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The paradox of the multiracial identity

Apr. 18, 2017
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I am a multiracial American; my mother is Okinawan, my father is German and Australian. My grandparents came from four different continents. I identify as both Asian and Caucasian, and although I am often identified on the outside as not quite white and not quite “ethnic,” I easily pass for white in a world obsessed with color and race.

Multiracial people face a perplexing paradox. We are not fully white, and yet not fully “not white” enough to be considered a person of color (POC). Growing up biracial, I identified strongly with Spock (yes, from Star Trek). Spock is half Human and half Vulcan, and is ostracized by both halves of himself for not quite belonging to either culture.

Teresa Williams-León, a professor of Asian-American studies at California State University, Northridge, uses Spock as an object lesson in her class, “Biracial and Multiracial Identity.” She sees the parallels between Spock’s inner conflict between his Vulcan and Human identity. “He had to subdue his emotional side to become more cerebral and logical,” she said. “So that’s problematic. But it’s an interesting way of looking at how biracial people have had to suppress aspects of themselves, or one part of themselves.”

Nerd references aside, I can personally attest that being multiracial means that you’re an outsider; both to whites and POC. As an example, while I’m constantly asked, “what are you?” or “what’s your background?” or even the more blatant, “you’re not all white are you?” I’ve also been told by people who know me that I’m “not really Asian,” “more Asian than they thought” or “not Asian enough” (this last one was for not knowing what Hot Pot was). I’ve also been asked whether I “feel more Asian or more White” or if Japanese culture is “my thing.” Sometimes when I tell people I’m Asian (or Japanese/Okinawan specifically), I’ve been laughed at because they think I’m making a joke. I’ve gotten these kinds of remarks and reactions so often that I hardly even notice anymore.

Passing As White

I had never heard of the idea of “white-passing” or “white-presenting” until researching for this story. I first came across it in an article by Patricia Gutierrez on Everyday Feminism. In “On Being Non-White, But Passing Terribly Well” she explains that, “I can’t claim to know what it’s like to be immediately cast as the other, as threatening and undeserving.” She felt conflicted between being a “white presenting person in the United States,” and a “light-skinned person in Mexico.” Her physical appearance presents a public identity that misaligns with how she self-identifies.

Similarly, Michelle Carroll for The Radical Notion poses the question, “do white-presenting people have a right to refer to themselves publicly as their minority status?” She writes:

“Because I can pass as white, I benefit daily from white privilege. And because I am also Latina, I have a rich cultural history that I can claim as my heritage.” She adds: “Very early on I chose to be white in public. My school was mostly white; my friends were mostly white, and I had no other Latina role models other than my family. When I moved away to college, I tried to connect with the other Latinas on campus. But because I don’t speak Spanish, I felt awkward around other Latinas who freely spoke Spanish in the College Center.”

The problem with “passing or “presenting” as white is that this only works when others let us pass or present as white. Activist and author Sharon Chang argues that the perception of white presenting is entirely dependent on the audience, and we have little control over how others perceive our appearance:

“I often hear adults describe multiracial children as young as infancy as "white presenting." How in the world is a child less than a year old presenting their race at all? Who is actually presenting their race? WE are. When we assign a description.” She continues, “Regardless of whether the assessment is true, why aren't we saying "I read the child as white" which claims accountability rather than asserting our perception on someone else and insinuating they made that decision on their own?”

While visiting a high school to talk about her work on multiraciality, she discovered that 30-40 percent of the audience came from mixed backgrounds. “Students who looked white but had a grandparent of color were in some of the worst pain during this conversation,” Chang says. “They experienced immense pressure to publicly hide parts of who they are and members of their own families.”

Mistaken Identity

People of multiracial backgrounds are often read as “not white” by whites and “not POC” by POC. Chang says that many of the children she works with are often accused of “appropriating their own cultures.” Never being fully accepted by either side of your identity (and never feeling fully a part of it to begin with) means that multiracial people are often the subject of questions over racial authenticity. Self-identity is not just dependent on your genetic background; it is also influenced by one’s upbringing, experiences, personality, and choices. Because of this, no two identities are alike, and there is no tidy category that multiracial people fit into when it comes to race or identity.

Mia McKenzie of Black Girl Dangerous cautions against claiming identities without lived experience.

“Consider how your privilege (and sense of entitlement) gives you access to claim identities even when your lived experience doesn’t support it. The same goes for white-presenting people who claim POC but by their own admission don’t experience oppression based on race,” she says. “Just consider what it means to claim that and to then argue about its validity with people who do experience racism in their daily lives, and who don’t have access to the kind of choices around it that you have … Think about what it means to claim a marginalized identity when you don’t have a marginalized experience.”

This is valuable advice, but one that is hard to swallow. It’s important to recognize one’s privilege, but at the same time, as a person of mixed background, this makes me feel like I’m being told that my experience as a multiracial person is one free of oppression and racism, and that the white half of myself gives me a choice around experiencing racism. My experience and identity is certainly not the same as that of a full POC. But this makes me feel like I am being bunched into the “white experience” and shunned from my POC identity.

No Two Experiences Are Alike

Not all multiracial people may feel the same way. A 2015 report from the Pew Research Center found that only 22 percent of those Pew defines as multiracial would categorize themselves that way, and that those who have a white-Asian background were the most likely to self-identify as multiracial, and those who have a black-American Indian background were the least likely to do so. 

Black Girl Dangerous questions claiming a POC identity as a white-presenting person, when you’re not a “visible person of color who deals with racialized oppression on the daily.” But it is impossible to truly understand another’s self-identity and lived experiences. Mckenzie is right; I will never know what it’s like to be truly treated as a full POC. But a fully POC also doesn’t know what it’s like to grow up multiracial, and to live with the identity and experiences that I have. All of these arguments are about feeling like the struggle of the “other” will forever be misunderstood; that your problems and your upbringing and your discrimination privilege are not the same as mine. For a POC to believe, ‘You don’t know what it’s like to be discriminated against, so don’t put yourself on the same field of even on the same geometrical plane as me.’ 

These kinds of accusations and presumptions are not part of the solution, and they only further contribute to the feeling multiracial people have that they do not belong anywhere.

Push Back Against Privilege

Whether you are white, mixed, or a POC, it’s not enough to acknowledge privilege; you have to fight against it through action. There is no such thing as being colorblind to race (nor should there be). I see a person, and people see me, and judgements are made about how I “read” them or what kind of identity I “present.” The trick is not to make assumptions about people or treat them based on your perceived “reading” of them. 

Push back against privilege by deferring your entitlement, supporting inclusive establishments, and listening to the voices that are fighting against oppression. And for god’s sake, don’t ask someone “what are you” straight out of the gate.

Cover Image via ShutterStock