Jubilee recently came out with a video showing mixed-race teenagers giving their opinion on what it’s like to be mixed race. It showed the bias other people often have towards multi-racial people, and the struggles (mainly related to identity) they face. I (Sarah) am mixed-race, so I kind of relate to these issues. Li-Anne has a different background, but faced a lot of the same issues growing up.
Recently I’ve heard people say that racial identity is mainly internal, and that it depends on whether or not you take other people’s opinions to heart. To me that’s only partially true. To me, lack of identity is an internal struggle, perpetuated by the outside world.
I found this quote in an article related to mixed race on Psychology Today:
“We tend to think of race in terms of skin color and typical physical characteristics. But at a more fundamental level, racial differences are really about differences in culture.”
It seems that the experiences of mixed-race children are vastly different, and personal identification is more-so a personal matter/feeling than a racial one. But across the board it seems that the vast majority of mixed-race children struggle with some form of identity problem. From experience, three major issues come to mind that arise with growing up mixed race: (1) not fitting in, (2) not being accepted, and (3) not being able to identify yourself. I mostly had to deal with the latter.
I’m half Egyptian, half Dutch, and I grew up in the Netherlands; a primarily ‘white’ country. My parents and I used to go to Egypt every year when I was young, and I vividly remember my “other hometown” : the call to prayer, the noise, the dust, the Macarona Bechamel, the music…
My parents divorced when I was just a kid, and I’ve struggled with identity most of my life. There’s a level of acceptance, now being 30 years old, but acceptance merely helps to deal with things in a more rational manner; it doesn’t magically take problems away.
The mixed-race identity problem
I initially wondered if there’s a correlation between (interracial) divorces and identity issues: if couples had a healthy and stable marriage, and there was a perfect cultural blend instilled in the child, would that mean children are less ‘aware’ or more accepting of their identity? I realised that, yes, being a child of divorced parents, among living within a culture that is only partly yours, could be part of the larger identity problem that some people face (that’s not directly related only to being mixed race), but the perceived difference is probably the biggest indicator for feeling like you don’t belong: how others see you and how that makes you feel.
In primary school I was often asked if I was adopted, having a mother with blonde hair and blue eyes. Then when 9/11 hit, kids started making fun of me looking Middle-Eastern (I come from a small, small town). I also used to have a very Arabic name, which was the butt of the joke very often, not only in school, but even within my very Dutch family. Kids commented on my larger nose, my “hairy” arms. Adults commented on my thick hair, my “exotic” look. As a joke, people called me Turkish or Moroccan, or they yelled some Arabic slurs. I’ve even been called a terrorist – a harmless joke.
I was never bothered by the teasing, but there’s one clear message in all of it: I was different. It’s funny because It’s not like I wasn’t excluded from anything. I was included, but not fully accepted. I never felt part of anything. I never felt Dutch enough to partake in the overall narrative of “being Dutch,” But I identified far less with being Egyptian, so a part of me just kept floating all over the place.
In the Jubilee video on mixed-race teenagers, the half-Iranian kid hit the nail right on the head. He said: “These past couple of years I’ve been trying to reconnect with that part, because I shoved it down for so long, and it’s been really heartbreaking(…). I too have tried very hard to become Dutch in the past. I changed my name, I rejected everything related to Arabic/Egyptian culture (I started learning Arabic only in 2018), I have no Arab friends, I haven’t been to Egypt for over 15 years… I don’t even know my family.
I tried really hard to belong (to one thing) and not belong (to the other thing) at the same time. And that is heartbreaking. And stupid. I adapted based on how others saw me, and then pushed aside what I didn’t want. But what I didn’t want was just as much a part of me.
“Mixed race identity, for me, comes down to how I see and identify myself and whether I choose to accept or reject the box other people will try to put me in.” - some very accurate comment on YouTube
So now, the next step is not only to accept, but to fully embrace. And I feel like that message doesn’t merely apply to being bi-racial.
Looking like a certain nationality, but growing up in a different country, probably was a big factor in me not having a very strong racial identity.
To be honest, I always joke about the aspect of mixed race people being hot. I think it has to do with the fact that I find it would be a bit easier to stand out in society if you are good-looking and different, than when you are just clearly foreign-looking. However, I am able to escape the standard stereotype for Asian and Chinese people as well, since I have a fully Dutch name and no ‘restaurant background.’ I also grew up in a very white part of the country, which makes me stand out more, but also blend in better at the same time, since people assume that everyone, no matter what they look like, is Dutch.
So I don’t really belong in any common box; I don’t identify with Chinese-Dutch people nor do I identify as any of those 2 nationalities separately. For me, my racial identity feels very fluid.
Put me in any box but not the wrong one
Because of this situation, and the reason that Dutch culture probably puts less emphasis on racial identity than American culture, I found it interesting to hear what the mixed-race teens in the Jubilee video had to say about racial slurs and what ethnicity you pass as vs. your race. I don’t use racial slurs at all and I also don’t think too much about my racial identity. Therefore, I haven’t felt like I needed to hide part of me, but I have also been aware that I stood out and could be misunderstood for ‘something else’. In other words, I am always more focused on making sure I am not put in the ‘wrong’ box than making myself belong to a specific group.
I think this is also because the Netherlands still really prides itself on its multicultural society and being a real melting pot. Even being further away from the bigger, international cities, I still lived close to the German and Belgian borders. Such an environment made me less focused on something like racial identity. Even though I could pass as Chinese, people in my area knew I was ‘not the standard Chinese-Dutch girl’, because my parents didn’t have a restaurant and I spoke Dutch without an accent.
Embracing a fluid identity and living abroad as well, really made me more aware of my behavior in this regard. And also to find ways to use it to my advantage. Especially living in China, I became used to ‘taking on’ different identities. For western people, I would simple be a fellow foreigner. Saying I was adopted, was often enough to make them put me in a more ‘correct’ box as an international person instead of a second-generation Chinese person.
With Chinese people on the other hand, I often took full advantage of them thinking I was a local or a Chinese person coming from abroad. Speaking the language fluently, albeit with an accent, blending in with the crowd, conversing with locals without being explicitly seen as foreign was very comfortable. It made it possible for me to actually feel what it’s like to belong to a specific group, without really belonging.
Include me too please
Wanting to be part of a group, is a universal feeling. That’s why it saddens me to see many people becoming more entrenched and focused on, in my eyes, superficial characteristics that makes them feel others don’t belong. I think racism, especially in recent years, unfortunately always finds its way to the surface, whether in a national or international context.
At the same time, I really feel blessed with a multicultural identity that allows me to be more aware of these issues and provides me with more tools to move through societies as respectfully as possible.