this recent migrant used the term in everyday conversation, he was shocked by the aggressive response he received. The impact of such influences is difficult to assess: around a fifth of people from a “mixed” group living in Great Britain in 2001 were migrants, rising to a third in the “White and Black African” and “Other Mixed” groups.


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