By Maria Mankin
I was raised in a relatively small suburb ten minutes outside of Chicago. While the city itself is home to people from all different walks of life, River Forest was not necessarily a breeding ground for diversity. All of my friends were white, and their parents came from the Midwest or somewhere nearby. They ate bland chicken for dinner, watched football at night, and took trips to their local country club on the weekends. My family, on the other hand, strayed quite a bit from this suburbian norm. Both my parents were immigrants, three different languages were bounced around in my home, and we never went to a single football game nor had memberships to the local country club. I wasn’t aware that this was different until I was exposed to the standard that all my friends prescribed to. When I would go to their houses after school, I realized that my living situation was abnormal. Being a young, impressionable child, all I wanted was to fit in. I began to question why my family couldn’t just be like everyone else’s. This yearning to conform bred a strong resentment towards my biracial identity. I grew embarrassed of my mom’s Mexican accent, and detested the abundance of Russian food that filled our refrigerator. However, as time passed and I became more assured, I started embracing my ethnicities. These various moments of self-realization ultimately led to an overwhelming sense of pride and respect for my heritage, subsequently resulting in a deeper understanding of what it means to be biracial.
In this paper, I explore the notion of being a white-passing person of color and the complexities of having a mixed identity. Furthermore, I analyze both the advantages and disadvantages that come with being white-passing while also identifying as something other than ‘white’. Looking closer at the disadvantages that come with being white-passing, I examine the impulse to fit in with the ‘convenient’ ethnicity at a given time, simultaneously experiencing some caliber of an identity crisis. Moreover, those with hybrid identities are prone to experiencing feelings of invalidation. Growing up, I had a tendency of connecting more with my Latina side over my Jewish side, so I was also curious to see if this theme ran true amongst other mixed people of color. In a broader sense, I am looking at key elements of self-exploration in relation to race and ethnicity.
In order to learn about other people’s experiences, I conducted several interviews and drew distinctive elements relating to race and understanding from each. From the beginning, I knew that I wanted to discuss the topic with my brother, because although we grew up in the same household, he tends to perceive the world much differently than I do. Therefore, I thought it would be useful to gain new insight on a seemingly shared experience. I also chose to interview a classmate, Claudia (out of respect for her privacy, I will be using a pseudonym). After hearing some of her intuitive comments in class regarding ethnicity, I approached her and asked about her background. She told me that she was born and raised in Hawaii and that her mother was Japanese and her father was from the States. Next, I called my roommate at school in the States and asked her about her childhood and adolescence. She was born in Mexico but moved to Illinois when she was three years old. By collecting information from each of these interviews, I was able to gain a more extensive understanding of what it means to be biracial.
Shared Experience, Conflicting Perspective
My 22-year-old brother, Alejandro, lives in Washington D.C. and works as a consultant for IBM. Due to his hectic schedule, I thought it would be best to interview him over Skype during the weekend. When I told him about the topic I would be questioning him about, he seemed very intrigued because it is something we rarely discuss. I called him around 10 a.m. just as he was waking up. I was sitting comfortably in my apartment drinking a cup of tea, positioned in front of the camera. My brother and I started off the conversation by joking around and chatting casually about how we were going to spend the holidays. He was wearing a maroon long sleeve t-shirt and pajama pants, the outfit he frequently wears when we’re relaxing in our house. The mood was very calm and pleasant, and we were in no rush to get to the ‘big questions’. As I began with my introductory questions, I noticed that my brother was answering a little too light-heartedly. I wasn’t surprised because one of his cardinal personality traits is relying on comedy when the situation turns somewhat serious. Despite this, we were able to steer the interview back on track after I reminded him that this was more than just a casual conversation. We talked about how my brother came to realize that he was biracial and how it affected him. This is the part of the interview in which he really seemed to contemplate deeply about his answers. He would often start to answer one of my questions and then immediately backtrack.
For instance, I asked him when specifically did he learn about race and ethnicity. Initially, he brushed it off and muttered that he couldn’t remember, nor did he think it was a significant moment in his education. However, after a minute or so, he furrowed his brow and exclaimed that he remembered. He recalled that in elementary school, his teacher taught the class about marginalized groups in the United States, and why they were disadvantaged. The teacher also added on the fact that white people, more often than not, were the perpetrators of the marginalization. After thinking about it, my brother recalled that he felt that he was disadvantaged simply because he was half-Mexican. Then he explained how in his life, he had never been discriminated against, therefore his retreat into a victimized role was grounded in nothing but falsehood. I then asked him if he was proud of being biracial, and he simply stated:
“Why should I feel proud about something that I had no choice over? I’ve never been discriminated against. I have nothing to feel proud about”.
