Preface – Minor identity crisis
Growing up, I’ve always identified as mixed race. If someone inquires further, as they almost always do, I clarify that I’m half-Japanese and half-French Canadian. I usually laugh a little after saying “French Canadian,” because I think that saying this always sounds a bit pretentious. It feels as though I’m implying that I have some sort of deeply rooted connection to my French Canadian heritage, when in reality I’ve never really been sure of what it means to be a “French Canadian,” or where that region even exists geographically. When I ask my dad, who grew up in Boston and whose entire family has lived in New England for generations, he seems to be about as lost for answers as I have been.
For me, being half-French Canadian has always meant little more than simply being half-“white,” or half-similar to my surrounding peers. Growing up mixed race in an almost homogeneously “white” environment in North Seattle, I never viewed my French Canadian side as an important or unique part of my identity. Rather, I thought of it more as a given, due to the fact that “whiteness” was the norm in my surrounding environment. In her article “White Means Never Having to say you’re Ethnic,” Pamela Perry explains how students at a predominantly white high school in the U.S. largely perceive “white” culture to be cultureless, due to a process of “naturalization,” by which “historically constituted cultural practices” become embedded in everyday life and are taken for granted as “normal.” (2001:59). Relatedly, I’ve always seen being half-Japanese as something that makes me culturally unique in that this was my non-white, non-“normal” side. This was the side that distinguished me from my surrounding environment. I never laugh a little after saying that I’m Japanese like I do French Canadian. I think this is due to the fact that given my childhood environment, I’ve created a sort of cultural hierarchy in my head based on uniqueness, where being Japanese emerges as a more worthy identity to associate with. Yet as I’ve grown older, I’ve realized that there’s a big difference between identifying with a culture because of values and practices that you’ve grown up with, and identifying with a culture because it makes you appear aesthetically different. I’ve begun to wonder whether you can really call the latter cultural identification at all, and whether I truly possess any sort of defined cultural or multiracial identity.
My junior year of college, I was confronted by these issues surrounding racial and cultural identity more blatantly that I had ever experienced before. In the fall of 2015, protests took place on college campuses across the U.S. regarding racial discrimination, and my small liberal arts college had a movement of its own. A group of African American students organized a week long protest, demanding that our college president step down unless a list of twenty demands were met, calling for increased communication and cooperation between administration, staff, and students of color. To begin the movement, the organizers held a protest in our campus quad, attended by a majority of the student body. They began the protest by asking the hundreds of us to organize ourselves in consecutive rings by race, with African American students in the middle, followed by other students of color, followed by Caucasian students. The organizers explained that this was to establish a feeling of security and safety among the African American students and students of color, within a space physically bordered by “white” allies. The mood of curious anticipation shifted to one of tense solemnity, infused with uncertainty.
I had been standing with my boyfriend, who is white, and as he began to step backwards I remained frozen. I glanced around to see whether everyone else was actually separating, and they were. I looked back at my boyfriend, who was now barely visible through the crowd gathering behind me. I started moving towards him but he motioned for me to stay. As I stood there in the “students of color” ring, I couldn’t pay attention to the organizers as my mind raced with thoughts. I was just as much a white student as a student of color, and had never even considered myself the latter. How had my life experiences differed significantly enough from my white peers to warrant my position within the physical border of their white allyship? The only thing I could think of was being born to an Asian mother, an event I really had no active role in. Were my experiences even comparable to those of the mono-racial students of color surrounding me? Why did my boyfriend motion for me to stay, as if he knew where I belonged better than I did? Were other half-white “students of color” having similar thoughts, or was I the only one experiencing a minor identity crisis? Since then, these internal questions have remained solidly in the back of my mind. In this paper, I aim to think deeper about these questions in order to assess the current nature of multiracial identity formation. I will do this through evaluation of my own experiences alongside those of three mixed race individuals, who have grown up in environments similar to myself.
