We’ve all heard the reports that children of “mixed” heritages are increasing rapidly in number. For mixed kids born before 2000, this is somewhat exciting news, especially those of us born in the South US who have often felt isolated and exocitized by the surrounding communities. We were the “odd ones” by birth, not by actions or treatment toward others. Not everyday, you understand, but often enough that just like football games and rice and gravy on a dinner table regularly, it becomes an expected part of our experience…
Only, it’s not as enjoyable as football and rice and gravy.
Today, I wanted to focus on one part of that experience, the question almost all mixed people have faced repeatedly, the “what are you” question.
First of all, when people ask “What are you?” it’s often abrasive. Think about the way it sounds, not what you think it means. Asking “what are you” sounds like you aren’t quite sure we’re “human.” Or at the least, it sounds like you think we definitely don’t “belong” into whatever circles you accept since you can’t seem to “place us.”
So now to the question posed in the title: how do mixed people develop an explanation of “self” identity in a world so consumed with “grouping” people? (especially in the US)
The idea for this post came to me while reading an article on how people identify when they are classified as “mixed.” In the article, one thing was consistent: everyone identified by their mother and father, and not as only theirself. In other words, responders said things such as, “My father is from Cameroon and my mother is white American, I think German” or “My mother is Filipino and my dad is Irish-American.”
No one in the research simply gave an identity statement about self, such as “I am Filipino-Irish.”
So that led to the question: how and why do mixed people learn to identify in such elongated explanations? While those who exist in one group simply say “I am black” or “I am Chinese,” those who are mixed tend to give a full explanation.
Most of the time, we are not allowed to give a simple answer.
If I say, “I’m mixed.” Then the speaker will say, “With what?”
If I say, “I’m half this and half that,” then the speaker will say, “What was your mom and what was your dad?”
In other words, over time from childhood to adulthood we learn that the fastest way to get through the conversation politely is to give the full explanation or to do what I did for a year when I was 20 and say, “I’m whatever you think I am.” and walk away.
I don’t think any of us mind telling people we care about or at least interact with often about our full background explanation, but to random people of the world: it’s frankly none of your business, so if we are gracious enough to give you an answer, any answer at all, accept the answer we gave and drop it.
So in the end, I wrote this because in the article I was reading, the researcher noted the explanations people gave for identity instead of simple “self” identity and it got me asking why do I and other mixed people feel we have to fully explain and so … here it is. The reason in simplest terms.
Society made us do it.
Next week, in part 2 of this discussion, I’ll speak on how race and racism were created. Then in part 3, I’ll highlight how “mixed” identity was regulated within colonial America.
(the article mentioned in this post is titled: “Mixed-Race Women and Epistemologies of Belonging” by Silvia Cristina Bettez, published in Frontiers: A Journal of Women Studies Vol 31 No 3.)