Ever since I was little, I struggled with my racial identity. I did not know what race was as a concept–much less mixed race.
What I did know is that everyone came in different colors, including my parents. The color of your skin determined a lot of things. How much respect you were given, how likely someone was to make space for you. I observed these things and wondered where I fit in.
I am writing this article based on my own experience as a mixed-race woman in the United States. My aim is to create space for people who do not fit into traditional categories of race. For example, I am speaking as someone who is half South-Asian on my mother’s side and white on my father’s side. Their backgrounds come together to define my own relationship with race, ethnicity, and mental health.
The connection between mixed race and mental health
We live in a society that is becoming increasingly label-oriented. This in turn affects mental health.
Race is a question that plagues me every time I sit down to fill out a form at the doctors. Often people who do not fit either white or non-white feel as if they exist in the margins. Many cultural norms indicate that being lighter skinned is preferred.
Young people have, rightfully, become more aware of the precarious state of race relations in this country. We are witnessing a concerning political era, racism and xenophobia are on the rise. This new political fever is colloquially called “performative wokeness”. It creates a dichotomy for many. There is the online self, who must perform a constant altruism divided equally among all possible catastrophes. But there is also the real self who faces the lived reality of identity everyday.
People who exist outside of racial categories struggle to articulate the ways that race affects their lives. Many people may want to discard this point of view as a valid interpretation of race relations.
However, the number of mixed-race babies born each year increases. It is more imperative now than ever that we discuss the relationship between mixed-race and identity.
Defining “multi-racial” or “mixed race”
Since the Civil Rights Movement and the passing of Loving v. Virginia (1967), multiracial couples have become more common. With this, there more babies who identify as more than one race. While these mixed-race babies have the advantage of being at least 20% cuter, they also face a unique challenge. The 2000 Census marked a turning point for the discussion of multi-racial identities. 6.8 million people reported identifying as two or more races, a record high.
Social scientists struggled with how to categorize these people. A few different views have emerged which misunderstand the mixed-race experience. Its important to note that these studies were primarily aimed at half Black-Americans. I am borrowing aspects of this theory but the experiences are not homogeneous.
Even the smallest relation to a Black Person meant that you were no longer White. This idea of “race preservation” has been prevalent since the founding of America and still is today.
But in the aftermath of the Civil Rights Movement, a conflicting view emerged. Mixed-raced people’s rejection of their Blackness has been attributed racial prejudice or “internalized racism”. Therefore, it was theorized that mixed-race people needed to fully accept that they are people of color.
However, neither of these theories can fully encapsulate the mixed race experience. Rejecting any part of yourself can lead to loneliness and confusion. It is thus important for everyone to explore all sides of their racial identity.
Emotions in mixed race family units
Self-identity is a crucial part of self-esteem for adolescents. Here I mean whoever they live with when they are completely dependent on someone else for their survival: “An adolescent family provides the first opportunity to feel a sense of belonging to a social group and the degree to which adolescents identify with their families affects their development.”
Race and gender
Every family comes with its own baggage and dynamics. These intricacies affect how a mixed-race individual comes to form a sense of identity.
It’s hard to align with either parent because I’m a different race than both of them. I see myself, outwardly, more in my mom. I’m also a woman like my mom, which adds to the impact of her identity on mine. Here, race and gender come together to form my identity. In Asian cultures, a son in generally preferred. Women are born with a disadvantage, they’ve already failed to be the right sex.
I love my Dad but when it comes to race I align more with my Mom. As her daughter, I feel I have a responsibility to carry my mother’s trauma. I feel pressure to cross barriers she couldn’t, because of my light skin.
Parents’ racial understanding
Parents’ racial ideology is also crucial to formation of the adolescents’ sense of self. A White parent can love their children, while still unknowingly committing racial microaggressions or hurting their mixed-race child.
It is not intentional but White parents do not always understand the way that race feels. In turn, they may feel offended if a child rejects their whiteness. Parents may feel pressure not to take on the role of the “villain”. This could play into insecurities they have about their own racial identity.
Navigating the social world
As children get older, they will move beyond the family sphere. Mixed-race adolescents start to gain a sense of identity with their peer group. This new identity formation can be positive or harmful depending on the context.
For instance, identifying with more than one race complicates the process according to Dr. Maya Benish-Weisman: “Cultural identity has shown that identification with cultural groups significantly contributes to an individual’s psychological well-being.” A mixed-race individual may feel pressure to prioritize one identity to fit in.
However, the opportunity to build one’s own racial identity can also feel extremely fulfilling when you’ve struggled to fit one single niche at home. Leaving the context of your upbringing can create a space of acceptance. An individual forms a broader identity the more they meet people different from themselves.
Sophie Harvey, 49, Poughkeepsie, NY is half Indian and grew up in Singapore. She says that she was the only mixed-race child in her class but today as a multiraical identity is more common, it is possible that adolescents can find support in peers. Studies on this are inconclusive as the racial landscape in this country continues to shift through the twenty-first century.
Social levels of race
Another factor that can complicate the multiracial experience is the alienation. Young people may feel like an outsider due to an unsteady identification. Race exists in three levels for every person, There is one’s own racial identity, how they are perceived, and how they are categorized by the state..
The flexible definition of race and being a “chameleon” has its upsides. For example, Marshall, 20, Tampa, Florida takes pride in their mixed-race identity saying “I’ve never wanted to be fully Filipino or white. I like that I confuse people.” However, people often view them as Asian and on a legal level they are considered white. Having to hold all of these identities can be a stressful process and lead to prolonged self esteem issues.
However, not all mixed race people feel that it is an advantage. Emma, 19, Boston is half-Brazilian. They say that that they feel uncomfortable identifying as a person of color. This is because they do not want to infringe on an identity that may not be theirs to claim. However, Emma admits that they do not feel fully white either. What are the social parameters that we create our identity? What does is mean to be enough of any identity for there to be no doubt of your right to claim it?
The mental health advantages of a mixed race identity
Many feel that being mixed race is an advantage. Everyone I talked to for this article considered their multicultural background allowed them to cross boundaries. Emma says that when people find out they are Brazilian and speak Portuguese, they are often impressed. She has joined Latinx community groups in college and this has helped her feel more connected to her Brazilian identity.
A unique perspective and experience
The main discovery social scientists found when they tried to figure out how mixed race individuals categorized themselves is that there is no pattern. Every person has a unique experience and comes to a different conception of race based on their community, family and upbringing. There are a certain percent of mixed-race people who choose to identify with one race over another, usually if they are raised in a community that is predominantly one race. Others still choose to identify as two (or more) races at once, defining themselves as mixed race.
Rejecting racial categories
One way mixed-race adolescents are learning to define themselves is by rejecting race altogether. This idea is something I discovered while writing this article. I wish it was discussed more widely among scholars. Rejecting race is a complicated proposition. It is very different from denying race, sometimes known as the “colorblind” approach. However, racial biases are ingrained in every aspect of Western culture. To assume we are immune to any preconceived notions about a person because of their race would be naive.
It is different though, to use this colorblind view to make sense of the self.
I have accepted that my racial identity is something I may have to grapple with my entire life. Race has roots, there are a many historical implications of identifying as South Asian. For me, something that has really helped in reading literature about South Asian experiences.
Authors like Kiran Desai, Arundhati Roy, and Jhumpa Lahiri have helped shape who I am. Stories are a powerful thing in my family, and they can be integral to passing on lessons–like the lesson that your story, no matter how unique, will resonate with someone else.
The future is more biracial than ever, and that means a new generation of stories. What can you do when you don’t fit neatly into any one space? Make your own space and share with others who feel lost like you did.