Introduction – An increasingly multiracial America, and its consequences
In their 2015 report, the Pew Research Center states that “multiracial Americans are at the cutting edge of social and demographic change in the U.S. – young, proud, tolerant and growing at a rate three times as fast as the population as a whole” (2015:5). This grand statement reflects a significant shift taking place in American demographics and racial discourse, and the largely positive outlook that exists regarding an increasingly diverse America. As interracial marriage becomes less taboo and the multiracial population continues to grow, the possibility of a nation in which everyone is multiracial and racial discrimination is obsolete seems to be a more realistic possibility than ever before. The Pew study found that only 4% of multiracial respondents felt that “having a mixed racial background has been a disadvantage in their life” in the U.S., with the majority (76%) claiming their background has made “no difference,” and 19% believing it to have been an advantage (2015:5). Although certainly displaying a positive trend in terms of perceived racial discrimination in America, these surface level conclusions require deeper investigation.
Critically important to this investigation is how multiracial identity is constructed, perceived, and presented. As a mixed race, partly white individual, I would agree with the majority in the Pew survey. I feel that my position as a mixed race individual in America has not significantly impacted my life, and if anything, I feel as though I’ve experienced more advantages than disadvantages. For instance, I’ve found that it’s oftentimes socially advantageous to look a little different than the norm, in terms of making impressions and establishing oneself in a variety of realms. However, as I’ve grown older I have increasingly regarded my life experiences with a critical eye, specifically in terms of my mixed racial identity. In contrast to the idealized image of a multiracial utopian America that the Pew data may point towards, current realities of national discourse reflect prevalent tensions surrounding racial politics. In the past few years, U.S. racial discourse has been electrified by the shooting of Michael Brown and the emergence of the Black Lives Matter movement, other widespread instances of police discrimination and unwarranted brutality, student movements addressing racial discrimination on college campuses, and Donald Trump’s xenophobic presidential campaign, among many other events. Thus, within this racially charged environment, the fact that a majority of multiracial individuals, including myself, feel that they have either positively or neutrally benefited from being mixed race is a consequential area of study. In what ways do understandings and presentations of multiracial identity yield the experience of societal advantages?
In Twenty-First Century Color Lines, a book depicting the nature of race and racial relations in the modern day U.S., Andrew Grant-Thomas writes, “Over the last three or four decades the United States (and the world) has changed in ways that not only shape how we experience race at a national level, but also create dramatic variations in the experience of race at the level of schools, neighborhoods, metropolitan areas, states, and national regions” (2009:2). Thus, in addition to overarching societal concerns regarding national racial relations, understandings of multiracial identity stem from and reflect all aspects of everyday life. An individual’s surrounding environment has a significant impact on their experience of race. In addressing multiracial identity on a national level, local environments and personal experiences must be evaluated. I have chosen to study mixed-race individuals that grew up in a predominantly white environment to better assess the impact of surrounding environments on racial identity. Can a mixed race individual truly develop a distinct cultural identity when they have never really been exposed to such a concept? Given the historical and contemporary nature of U.S. society, I have further chosen to speak to American mixed race individuals who are part white, in order to assess the advantages and disadvantages that come from belonging partly, but not wholly, to a structurally privileged race.
Furthermore, given the changing demographics of society, the extent to which multiracial individuals possess agency in racially identifying themselves has lead to widespread debate in the U.S., resulting in the introduction of the “check all that apply” option under racial categorizations on the 2000 Census. Brunsma notes that this was the first time in the history of the U.S. Census that the institution “attempted to acknowledge the reality of multi-racial existence” (2006:556). In an attempt to study the effects of this Census modification, Brunsma looks at the case of black-white mixed race individuals, to see whether their identification in the 2000 Census aligned with their self-proclaimed racial identity, finding that fewer than 30% of black-white individuals actually checked both black and white on the Census form, with the majority simply identifying as black. With this research, Brunsma attempts to highlight the discrepancy that often exists between “public categories of race and private expressions of racial identity” (2006:572). Thus, the experience of multiracial identity formation is complex and multi-layered, and is largely influenced by personal environments and outsider perceptions.
It is significant that this modification to the U.S. Census was made relatively recently, just 16 years ago. Interracial marriage was only legalized in the U.S. in 1967, less than 50 years ago. Clearly, understandings of multiracial identity are still developing and expanding, along with ways to think about and address the increasingly multiracial nature of our society. Rockquemore et al., quoting Korgen (1999), discuss how the 2000 Census debate “highlighted the existence of a generation of mixed-race people whose entire life experience is in post-Civil Rights America,” (2009:14) implying a generational gap in terms of thinking about race. Rockquemore et al. claim that the shifting experiences of this new generation “reflect a changing racial structure and force us to reconsider the mutual exclusivity of racial categories” (2009:14).