I was surprised by his answer because I have never thought about it in that way. At the same time, my brother is prone to being very unorthodox and detached from sensitive or emotional issues, so it should not have come as much of a shock for me.
When discussing the advantages and disadvantages of being biracial, my brother approached the topic from a very technical standpoint. As far as disadvantages went, as he already stated, he faced very few. He spoke on how his friends would occasionally make jokes about Mexican or Jewish people, but apparently this never bothered him because it was just ‘childish banter’. The advantages, however, seemed to play a much bigger role in his life.
“Being biracial definitely had a major impact on me because I was able to check off the ‘Hispanic’ box on my college application, giving me a leg-up”.
During this portion of the interview, I became aware that this topic was incredibly important for the both of us to talk about. My brother was no longer laughing, snickering, nor making jokes. He answered everything carefully and thoughtfully. I could tell that the conversation was making him realize things that he may not have had the chance to discuss before. Moreover, I was beginning to understand how despite growing up in the same household, we experienced the world extremely differently. For example, I asked him about how he felt when we would go to Mexico to visit out extended family. In the back of my mind, I was thinking of how much I loved seeing all of our cousins and aunts and uncles, but that I always had an underlying feeling of discomfort. I felt like I stuck out because of my white skin and brown, curly hair, and the slight accent I had when I spoke Spanish. My brother shared a similar feeling. He said he felt like an outcast because he was white, but not because he couldn’t understand the minutia of the culture. At the same time, he never felt uncomfortable when our cousins would jokingly call us ‘gringo’s’, because they were family and they said it without any ill intention.
Overall, I found our interview to be enthralling and eye opening. I didn’t expect my brother to be as engaged and interested as he was, but he told me that he genuinely enjoyed talking about this topic and he was also very intrigued by what my own experience was growing up. Not only did this interview uncover a nuanced perspective on what the implications behind being a white-passing person of color, but it made me contemplate on how I approached the issue as a whole. I mistakenly assumed that non-white individuals were proud of their heritage, simply because they should be. My brother explained that he wasn’t proud of himself for being Mexican and Jewish, but he was incredibly proud of what our parents have accomplished despite coming from marginalized backgrounds. It became clear that my brother held more of a familial loyalty than a cultural one, something which I had never thought about.
You Have No Choice but to Accept Me
Claudia made a strong impression on me when I heard her talking about being Hawaiian and the impact her culture had on her upbringing. She spoke about it with such passion and enthusiasm that I knew I had to interview her. I approached her one day after class and asked if she would be up for grabbing a cup of coffee and talking about her ethnic background. She happily agreed and we promptly met at a Coffee Company on the UvA campus. It was a little brisk outside, but the sun was out and the rain had just stopped. We sat at a little table right outside of the café and I briefly went over what my topic was. Claudia told me all about her family environment and her cultural upbringing. She was raised by a Japanese-Hawaiian mother and a German-Irish father. Growing up, Claudia explained how she appeared white, which was unusual in Honolulu because most of the people who lived there were mixed people of color. The first time she described truly being in touch with her heritage was when she went to an all-Hawaiian high school. During those years, she learned the language, Hawaiian history, and several cultural practices such as hula dancing. Her face lit up when I asked her to tell me about the advantages of being biracial. She began explaining how her dad’s side of the family shares more conservative political views than her mother’s side. Instead of being completely intolerant towards one or the other, Claudia told me that by being a mix of both, she is able to be more understanding and accepting.
“I see biracial and mixed people in general as a kind of bridge…they’re bridging the two sides and I think that’s beautiful”.
Additionally, when I talked to Claudia about her perceived disadvantages, she touched on a phenomenon that I myself had thought about previously but could never accurately articulate. She described her difficult adjustment to Occidental College and how this was the first time in her life that she noticed she was different. She spoke about a time that a boy approached her and asked her what her ethnicity was. When she explained that she was Japanese and Hawaiian, he was completely taken aback and couldn’t fathom how she could manage being more than one nationality. Essentially, Claudia expressed that the main disadvantage that she saw with being mixed was that society tries very hard to put people into boxes.
“If you identify as multiple things, you have to choose who you are in different situations…and if you identify as more than one thing, you have to do it in different spaces…Like I’m a Latina in one club, but I’m Hawaiian in another club”.
This notion resonated with me immensely. I have noticed that I tend to ‘play up’ one of my identities when the situation deems it appropriate. For instance, if I’m in a class and we are discussing the Holocaust, I immediately feel my Jewish side come to the forefront because my grandmother lived through WWII and my dad experienced the aftermath. However, when Donald Trump was elected president, my Latina side absorbed all my thoughts and emotions because of his stance on immigration and his racist remarks. In this sense, I connected with Claudia in a way that I seldom connect with any of my white friends. After expressing this sentiment, Claudia exclaimed:
“Nowadays, I tell people that I’m a Japanese-Hawaiian-Irish-German girl in whichever club I’m in and you’re going to have to accept my as all four of those things”.
