I’m Not Confused: Identifying as Mixed Race

This piece, originally published on the Mixed Roots Stories blog, is the last in a series of pieces I wrote as Guest Blogger for the website.

These days it has become more common to find mixed roots people who identify as biracial or multiracial. The days of ‘passing’ are a part of American history and unimaginable to most people today. What does this mean culturally and for multiracial people personally? As someone who has always identified as biracial, I wonder about this often. How do we reconcile our individual identities with the realities of society and the way mixed racial identities are perceived? Is that even possible?

A 2015 literature review published in Current Directions in Psychological Science explores the psychology of multiracial identity. One of the findings is that multiracial people can have higher self-esteem if they are raised with an understanding of all of their racial heritage and identify with both parents. When they are asked to choose only one race, they experience a decrease in self-esteem.

Personally, I can identify with those findings. Being asked to choose one race not only doesn’t make sense to me, but is a painful experience because it would mean a part of me is missing, or I am actively rejecting my white mother. I believe it is especially damaging for young people to be told or encouraged to identify with only one part of their background. This is the time when we are forming our sense of selves and starting to figure out who we are. For youth of any race, self-esteem is fragile or nonexistent. Therefore, outside pressures have more influence given this impressionability. When it comes to being mixed race, even adults can have a hard time placing themselves in the world and often default to the path of least resistance, whatever that may be in their environment.

Despite some benefits, having a strong mixed race identity comes with its challenges. As a mixed race family and individual, intolerance can come from all sides. Intolerance from white people is damaging and has the power of institutions behind it, but I’ve found intolerance from black people to be hurtful in a more personal way. All people of color endure racism from the race in power at some point or another. So if I’m rejected by a fellow person of color based on my racial identity where does that leave me? It can be a lonely place to identify as mixed race in a world where external and internalized racism creates an ‘us vs. them’ mentality.

I don’t think any of this is new. The difference could be that now we have the freedom to identify however we want so the issues that always existed are simply out in the open for us all to grapple with. We no longer have to choose one side (though the pressure is still there) and this freedom comes with a need for dialogue and understanding. That’s a challenge that multiracial people face in our culture today. How can we reconcile- within ourselves and others- the divisiveness of racism with our right to accept and love the whole of our identity?

How An Anxiety Disorder Shaped My Mixed Race Experience 

This piece, originally published on the Mixed Roots Stories blog, is the second in a series of pieces I wrote as Guest Blogger for the website.

One of my most vivid memories is from Kindergarten. Holding my mother’s hand, I walked into the school building. An adult bent down to speak to me; I don’t recall her words or who she was, but she said something as simple as hello and asked for my name. At that moment, my body took control. I froze, my body temperature shot up, my heart raced, and my mind went blank. I was physically unable to say or do anything. The feeling of terror from being trapped inside my own body lives in my memory to this day.

This was not a singular event. I had a childhood social anxiety disorder called selective mutism, in which a child is unable to speak in social settings, but has no problem speaking in settings where they are secure and relaxed, such as at home. Some children are able to speak only in a whisper or a few words while others are unable to speak at all. This anxiety is often inherited from one or more family members. In my case, my mother struggled with the same disorder as a girl.

Because of this disorder, I was very isolated and unable to connect with my peers. Isolation, loneliness, self-consciousness, and self-hate led to self-harm starting in middle school and depression that I manage to this day. As traumatic as all of this was, I look back and see how it protected me from some of the deeper race-related issues that many multiracial people experience. Most of my life has been spent working around social anxiety and its effects–any other problem couldn’t stay on my radar for long. How could I worry about fitting in with a racial group when I would have been overjoyed just to be able to socialize with anyone like a normal child?

I was never confused about my racial identity. It was and is a simple statement of fact that my mother is a white German woman and my father is a black Bajan man, therefore I am biracial. It never occurred to me that I might describe myself in any other way. My limited social contact in school, including through the college years when I studied Spanish and lived in an intercultural living exchange dorm, provided few opportunities for that self-identity to be challenged.

This is not to say that social anxiety protected me from all racial influence, either negative or positive. Like anyone living in this racialized society, I had many of the experiences that are common among mixed and minority people. I dealt with microaggressions like any other person of color, both from black and white sides. The difference was that I was hyper aware of my disorder and self-conscious of how I was perceived, so I attributed any negative social experience to my anxiety and never to my racial background. Although it is true that my anxiety affected every aspect of my life, in hindsight I now remember some instances when my race also had something to do with it.

Even with a social anxiety disorder, I realize that my race could have played a more central role in my youth had I grown up somewhere else. I grew up in Gaithersburg, Maryland, in the suburbs of Washington, D.C. The public schools I attended and the neighborhoods where I lived were racially and culturally mixed. I had classmates of all races and religions. I don’t remember any instances of blatant racism, though there may well have been some that didn’t register with me at the time. But my diverse and generally tolerant environment sheltered me from in-your-face racism that I would have had no choice but to confront. Anything short of blatant bigotry would not have been enough to distract me from my intense fear and anxiety.

Now that my social anxiety has become less severe, I’ve been able to breathe and take time to examine my racial experience more closely instead of being consumed by anxiety. I am steeped in social justice issues because of my full-time job at a civil rights nonprofit and the light that is now being shone on racism in this country. As a woman of color who participates in activism and social justice work in a majority black city, there is no escaping racial issues. Due to the nature of my work and its connection to current social movements, I have had to confront race head-on not only externally, but also in an internally reflective way, for the first time.