In their critical evaluation of theories regarding multiracial identity formation Rockquemore et al. (2009), expand upon Thornton and Wasson’s 1995 framework, which originally described multiracial identity research as following one of three approaches: “(a) the problem approach, (b) the equivalent approach, and (c) the variant approach” (2009:15). Rockquemore et al. add a fourth approach that they believe has taken precedence in today’s discourse, called the ecological approach. Firstly the problem approach, emerging from social segregation in the 60s, theorized that “being a mixed-race person in a racially divided world is, in and of itself, a problematic social position that is inevitably marked by tragedy” (2009:16). These ideas were formed during a time when the “one-drop rule,” claiming that one-drop of African American blood identifies you as black, was widely embraced. Thus, according to the problem approach, the external conflict between blacks and whites becomes internalized as a personal and tumultuous problem, as the individual struggles to deal with his or her fracturing and incomplete identity. Secondly, the equivalent approach emphasized embracing one’s non-white background, regardless of one’s mixed race status. For example, mixed black-white individuals were assumed to positively embrace their black identities, due to the fact that “negative mental health outcomes were primarily associated with internalizing racist views about Blackness” (2009:17). Establishing a positive and healthy black identity was seen as a stable base that one could always return to. Thirdly, the variant approach proposes conceptualizing mixed-race individuals as their own racial category, “distinct from any single racial group” (2009:18). As compared to the equivalent approach, the variant approach argues that the experience of identity formation among mixed race youth is distinctively unique and that the possibility exists to establish a healthy and integrated multiracial identity.
Finally, the fourth approach is the ecological approach, defined by the authors as centered around three primary assumptions. Firstly, multiracial identities are formed according to “various contextually specific logics. Secondly, the process of multiracial identity formation is not linear and as there is no distinct end goal, overarching stages within this process cannot be predicted. Thirdly, privileging any type of racial identity over another only perpetuates “the essentialist flaws of previous models” and encourages current racial divisions (2009:19). The ecological approach is the most relevant to my study, and in general to the current nature of multiracial identity in America today. Given the importance of one’s surrounding environment in shaping racial identity, the formation process of mixed race identity cannot be streamlined by a single theory or generalized by a single process. Rather, “contextually specific logics” must be applied. Thus, in this paper I aim to dive into specific logics that emerge in terms of multiracial identity within the context of a predominantly “white” environment.
Part I – Perspectives from an almost identical environment
I was interested to explore whether certain environments largely produced similar logics among those who exist within them, or whether specific logics shift depending on the individual. Given the almost identical nature of my twin brother, Kenzo, and I’s childhood environment, I was curious as to whether he possessed similar feelings of a lack of agency in terms of his ability to assert his own cultural identity. Kenzo goes to NYU and is pursuing a promising career in music production. He voiced a similar lack of racial identification:
“I don’t think I’ve ever really experienced discrimination or lack of opportunity as a result of being biracial. Especially in New York, people don’t care. There’s a lot of different races in the scene. So, like, ‘Brooklyn hipster music kid,’ that’s the cultural scene that I identify with, a lot more than, like, a ‘mixed-Asian kid.’”
Kenzo paints a picture of the idealized racially integrated America of the future. People “don’t care” about race, and personal identity transcends race, being formed around one’s lifestyle choices and interests. Yet within this image that Kenzo describes, it’s further important to note that when race appears to be irrelevant in everyday life, racial identity can only really be formed when “discrimination or lack of opportunity” is experienced. After thinking about his identity more, Kenzo muses:
“It’s kind of weird, I feel like I almost identify as white, or at least closer to white, mainly just because the majority of my friends have been white for my entire life. And that just feels like the demographic that I’ve culturally been more assimilated with.”
It’s interesting that Kenzo uses the term assimilate, implying that he’s become integrated into a culture that he originally existed outside from. He explicitly depicts the important role of peer groups in facilitating this process of perceived societal integration. This points to the impact that socialization agents dominated by “whiteness,” have on the formation of racial identity among mixed race individuals. Having grown up in an environment where the majority of people were Caucasian, Kenzo feels an understandable desire to “assimilate,” identifying less with his Asian background, in order to fit in among his peers.
