We spoke to journalist and writer Natalie Morris about her game-changing book Mixed/Other, what Northernness means to her, and what a diverse and equal media landscape would look like.
Natalie Morris is an engaging, charismatic and tenacious voice in the UK media scene. I came across her at first through her Metro lifestyle reporting, which covers a huge range of topics and has featured a number of very influential articles on racism, mental health and feminist issues. More recently, I struck upon her new book Mixed/Other: Explorations of Multiraciality in Modern Britain, a hugely engaging and game-changing text on the experiences of Britons of mixed heritage. She wrote the book during the pandemic and alongside her full-time job, but reflected on the experience with an infectious enthusiasm, energy and evident excitement, saying that “it was incredible as an experience to voice these things that have been inside me forever.”
In the process of researching for Mixed/Other, Natalie interviewed more than 50 mixed Britons from a huge range of backgrounds in order to draw inspiration and understanding from a vast panorama of people. I was interested in what this felt like as an emotional experience, applying her own experiences and relating to the people she interviewed as well as retaining an empirical approach. She emphasised that the book was always going to be foregrounded in the personal: “I think this makes for a more interesting book. I didn’t want it to read like an academic study- I wanted it to be about lived experiences and actual people.”
On the process of engaging with such a huge diversity of stories, she underlined that the people she was interviewing came first: “from the feedback of people I’ve spoken to and the things that they’ve told me about the importance of feeling their own experiences seen and reflected, I knew I really wanted to prioritise that.” But she also described the experience of speaking to them as very personally meaningful, remarking that “as a personal experience, it was a real learning curve, because whenever you go into a project like this you’re inevitably blinkered by your own narrow experiences.”
“there is a kind of resistance in being joyful, in proudly claiming space – and this is a feeling I found really strongly in most people I spoke to.”
For her, some of the best elements of this process were speaking to older people and to people who are mixed without whiteness: “having done those interviews, I made a conscious effort within the book to try to undermine this focus on whiteness that we have whenever we talk about race, but particularly when we talk about mixedness, because it always comes back to whiteness as the default.” She also learned a lot from talking to mixed people who pass as white: “they spoke about a lot of relatable experiences which often aren’t given very much space in conversations about race, and I really wanted to tackle that head-on.”
I wanted to know more about the role that happiness played in her book. It’s a read that doesn’t shy away from covering a wide spectrum of experience with real candour, clinically dissecting the inadequacies of the ways we talk about race, whilst simultaneously highlighting the vibrancy and joy of a mixed heritage. She concurred, stating “I wanted this to be a holistic representation of mixedness – it isn’t just one thing or one homogenous experience.” She added that “there is a kind of resistance in being joyful, in proudly claiming space – and this is a feeling I found really strongly in most people I spoke to.”
She aims in her book to push back against unbalanced media coverage of mixedness, which focuses overwhelmingly on the negative aspects of that experience: “in mainstream media spaces, we get so caught up in the negative experiences and trauma stories – they’re the headlines that go viral. We live in an outrage culture, so as a result media, books and even creative projects feed into that. People are pushed in that direction by their editors. But there is so much more to the story than this outrage, and it does a massive disservice if you frame the mixed experience simply in terms of the old stereotypes of confusion, of not fitting in, of trauma, of being pushed out from both sides. There obviously is that aspect – people told me those stories too – but the joy that exists also needs to be given space.”
“there are huge structural problems that aren’t being acknowledged"
On a less joyful note, I asked her about her experiences in journalism and in publishing her book as someone who doesn’t come from the sphere of white, privately-educated Londoners who dominate those industries. She agreed that “there are huge structural problems that aren’t being acknowledged”. She noted that elitism and cronyism are so deep-seated that “there really is a different level of privilege in these spaces” - despite acknowledging her own privilege of having come from a middle-class background and being educated at a grammar school and a red-brick university, this is hardly even a leg-up in an industry where untempered white, rich, London-centric privilege and nepotism are so rampant. Even when non-white people are given the opportunity to work for big media organisations, they rarely occupy positions of seniority, because “they are being brought into institutions that are not set up to help them thrive or succeed.”
She also emphasised that exclusion and obstruction come from external, as well as internal sources. Online abuse and trolling are rife, and can escalate quickly into more sinister and threatening attention, particularly for writers and journalists of colour. She recalled one incident of having to speak to anti-terror police because of being doxed on a far-right website, emphasising with a dry laugh that “I’m a lifestyle journalist. I think about my white colleagues who don’t have to go through that, and I think about the fact that there isn’t enough support because the people with power in the newsroom often don’t recognise this as a significant problem.”
We are both hopeful for a more equitable and diverse future media landscape where stories would be covered by people with a stake in shaping honest and reflective narratives. “Every time I’ve met a journalist who is reporting on a story they have a lived experience with, or a community they’re actually from, they care deeply and want to cause positive change,” Natalie added. With a wider range of experiences reflected in the newsroom, “we would have stories that were more considered, less clickbait-focused, stories with a cultural understanding and the nuance needed to make these debates less cyclical.”
We finished on an even more positive note, bonding over our shared Mancunian identity. She has lived in London for nine years now, but said that “my heart is in Manchester and always will be. Being Northern has shaped who I am and what I stand for.” She emphasised that “London is an amazing city because it’s full of everyone, but most of the people in London aren’t originally from London- they’re from everywhere. Mancunians are Mancunians through and through.”
We also bond over our mutual adoration of Shirley May, iconic Northern poet and educator, who is related to Natalie. A giant of the creative scene in Manchester, Natalie praised Shirley warmly: “she does amazing things in the creative space and has cultivated and created some amazing communities, inspiring so many young people in the process.” It’s a lovely and strangely cyclical note to end on: Shirley is also the person who guided me into the creative scene in Manchester, taught me about all of the amazing creative opportunities available there and gave me confidence in myself as a writer. Like Natalie, she is an iconic Northern figure and a role model for a huge number of people, particularly young people, looking to have their voices heard.
It was as much a joy and a revelation to speak to Natalie as it was to read Mixed/Other, a text I can unreservedly recommend. At SINK, we are always looking to celebrate Northern excellence: this is the first fixture in what we hope will become a series of interviews with iconic figures from the North, and for us, there could have been no better way to start.
Buy Mixed/Other here.
Buy Shirley May’s poetry collection She Wrote Her Own Eulogy here.