“What are you?”
This question is far from being unknown to many; an echo that has undulated across one’s recollection of memories and will most likely follow them into their next steps of life. It may seem like an odd query to direct toward another person, but in truth, it is hardly unfamiliar to multiracial or “mixed” people. In itself, the query is dehumanising but puts forth a paradox that may dominate the mixed person’s thoughts and settle down amongst various other doubts as they hesitantly tread the lines between their different cultural identities. Although frequently perceived in a positive light, the multiracial identity comes with its own unique psychological stressors, many of which lead to existential isolation—the feeling that your perspective or experiences are not comprehensible to others.
A Balancing Act of Identities
Being multiracial can often feel like you are walking a tightrope and have to steady yourself with each step that you take in order not to fall. Lean too much towards one culture and you dive right in; fail to compensate for the weight in which you veer towards one culture, and you abandon the other. It can often mean a lifetime of unsteadiness as you take each step hoping that it is balanced enough to keep you rooted in place between both or several cultures. There are moments where you feel like you have reached equilibrium, wholly enrooted in a perfect balance that no one can dislodge you from- until something manages to make you hesitant regarding the balance that you found and the cycle of balancing, tripping and rebalancing begins once more.
The dilemma emerges when one attempts to behave in accordance with the situation in a manner that is culturally sensitive, but due to their mixed upbringing, some aspects of their behaviour or attitude may still seem foreign. That dissonance is apparent to others too, and some are forthright about how they perceive you as being either “too much” of one culture or “not enough”, leaving you feeling as though you never measure up to the standard of your cultural identity. It is rather common for mixed people to get caught up in either subtle or blatant exclusion from their own communities, and a distinct feeling of not quite fitting in or belonging because of that. It’s seen in the way one is questioned where they come from despite being in their home country, being welcomed as a tourist in one’s home, being excluded from various situations, and in more severe cases, being denied rights, acceptance and citizenship.
However, the balancing act can be considered context-specific as it is dependent on what type of environment or situation you are in and how others perceive your racial identity. Depending on your facial features and people’s perceptions of your physical traits, you may be mistakenly perceived as monoracial. In situations where you are perceived as being from the same cultural group, you may often feel the pressure of assimilating to that group and behaving in a way that is similar so that your differences are not made apparent, whilst in situations where you are perceived as culturally different, you stick out like a sore thumb and you have the insurmountable pressure of adapting entirely to the context in order to fit in or be singled out due to your differences. It is especially conflicting for the person when they feel like they have to behave in a certain way which is incongruent with the values that they may have internalised from their other cultural identity, resulting in a feeling of disingenuity or being unfaithful to their own true personality and core principles.
Especially when your cultural identities have stark differences, the way you conduct yourself can become puzzling as you fumble to behave in the way that is appropriate, remember cultural norms that might be acceptable for one culture but not for the other, and just try your best to blend in. For many, especially those who are bilingual or multilingual, changing from one cultural context to another comes with rapid code-switching, in which one adapts their speech style, language or expression based on the social context. On the bright side, code-switching can aid in your own adaptability in communicating with diverse people and promote language plurality, but it can also make disparities even more apparent. Depending on your situation, some communities may assert a correctionist ideology onto your language, whereby you will be made to conform to the standard of “correct” language that is upheld by that community and leave behind the language of your other home culture, which can eventually pressure the person to take on ideologies of merely one culture.
One or The Other: Pick A Side, You Can’t Be Both
Embracing the multiracial identity can be a challenge for others, and many are unable to see past the normality of categorising people into one fixed cultural group. Between ticking the dreaded “other” column in forms, to people questioning which racial group you identify more as, the invalidation of one’s multiracial identity is almost never-ending. Whilst some mixed people willingly choose to identify more as one of their racial groups, the denial of self-identifying as multiracial can make them view their identities negatively and experience a sense of powerlessness over their social environment.