Kenzo, and I grew up in Seattle, Washington, in a predominantly white, middle class neighborhood in the North part of the city. Our Japanese-American mother worked long hours as a project manager for a trucking company, while our French-Canadian father was a stay-at-home dad for the majority of our childhood. Although known and oftentimes celebrated for its political progressiveness, tolerance, and liberalism, North Seattle also receives under-the-breath mockery given its overwhelmingly white, educated, middle to upper-middle class population. My dad recalls walking with my brother and I around the neighborhood park and receiving confused looks, as if people couldn’t for the life of them understand what this tall white man was doing with two little Asian kids. Yet as a child, my brother and I were oblivious to these outsider perceptions. We never thought of our dad as a white dad, he was just our dad.
We went to an almost homogeneously white, middle-class elementary school, where my brother and I, along with one half black girl, were the only “colored students” in our grade. Our only colored teacher was the African American choir instructor. Kenzo confirms this homogeneous nature:
“I feel like most of the kids came from pretty similar environments. In terms of like a liberal, two-parent household, in middle class North Seattle, you know what I mean? That was pretty common ground there.”
Throughout our talk, Kenzo consistently returns to discussing the liberal, middle class nature of North Seattle. Despite our mom’s occasional efforts to instill us with a distinctly Japanese identity, he feels that his process of identity development was predominantly shaped by the local culture of North Seattle. When asked if he felt that our parents had an impact on our sense of cultural identity Kenzo replied:
“The most influential identity that I think they passed on wasn’t necessarily cultural. Like we did get a piece of that from our grandparents, and the Japanese heritage stuff in our house, and hearing about the Japanese internment camps and all this history, and going out to the family reunions and stuff like that. We definitely got a taste of it…but it wasn’t like we grew up in that community. It really kind of seemed like something that we interacted with occasionally… Whereas I think what we were more immersed in, and what was most influential, was the North Seattle liberal culture, you know? We’ve got a bunch of art on the walls, a bunch of books in the home, only watch PBS [Public Broadcasting Station], have dinner parties, and mom and dad signed us up for all these activities, you know? That’s our culture. That was the most influential definitely, like the culture of North Seattle and Seattle in general.”
Here, Kenzo depicts feeling like somewhat of an outsider to the Japanese community. Although having grown up understanding what it means to be Japanese, Kenzo doesn’t feel that his occasional interactions with the culture warranted the development of a specifically Japanese identity. Rather, the local environment of Seattle played a larger role in shaping his identity as a whole, an identity that was not explicitly tied to race. Interestingly, here, Kenzo doesn’t draw an association between “whiteness” and the culture of North Seattle. One could argue that what Kenzo describes as a “North Seattle liberal culture,” consisting of a cultured, educated, and socially engaged existence, might be tied to a larger, dominant, and predominantly white, upper-middle class culture in the United States. However, Kenzo perceives these factors to be specifically local and unattached to any sort of racial cultural identity, but rather to a more general, “North Seattle” cultural identity.
Part II – Comparative perspectives from a mixed-black American
Some attention must be paid to the fact that experiences of multiracial identity formation can differ between racial groups, as well as on an individual level within racial groups. For example, my brother and I unsurprisingly experienced similar processes of racial identity formation, given our extremely similar environments of socialization. In comparing our experience to other multiracial youth, it is crucial to keep in mind our position as mixed-white, middle class, and Asian. As Mawhinney and Petchauer importantly note, “considering all multiracial people as part of one group overlooks important differences that result from the specific identity markers that people have” (2013:1311).
In examining our experience growing up as Asian and white, the societal construction of Asians as the “model minority,” should be taken into account. Chao et al. (2013) conclude that a majority of Americans perceive Asians to be “diligent, hardworking, quiet high achievers,” and that this image is very much perpetuated in the U.S. media. Similarly, Asians have served as the primary example of people who have become “whitewashed,” referring to racial minorities who essentially attempt to assert a white identity, given the nature of their surrounding environment (Pyke and Dang, 2003). As the concepts of the “model minority” and “whitewashing” show, Asians have been largely epitomized as success stories of American assimilation in the media and common discourse. Therefore, my experience of racial identity formation as a mixed-white Asian may differ significantly from the experience of other mixed-white individuals.