It’s clear that a wide range of factors affect a person’s lived experience with race. I’ve noticed a lack of non-stereotypical stories when it comes to the mixed experience. Unless you are a tragic mulatto or identify with only one side, your story is rarely heard or shared.

As multiracial people like me increasingly claim all of our heritage and become comfortable with ourselves as the whole, complex people that we are, I hope a greater diversity of mixed roots stories begin to emerge.

What Exactly is the Mixed Experience?

This piece, originally published on the Mixed Roots Stories blog, is the first in a series of pieces I wrote as Guest Blogger for the website.

The idea behind a shared lived experience is that different people can identify with similar things that happen as a result of some part of their identity. Unfortunately, I have met too many people who don’t understand or accept that the mixed experience is on equal footing with any monoracial experience. I’ve listed five common experiences that I have noticed as a black and white biracial woman, but that apply to other mixed backgrounds, as well.

  1. Explain, Justify, Defend

Multiracial people are very familiar with constantly having to explain, justify, or defend who we are, our experience, and essentially our existence in the world. The most obvious example of this is the question that all mixed or racially ambiguous people know well: “What are you?” However, the issue goes much deeper than an inconvenience or awkward conversation starter. Sometimes, the answer to the question doesn’t satisfy the asker. It may lead to further explanation or in rare cases, even to an argument.

I am often mistaken for Afro-Latina. More than once, when a Latino person has asked me what I am and I respond, they can’t believe my answer so they continue questioning me. “Really? You have no Latina background at all? But you have the face of a Brazilian. (I don’t know what the ‘face of a Brazilian’ looks like, but it has been said to me.) And you dance salsa? You must have at least some Latina in you.” In this situation, my reaction may be amusement, annoyance, or simply boredom with the conversation. In situations involving monoracial black people, things can go a different direction. The dialogue can get much more heated and emotional due to a perceived betrayal or rejection of blackness. In my experience, any negative reaction is more commonly a subtle change in tone of voice or mood. I have a visceral reaction, as well, because I know this to be far from the truth and am hurt by the questioning of my right to accept myself as a complete human being and acknowledge my lived experience.

I often avoid these conversations entirely because even the most subtle slights become exhausting and the conversation has never resulted in increased understanding or even acceptance of my experience. Despite what some have been made to believe, acknowledging and validating different experiences among people of color does not create division; rejecting them does.

  1. Rejection

No one likes rejection, but everyone experiences it at some point. For mixed roots people, rejection can come from one or all sides of one’s heritage at different times. This reality is what leads to the common feeling of being an outsider and not knowing where we fit in in a racialized world.

Some multiracial people, myself included, are most comfortable in racially diverse environments because there is less pressure to conform to the group along racial lines. There is a certain trauma that comes with being rejected over and over again. After years of rejection based on race, you develop defense mechanisms and learn to avoid situations where rejection is more likely, such as a monoracial group setting. But when that avoidance happens, it can be seen as thinking you’re better or rejecting the race. Since we are rarely given a space to talk about mixed experiences, resentment and misunderstanding continue unaddressed.

  1. Acceptance — With Conditions

The other side of rejection–acceptance–still involves rejection in a way. Acceptance into a monoracial group often is contingent upon mixed people subverting their own unique experiences as mixed people. If you mention your mixed experience, you risk having to justify or defend it. (See #1) But if you never speak of your experience of being mixed, unless it’s to acknowledge light skin privilege, then you are acceptable. Again, I tend to keep those experiences private because I don’t want to be put in a position where I feel compelled to defend my lived experience.

Groups want to claim or reject multiracial people whenever it is convenient- to some people I am black, period. To others, if someone has a parent of any race other than their own, they’re not truly a member of that person’s race. To some white people, as long as you’re some shade of brown or ethnic looking, you’re a minority and that may be enough information for them. At least in my case, I’m sometimes treated as an honorary Latina because I can pass for Latina, I speak Spanish, and dance salsa. All of this can be confusing, especially for youth, and it is why I believe it’s incredibly important for mixed race people to have a strong sense of self despite what anyone else decides to project onto them.

  1. Fluidity

Fluidity, when it comes to the mixed experience, means the ability to move between different racial categories and having a variety of experiences with and entry points into different cultures. This wide experience can provide deeper insight into race and the way it plays out. It also means that your perceived and internally felt identity can change depending on your environment. While this is a privilege because it allows increased access to a variety of spaces, there are also downsides. In a world where everyone wants to put people in a box, fluidity can be confusing and very isolating. There is a particular kind of certainty and solidarity that comes with a singular racial identity, something multiracial people do not inherently have. As convenient as it can be to blend in with multiple crowds, it is human nature to desire and seek out one stable community that feels like home.

  1. Letting Things Slide Off Your Back

The term “microaggressions” has gotten more attention lately due to the increased dialogue around race. Multiracial people experience microaggressions just like any other minority group; some that are shared with monoracial groups and some that are specific to multiracial people. The difference is microaggressions come from all of the races to which we belong. Sometimes I feel on edge, ready to brace for the impact of microaggressions or outright aggressions from either side. A simple, dismissive “oh, but you’re light-skinned” can throw someone off balance regardless of the intention behind the statement. On top of that, multiracial people are not supposed to speak of the unique experiences they encounter. As I mentioned before, speaking one’s own truth can somehow be seen as a betrayal or statement of superiority.

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None of this is to complain about being mixed race; there are ups and downs to everyone’s experience and I am not a fan of the Oppression Olympics. However, I do believe there needs to be more listening and understanding of the fact that our experience as mixed race individuals is no more or less valid than anyone else’s. It is my hope that one day this fact will not need to be stated because it will be implicitly known.