Welcome back to another issue of Tropic Takes on Racism. In this issue, we unpack what it means to straddle multiple ethnicities and heritage, and how that intersectionality is so often equated with being ‘less than’ – being neither here nor there. This sense of otherness triggers the desire to become more palatable, i.e. to mould ourselves to assimilate with the perceived collective preference. We’ll explore the damaging effects this has on identity and sense of self, and what we can all do to tackle how we relate to those of mixed heritage in order to promote positive experience and challenge racism.
WHAT DOES IT MEAN TO BE MIXED RACE?
It wasn’t until 2001 that the UK Census included mixed race identity as a subsection of the survey. The census happens every 10 years and provides a picture of the population in England and Wales. The most recent census (2011) found that 2.2 per cent of the population identified themselves as being of mixed ethnicity, an increase of 0.8 per cent since 2001 – therefore it’s the fastest growing ethnic group in the UK.
Credit: Office for National Statistics UK
In this census, mixed and multiple ethnic groups are defined as ‘White and Black Caribbean’, ‘White and Asian’, ‘White and Black African’ and ‘Mixed Other’. These limiting definitions are part of the problem when it comes to talking about racism and mixed race identity, both isolating those who don’t fit into them and minimising the experiences of those who do. As a British Egyptian, I find myself hovering over the various definitions: where do I fit into all of this? To be forced to select ‘other’ is incredibly alienating. Research collated by UK charity People in Harmony demonstrates that a commonality between multiracial individuals is this sense of liminality; a lack of belonging to a group. But, when faced with such reductive definitions that permeate society on a much deeper level than a survey, does this come as a surprise?
THE MIXED RACE EXPERIENCE AND IDENTITY
Mixedracefaces is an organisation that captures the portraits and stories of people with mixed heritage. Their goal is to represent the experience of having that delightfully complex blend of culture and ethnicity informing one’s identity. What strikes me when reading these people’s stories, each hailing from different corners of the world and with richly diverse backgrounds, are the similarities. Feelings of a lack of belonging and occupying a space of ambiguity crop up again and again. Questions like ‘where are you really from?’ and exclamations of ‘oh, but you don’t look black!’ are all too commonplace in the experience of multiracial individuals.
America’s current vice president Kamala Harris has been subject to a smear campaign insinuating she lied about her heritage, and Meghan Markle’s racial identity has ignited a national debate. All too often it appears that the identity of multiracial individuals exists in the eye of the beholder, and not with the individual themselves. In a society where the default is whiteness, this is a damaging expression of racial prejudice and stereotype.
Used in a racial context, palatability describes the moulding of one’s identity to please and placate the majority. It stems from being subject to micro-aggressions and conversations littered with racist undertones, so that it seems easier to erase parts of our identity in favour of a society with white privilege at its core.
Denying the intersectionality of being mixed race is not only exhausting but it’s also damaging. In a research study published by the Social Care Institute for Excellence (SCIE), LUSK Elizabeth M. et al found that individuals of mixed heritage who denied their duality had lower levels of self-esteem and higher rates of depression than those who felt able to identify as biracial.
Being a quarter English and growing up in Britain brings me a little bit closer to whiteness, which is more palatable. Throughout my life, I’ve denied aspects of my racial identity in an attempt to assimilate, but I’ve found that more isolating than anything. Being mixed race is a blessing; I have two rich cultures that I’m able to draw upon, both equally a part of me. Our society needs to become better at regarding mixed race people as a complete whole, and not just the part of them that we find easiest to digest.
We’ve looked at how racism is implicit in our treatment of mixed heritage individuals and how it impacts their sense of self and identity. But how can we do our bit to tackle this? In this BBC Three video, mixed race people share their experiences of being faced with these prejudicial paradigms and explore how best to avoid them. Click the image above to watch.
“My parents conquered difference, and we would all like to think that sort of accomplishment is something that could be passed down from generation to generation. That’s why we’re all, in theory, so excited by the idea of miscegenation – because if we mix the races, presumably, we create a new generation of people for whom existing racial categories do not exist. I don’t think it’s that easy, though. If you mix black and white, you don’t obliterate those categories; you merely create a third category, a category that demands, for its very existence, an even greater commitment to nuances of racial taxonomy.“ — Malcolm Gladwell