Given the “distinct salience” of blackness in the U.S, “due to the history of chattel slavery, segregation, and subsequent historical and contemporary events,” the experiences of mixed-white blacks require the application of an equally distinct lens (Mawhinney and Petchauer, 2013:1311). As compared to the “model minority,” blacks are often portrayed as resisting conformity to the “white” norm and, in turn, are viewed as threatening to racial harmony in the U.S. This sentimentality has gained national attention, and criticism, regarding recent police violence and racial discrimination experienced across the country. However, these racial stereotypes are historically and politically ingrained in American society, and they continue to shape black experiences of identity formation, regardless of whether they are explicitly brought to the national attention.
Given the different societal perceptions of Asians and Blacks, I was interested to see how the process of racial identification took place for a mixed white-black student who grew up in a similar environment as my brother and I. Would it differ dramatically because of prevalent and contrasting racial discourses in America, or would it be relatively similar due to the saturation of “whiteness” in our surrounding environments?
Cat was the only other colored student in our grade in elementary school. Her mother, who is from Pennsylvania and of German descent, met her Tanzanian father while teaching English in Africa. The two married and returned to the U.S. to start a family in North Seattle. Cat recalls her early sense of racial identity fondly:
“In early elementary school I remember being like, ‘I’m African-American, because I have an African parent and an American parent!’ And then at some point I figured out that African American doesn’t mean mixed.”
Similar to Kenzo and I, Cat recalls lacking a distinct understanding of racial identity within our school environment:
“Elementary school was very, very white. I think the whitest of my experiences. But like, at that point I don’t know if I was super aware of it. But then after going into middle school and becoming more aware of it, looking back I was like ‘wow, there was no one.’ So I feel like being in that environment, and not being aware of it, kind of made me used to it, you know? And like, accepting of it. Then later on, as I became more and more aware of it, it made me feel more and more uncomfortable.”
Here, Cat describes becoming increasingly uncomfortable as she grew more aware of the lack of people racially similar to her in elementary school. Her gaining of awareness allowed her the distance to look back at her childhood critically. She depicts it a two-step process:
“The first big step for me was being like, ‘OK, everyone here is white and I am black.’ But then, going into high school especially, the other black people that I did see around weren’t mixed. So then the next step was being like, ‘OK, I’m black, but I’m not that black,’ you know? Like I’m mixed and they aren’t. And that was interesting to me because like, I don’t know, it’s weird to be right in the middle of both of those things, and have one be such a majority, and have the other be very much a minority, but still not be in either of those.”
Kenzo described similar feelings of existing in limbo between two separate identities. Compared to Cat’s two-step process in understanding this in-between state, which she appeared to have spent some time previously considering and reflecting on, it seemed as though the idea was coming across Kenzo’s mind for the first time: When discussing how he thinks being mixed race has affected him, he said:
“I don’t know, there’s like some weird things with mixed Asians to other Asian cultures. I don’t know, like I’ve been told multiple times by my Asian coworkers like, “Oh, I wish I were mixed,” and stuff like that. It’s kind of like this weird thing. It seems to be a little bit vaunted to be a mixture I guess, I don’t know. It’s really tough to think about because I feel like its just kind of been always there, and I haven’t really been self-aware of how it has affected me. I mean I look Asian, but I don’t look so Asian. People can usually tell, it’s pretty evident that I’m like a mixture of something, but in general I could still pass for Asian. But like I couldn’t pass for white, you know? So it’s kind of like this weird middle ground.”
Given distinct experiences of race in America, not being self-aware could stem from Kenzo’s socially privileged status as a mixed-white Asian. Cat had clearly thought through her identity process, while Kenzo appeared to be reflecting on his racial identity for the first time, with many concluding statements like, “it’s kind of tough to know,” or “but yeah, I really don’t know.” The necessity for Cat to spend considerable time thinking about the formation of her racial identity likely stems from being more blatantly confronted by her mixed status in her lifetime, due to the unique history and understandings of blackness in America. For example, Cat recalls with frustration a time in high school when her class was reading Huckleberry Finn:
“It was before we had started reading it and our teacher was making the biggest deal about the use of the ‘n-word’. So we literally spent like two weeks leading up to the book talking about that. And it was just me and one other black kid in the class, and I know we were both just there like ‘please stop,’ and just made so uncomfortably aware of being in a class of all white people and a white teacher, who were just so adamant about being so detailed about everything having to do with race. Like we know this is offensive, but like for me at least, kind of just get over it. Like this book was written a long time ago. Like, say it’s offensive and then move on. That also pointed out to me just how unexposed all white people in North Seattle are to race.”