We both laughed and I was overwhelmed with warmth and admiration. Her positive attitude towards combatting the societal pressure to categorize oneself as one thing made me hopeful and confident that a shift is soon to come.
Huevos Rancheros with a Side of Racism
One of my best friends and roommate from Lawrence University was the final person I interviewed for this research. Again, I conducted the interview over Skype because she resides in the United States. It was around noon for her, and she was sipping on a cup of hot chocolate. She was wearing a blue sweater and was sitting comfortably on her living room sofa. Gabriela was born in Guanajuato, Mexico and moved to the United States when she was three years old. Growing up, she felt very connected to her Hispanic heritage because her parents only spoke to her in Spanish and her town was mainly Latino. However, when she began middle school, this connection began to fade. Gabriela was placed into higher-level courses, consisting of primarily white students. However, the race divide truly became clear when she went to high school, where she took part in several extra curricular activities that took her outside of her hometown.
“I realized that the world around me was much more white than I had expected…I guess I was in shock that I was a minority…Most of the time I would be the only Mexican person in the room”.
However, Gabriela stated that this did not necessarily make her feel uncomfortable. It was just something that she had to abruptly come to terms with.
While she herself has never been discriminated against, partly because she could pass as white in her somewhat liberal town, her parents have been victims of racist micro-aggressions, indirectly affecting her. Gabriela talked about an instance when she was with her mother in a department store. Since her mom was not comfortable speaking English, Gabriela would translate for her. They needed help finding something, so they approached a store attendant. When the attendant realized that Gabriela’s mother barely spoke English, she became extremely impatient and agitated. Gabriela was trying to translate, but the store attendant made it quite obvious that she did not care enough to help them. Gabriela then noticed how kind and accommodating the store worker was towards the other white customers, and the feeling of discrimination sunk in.
“I was only eight years old, but I remember how much that hurt me. I will never forget that. She couldn’t care less about helping my mom, and…the way she was treating every other white person in the store was so noticeable…it nearly made me cry.”
When asking Gabriela about the advantages of being biracial, her sentiments echoed Claudia’s. She explained how she thinks that being a white-passing person of color makes her more open-minded and she benefits from having more than one perspective. She is a contributing member to clubs involving Latino rights and activism, which enhances her connection to her heritage. I believe that if one chooses to engage with their respective ethnicity, it is important to be involved in clubs and activities that work in creating spaces and dialogue for these marginalized groups. Not only does it help those in need, but it also lays the foundation for a journey of self-exploration and personal liberation.
Racial Invalidation, Conditional Acceptance, and Cultural Homelessness
A study conducted by Franco, Katz, and O’Brien titled “Forbidden identities: A qualitative examination of racial identity invalidation for Black/White biracial individuals” (2016) examined situations of ethnic identity invalidation between 49 biracial people. This paper highlights the negative effects of racial invalidation and experiences that heighten this stressor. These incidents prove to harm both self-identity and group identity (Lou et al., 2011; Sanchez, 2010). This study showcases interviews amongst biracial individuals who detail the invalidating experiences that they have faced at some point in their life. “The most common settings where identity racial invalidation occurred included at school, while spending time with friends, and while filling out a standardized form” (Franco et al., 2016: 100). Furthermore, the article touches on the concept of ‘cultural homelessness’. Cultural homelessness describes the feeling of not belonging to a particular group. Those with mixed identities often struggle with associating entirely to their ethnic root(s), resulting in feelings of isolation and uncertainty.
Underlying notions deconstructing racial invalidation were at the forefront of this paper as well. Assumptions and problematic rhetoric surrounding biracial individuals tend to arise from broader racial dynamics in the United States (Franco et al., 2016: 103). “Among our participants, invalidation occurred because others conflated race with certain behaviors or a prototypical phenotype, or because others assumed that racial heritage should match racial identity” (2016: 106). Therefore, many participants from the study reported frequently altering their identity in attempts to assimilate. Following this logic, the paper outlines the notion of ‘conditional acceptance’. As exemplified in the interviews I conducted, it is common for biracial people to feel as if they have to modify their identity depending on which context they are in, in order to be accepted by their peers. “Some participants altered their identity to be more in line with external perceptions, while others shifted to identify as Biracial to escape monoracial stereotypes” (2016: 106).