In reality, picking a “side” isn’t as simple as it seems. For many, being multiracial is an integral part of one’s identity so choosing one over another would be rejecting their lineage and ancestry, and completely abandoning the historical experiences of their direct family and ancestors. Regardless, the pressure that they face from others to conform to solely one racial group can leave them feeling like an impostor. Hearing from others that “you’re not really part of this racial group” or “you can’t possibly be part of this racial group because of how you look” invalidates your multiracial identity and makes you feel like you are merely trying to pass off as being a part of that racial group without full acceptance from others, especially since members of that group clearly do not identify you as such.
It is especially disconcerting when people mistake you as monoracial and make remarks regarding your other racial identity. Despite attempts at self-identifying as solely one group, you cannot cease the lingering inherent feeling of belonging to another group too, and hearing these kinds of remarks can feel personally directed and distant at the same time because though you are certain of your multiracial identity, it seems that the world doesn’t perceive you as such. You can be made to feel less worthy of speaking out about certain issues because people do not accept you as being part of their same cultural identity.
In cases where you do not speak the language of one or more of your racial groups, the feeling of being an impostor deepens as inadequacy settles in, for you are made more aware of how you are failing to uphold the standard criteria of what you should be as a member of a particular race. Perceptions that you have deliberately abandoned that culture for the sake of the other is even more isolating as you attempt to contemplate how you can possibly navigate the ways of belonging whilst dealing with your feelings of being an “other”.
The Issue of “Exoticism”
The fixation on being mixed-race comes with its fetishization, as people often perceive multiracialism as “genetically superior”, particularly in regards to their physical attractiveness. Although the initial impression may seem like flattery stemming from admiration, diving deeper into its nuances can reveal something more disturbing than meets the eye. The idea of genetic superiority has its roots in eugenics, the selection of desired genetic traits aimed at the improvement of subsequent generations in regards to giftedness, cognitive skills and physical traits.
Proclamations that one’s virtues are attributed to their multiracial identity and that their children will ultimately be more attractive or intelligent are commonly heard by mixed people. Some multiracial individuals are even specifically sought out by others who wish to pursue a romantic relationship with them as they are propelled by the ideal fantasy of having mixed children who will eventually be “better” in several regards. In the end, the person’s racial identity is more coveted and desired than their personal identity, as they are viewed solely as a harbinger of a more superior lineage.
The perception of multiracial people being exotic is more harmful than it is good, for it reduces one’s identity solely to the way they are outwardly portrayed and dehumanises them to become a being of abnormality or an “other”. Most mixed people already struggle with coming to terms with their racial identity and trying to find a safe space for themselves in society, so an additional label of being exotic only perpetuates the exclusion that they experience and marks them out as being a social deviant.
Valuing the Multiracial Identity
It is undeniable that rejecting any part of your identity, regardless of how much it is perceived to represent you as a whole, is distressing for any individual. Thus, embracing your multiracial identity may be a challenge, but know that there are still opportunities for you to heal from the complexities of acknowledging both your heritage and the acceptance you are extended by people. However, the multiracial experience is hardly a universal one as it depends on the racial groups that constitute your self-identity, the contrast between your cultural values and practices, as well as the manner in which your communities perceive multiracialism. Disassembling the construct that multiracialism is inherently different isn’t as difficult as it appears, as long as both multiracial and monoracial communities come to understand and accept mixed people’s identities and distinct experiences so that they can finally find room in their own societies and curb the existential isolation that they experience.
And to those who still have the same question of “What are you?” ringing in their minds, perhaps this article may help show you what mixed people truly are: not separate racial identities that can be broken down and picked apart for your selection, but a whole entity, made up of an amalgamation of different and complete parts.
“I am not a little bit of many things; but I am the sufficient representation of many things. I am not an incompletion of all these races; but I am a masterpiece of the prolific. I am an entirety, I am not a lack of anything; rather I am a whole of many things.” ~ C. JoyBell C.
Written by: Julia Rosalyn