Cat’s experience in this situation stems specifically from her position as part black. Within the U.S., the historical prevalence of racial discrimination against blacks has led to a hyper-aware approach in addressing racial discourse in attempts to counteract past ignorance, especially within the school. Yet, in this situation rather than feeling comforted by discussing racial issues with her white peers, Cat felt blatantly singled out and was led to come to her own conclusions about race, in contrast to those of her teacher and peers. As Asian mixed-whites, Kenzo and I never experienced being confronted with our race in such a manner. For this reason, I believe we possess a less developed sense of how our race has impacted our lives.
Cat’s experience as mixed African also uniquely impacted her home environment. She recalls that her parents almost always spoke English at home, because her father was still learning it. Furthermore, as her father’s family remained in Tanzania, Cat only ever saw the “white” side of her family. Despite this dominance of “whiteness,” Cat felt appreciative that her parents made somewhat of an effort to foster a dual identity in her:
“I never learned Swahili because when we were growing up my dad was still trying to learn English, so we only ever spoke English at home. But my parents both would use random Swahili phrases that we’d end up learning, so we never really got fluent but we definitely had that connection. So my parents definitely did some work to, like, not pretend that we were entirely white, which is definitely something I really appreciate because I feel like it could’ve been really easy to be, you know, sucked into the middle class white culture.”
This effort made by Cat’s parents to establish somewhat of an African culture in the home, despite surrounding “whiteness,” allowed her further opportunity to reflect on her race from an early age. Comparatively, although our mom would occasionally try to teach Kenzo and I about our Japanese heritage, it was far from a prevalent aspect in our everyday lives. Because Cat was instilled with a greater sense of cultural identity within the home, she was able to see more clearly in what ways she was different from her white peers:
“One of the first things I remember is being in elementary school, and if I would talk about something that I said to my dad or my brother said to my dad, I would always quote ourselves as saying the word ‘dad,’ which we never said, we always called him ‘baba,’ which is the Swahili word for dad. So I remember doing that, and like sort of being aware, but not really being aware that it was because everyone else said ‘dad,’ and everyone else being everyone that’s white. So I was like ‘gotta fit in, like that’s what everyone else is saying, so I have to say it too, otherwise it’s weird.’ So that was like one of the first times I remember like, suppressing blackness, or whatever you want to call it.”
Because Cat had greater cultural exposure in her home than Kenzo or I, she was able to develop a deeper awareness of how she actively presented herself as white, “suppressing” her blackness. Yet this awareness should not be overemphasized as entirely active and conscious at a young age. Cat evokes concern when assessing her childhood identity retrospectively:
“I think for a while when I was younger I identified myself more with the white half, which is weird and problematic, and like I probably didn’t notice for a while how weird that was. But I definitely know that now.”
Although differing in how critically they’ve considered it, both Kenzo and Cat depict identifying more with their “white” half as children. As a socialization agent, I do not think that the influence of the peer group can be underemphasized. Both Kenzo and Cat attribute initially identifying more so with their “white” half to their peers and those they typically interacted with as youth. As opposed to parents, the school, or the media, friend groups emerge as something that a young person is supposedly able to choose. However, the extent of the choice that mixed race youth possess when having only been exposed to white peers is debatable. Outside of school, both Kenzo and Cat discussed the importance of predominantly white sports teams in affecting their identity. When asked about the greatest factors that played a role in his identity formation Kenzo replied:
“My friends at Whittier [elementary school], just through playing sports with them, you know, those kinds of collective experiences.”
Kenzo describes his friends from elementary school as “pretty like, All-American sports boys, you know?” Yet he doesn’t explicitly connect All-Americanness with “whiteness.” Although believing his peer group and sports teams to have been important in shaping his early identity, Kenzo emphasizes that this early development was not a cultural identity, rather:
“ [it was] more just like general identity. Just because, you know, I didn’t really feel that culturally unique. Like it really wasn’t that big of a deal, I might as well have just been another white kid. You know what I mean? In terms of like who I was hanging out with and what I was doing in my free time.”