As Claudia said, it took her a while to finally come to terms with accepting her mixed identity and refusing to be put in a box. However, this must be a mutually reciprocated process. A biracial person may be accepting of their identity, but if the group they are surrounded by refuses to respect this, the circumstances will not progress or advance in any way. This study highlights exactly that, because a large sum of the participants stated that their social environments failed to support their identity, thus reinforcing the discomfort and insecurity that comes with being biracial. Primarily, this stems from preconceived ideals about race and ethnic stereotyping. In other words, if an individual has a black mother and a white father but has darker skin, their peers will expect them to “act black”. These expectations are inherently prejudiced and consequently typecast an entire group of people.
Looking at the several factors that aid biracial individuals in embracing their identity is crucial in promoting acceptance and understanding. Ingram and Chaudhary’s study, “Self-Identity of Biracial Children: What Role Do Parents Play?” (2014) addresses this issue head-on. Fundamentally, they conclude that parenting and family customs impact the development of mixed race individuals. Not only this, but physical appearance, cultural knowledge, and peer culture play a major role in the extent of which one embraces their heritage (Katz & Kofkin, 1977; Lyda, 2008; Rollins 2009). This paper highly encourages parents to play an active role in their child’s upbringing, specifically promoting racial socialization and exposure to cultural practices (517). Again, all of the interviews I conducted support this claim. My brother and I both wish that our parents, specifically our father, had taught us more about their respective cultures so that we could gain a deeper appreciation of where we come from. Claudia also expressed how she believes she would be much more connected to her heritage if she was exposed to it more growing up.
However, it is crucial to note that parents often make the conscious choice to shield their children from embracing their ethnic backgrounds. Claudia explained that her father wanted her to grow up as ‘white’ as possible so that she could avoid being discriminated against. While this is a disheartening realization, it is a common known truth that white people have an advantage in society, hence the term ‘white privilege’. As a result, if a biracial child is white-passing, some parents believe it is their best interest to assimilate as much as possible to the white culture.
On the other hand, the argument made in these papers state that being complacent with this racial inequality will only make matters worse. Additionally, it is unhealthy for a child’s well-being because of potential future struggles with their identities. Smith includes this in his paper, “Biracial Americans’ Experiences with Identity, Gender Roles, and Anxiety” (2014). Knowledge of one’s own heritage is vitally important in self-acceptance and self-appreciation. “Poston’s (1990) Biracial Identity Development Model states that biracial individuals go through five stages of identity development, entailing development of awareness of self, choosing to identify with one group, denial, appreciation of multiraciality, and finally, integration” (516).
Dazed & Confused & Proud
Overall, I found this research process to be enlightening and edifying. Not only did I learn valuable information about my classmates, friends, and family, but I am confident in saying that this was a trek of self exploration. There have been many occurrences in my life that I have merely brushed off and deemed insignificant, but after talking to people in a similar position as myself and reading relevant academic literature, I learned that these seemingly mundane experiences had a great impact on my life. My racial identity is unbelievably important to me and I would not be the same person without it. I have felt like an outsider throughout the majority of my upbringing, but I no longer think that that is necessarily a bad thing. When I’m in the Midwest, I do not feel like an archetypal white, American girl. When I’m in my Abuelo’s house in Mexico, I do not feel like I seamlessly fit in with my cousins, aunts, and uncles. When I visited Moscow for the first time, I felt like a complete outsider. But that doesn’t make me feel like I don’t belong. I offer a nuanced perspective that is unique and needed. I am the combination of two beautiful cultures. I am the mixture of two strong, magnificent human beings who have experienced forms of marginalization that I will never fully be able to understand. My blood runs rampant with Latina power and Russian vigor, and I will always be unapologetically proud of that.
(Written for Youth Cultures in a Transnational Context)
Franco, Marisa G., Rahel Katz, and Karen M. O’Brien (2016). “Forbidden Identities: A Qualitative Examination of Racial Identity Invalidation for Black/White Biracial Individuals.” International Journal of Intercultural Relations 50: 96-109.
“Identity Development in Biracial Children.” Encyclopedia of Applied Developmental Science(n.d.): n.p.
Ingram, Patreese D., and Chaudhary, Anil (2014). “Self-Identity of Biracial Children: What Role Do Parents Play?” Journal of Human Sciences and Extension 2.2: 1-14.
Rollins, Alethea, and Andrea G. Hunter (2013). “Racial Socialization of Biracial Youth: Maternal Messages and Approaches to Address Discrimination.” Family Relations 62.1: 140-53.
Smith, Christopher L. (2014). “Biracial Americans’ Experience with Identity, Gender Roles, and Anxiety.” Journal of Human Behavior in the Social Environment 24.4: 513-28.
Townsend, Sarah S. M., Stephanie A. Fryberg, and Hazel Rose Markus. “Barriers to Being Biracial: Claiming and Maintaining a Biracial Identity.” PsycEXTRA Dataset (n.d.): n.p.