As with whiteness and the culture of North Seattle, it’s interesting that Kenzo doesn’t associate this “general identity” he speaks of as culturally tied to “whiteness.” For Kenzo, the fact that the majority of people in his surrounding environment were Caucasian was just the norm, and thus devoid of distinct culture. This speaks to the process of “naturalization” mentioned earlier. Within our childhood environment, Kenzo similarly perceived “white” culture to be the “normal” culture, and rather than possessing the awareness to challenge that notion, Kenzo largely assimilated with this “whiteness.”
Cat recalls the lack of diversity on her sports teams more critically, noting that this was something that bothered her from an early age:
“I always expected that soccer teams I was on would have more racial diversity, and they just never did. So that was one thing that always bothered me for sure. That one I was aware of for a long time, I know. Maybe because of the stereotype that black people are athletic or something, and then I just never saw that and was confused by it. So yeah, that was strange.”
It speaks to the prevalence of racial stereotypes in the U.S. that Cat initially felt confused and bothered because those stereotypes weren’t lining up as expected. Despite her white environment she seemed to assume there would at least be other black players on her soccer team, not because she had grown to anticipate diverse environments, but because she had grown up internalizing stereotypes of her own race. Although increasing the whiteness of her surrounding environment, white sports teams and peer groups also led Cat to think more critically about her racial identity. Contrastingly, Kenzo viewed himself as basically just “another white kid,” displaying a lack of self-awareness and questioning of his surrounding environments.
In comparing the experiences of Cat, Kenzo, and myself, it seems as though while distinct historical experiences of race certainly have an impact on how multiracial individuals perceive and produce race, one’s immediate surrounding environment plays a larger role in terms of cultural identity construction. Although we have already considered how perceptions of different races can impact multiracial identity formation within the U.S., it’s valuable to also consider how identity formation can be impacted by different national contexts, such as in the Netherlands, where perceptions of race differ significantly from the United States.
Part III: Comparative perspectives from a mixed race Amsterdammer
In considering the process of multiracial identity formation in America, it’s valuable to consider how this process takes place within the national context of the Netherlands, where historically, race has been perceived through a very different lens.
Maya is a University of Amsterdam student who was born and raised in Amsterdam, and who has spent the majority of her life within predominantly white environments. Maya is mixed race. Her father is a first-generation immigrant from Surinam and her mother is a first-generation immigrant from Cape Verde, a group of islands off the coast of Morocco. Maya describes the predominantly white, upper middle class nature of her environment growing up:
Maya – “I grew up in Nieuw-West, it’s a newer part of Amsterdam, it’s not built that long. So the region I grew up in was all new, all the houses were new, it was really a start up pace. Like, a lot of families. I think it was mostly upper-middle class that lived there… So I had a lot of upper-middle class friends, like all my friends are going to university… And I went to a pretty white elementary school…”
Mika – “And so were your friends and teachers at school mostly white?”
Maya – “Yes. Mostly white, mostly white, mostly white. I think I and one other girl were the only colored people in my class.”
Maya further explains how she didn’t have much of an opportunity to form a distinct cultural identity within her home, because “it’s semi-frowned upon to not talk to your child in Dutch when you’re at home” and so her “parents really made an effort to only speak Dutch.” Given the overwhelmingly “white” nature of her childhood environment, I expected Maya’s sense of cultural identity to have been largely shaped by this, as with myself, Kenzo, and Cat. However, in talking to Maya it became clear to me that as an American, my assumptions regarding race cannot be applied to the context of Amsterdam and the Netherlands. When asked if she felt as though she’d had the opportunity to form a cultural identity growing up in Amsterdam, Maya replied:
“Um, I don’t think that really happens in Amsterdam. I think you kind of have these main identities that you get from your friends, and then it sort of depends on who you’re friends with and what you like. And obviously you choose your own friends, so you sort of choose your own cultural identity? But eh…” [shrugs shoulders]
Once again, the question of to what extent youth can truly choose their friends, given the typically limited nature of their environments, should be considered. Throughout our talk, Maya constantly emphasized the importance that is placed on one’s friend groups and leisure activities regarding the structuring of social interaction in Amsterdam. This portrayal of identity formation among youth in Amsterdam is similar to the one described by Kenzo in the microcosm of Brooklyn, NY. Race is a factor that’s hardly ever considered. In fact, in the Netherlands, race is perceived by many to be entirely irrelevant to Dutch society today. In introducing her summary of academic discourse surrounding racism in the Netherlands, Melissa Weiner writes, “Ask a White Dutch person about racism in their society and most will quickly respond that, except for a few right-wing politicians and individual racist incidents each yeah, racism does not exist. Indeed, it cannot. Because, according to many, ‘race’ does not exist in the Netherlands” (2014:731). Yet Maya, a sociology major, is careful not to paint a picture of a harmoniously “colorblind” Dutch society. She explains how the denial of race often serves as a copout for racism:
“I think a lot of people want to believe that they’re colorblind, and not accept that they might be a little racist. But in my opinion, I think everyone’s a little racist. Like I’m a little racist, you might be a little racist, those girls over there are probably a little racist. And I think people just don’t acknowledge that fact about themselves. They’re just like “yeah, I have colored friends I’m fine,” or “yeah, I voted for someone of color so I can’t be racist.” I think that might be a part of the problem, because I think if no one acknowledges it, it can’t change. It cannot change.”
Although possessing an acute awareness of race in the Netherlands, Maya ultimately does not claim to possess any sort of racially influenced identity. When asked what she would identify as, Maya replied “as someone from Amsterdam.” Within the context of a conversation about race, I think most multiracial youth in the U.S. would reply with a racially based answer to such a question, so I found it interesting and telling that Maya’s answer pertained more so to her local environment. She explains this more in depth later on:
“…it’s like these clusters in Amsterdam, you know? Like you have the people who do really good in school and sometimes go to a bar, and then you have the people who do pretty okay in school and go out a lot like me [laughs]. I don’t know, because like, you have a lot of opportunities to go out, for instance, and I think that also defines a little bit who you are. Because how you spend your free time depends on who you spend it with, and who you spend it with depends on what ideas you have.”
Thus ultimately, although recognizing the presence of racism in Amsterdam, Maya does not view race as a factor that plays any sort of role in personal identity and social interaction. Rather, who you are and who you choose surround yourself with is more important.
Conclusion: Complexities of multiracial identity formation and implications for the future
Although Maya’s portrayal of social interaction in Amsterdam once again points to the possibilities of a racially and socially integrated society, in concluding this paper it’s important to further consider the impact that such widespread perceptions have on multiracial identity formation and on American/Dutch society as a whole. Ultimately, it is clear that one’s surrounding environment as a child largely impacts a lifetime of cultural identity development. When that child is mixed race and has grown up in a predominantly white environment, this environment may result in a lifetime of confusion surrounding one’s cultural identity. For non-white monoracial individuals, forming a distinct cultural identity often comes naturally or organically, given the fact that they may have grown up aware of their distinction from the “white” majority. In contrast, mixed race individuals must actively navigate oftentimes confusing and conflicted pathways in order to establish a unique racial identity. Especially when growing up part-white within a white environment, this active process requires extensive self-awareness and reflection. One must separate themselves from the “whiteness” they had internalized as a youth in order to examine one’s racial identity holistically and critically.
However, I don’t want to portray this process as one ridden with deeply rooted internal conflict and turmoil. Although oftentimes feeling confused or conflicted, neither Kenzo, Cat, Maya, nor myself view our processes of identity formation as very traumatizing or extremely consequential for our personal lives. Perhaps this fact can be attributed to our comfortable middle-class lifestyles, and the opportunities that we’ve been exposed to from growing up in such a privileged position. Given the fact that we have all been able to establish fully functioning identities, if not explicitly racially guided ones, and at the end of the day feel content with the identities that we’ve built for ourselves, the question may be raised of whether multiracial identity formation is truly a consequential area of study. Perhaps, racially based identities have in fact become increasingly irrelevant in society today, and more attention should be paid to how youth form identifications according to personal beliefs and interest, as that appears to be the direction of the future. But, in conclusion, I believe that multiracial identity formation is actually an increasingly important area of study, given changing demographics of the U.S. and the Netherlands, and the fact that findings from such research may have important implications for race relations today. As my limited research shows, in lacking a distinctly racial cultural identity and therefore identifying more so with the dominant “white” culture of their surrounding environments, identification formation processes among mixed race youth may indirectly enforce current racial divisions and hierarchies in the U.S. and the Netherlands. Thus, more research is certainly required.
(Written for Youth Cultures in a Transnational Context)
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