Mixed People, You Matter
For those of us that don’t fit into boxes.
I graduated from MIT in Mechanical Engineering, with a concentration in robotics. I am fluent in 3 languages (and I’m working at a startup where I use 2 of them). I am a designer. I am a maker. I fix things for people —from broken machines, to water supply issues, to poor educational resources. I dream big dreams, and I make them come true. I dance and people smile. I have great hair, which I love. I fight for things that I want, and I’ve found that, with enough time and patience, I can always acheive my goals. I understand the world in the unique way that someone who grew up in 3–4 cultures can.
Why am I telling you this?
For a long time, I did not have this much confidence. Even now, it comes and goes. I used to not think that the world wanted me, and this grew from uncomfortable and awkward feelings to devastating ones. It took me a long time to be able to say good things about myself out loud without qualifying them — it used to be, “I’m not that smart, I’m not that good, I’m not that talented”. Then I realized that qualifying these things to other people is called humility, but qualifying these things in my own head was low self esteem.
In fact, it was much worse than just qualifying in my own head. It became, “I’m not smart enough. I’m not good enough.” Then worse: “I have no talents. I am worthless. I don’t matter.”
My low self-esteem often stemmed from the experience of being mixed. To have a mixed face is sometimes to be faceless — to have no one recognize you as belonging to them. It feels like ugliness in the worst way.
Mixed and Multicultural: A Glossary of Terms
As you might guess, words are important to me. I think something that was always hard was that, from my childhood until now, no one ever gave me words to talk about myself. I can talk about “discrimination” and “racism”; I can talk about being “black” or “African” or “Asian”; I can talk about systemic oppression or imposter syndrome. But I never felt like I had good words to talk about the state of being mixed, only these tangential words that were related, but didn’t quite capture it. This led to feeling like I could just never talk about it to anyone, not even my parents much, really. Like Trevor Noah (who I appreciate as one of few celebrities that actually talks about being mixed) says, “I grew up in a mixed family, with me being the mixed one in the family.”
So, though I am not trained in critical theory, I will attempt to define some terms.
A mixed person is someone like me — someone who has parents from different ethnic backgrounds. How mixed people are treated varies a lot depending on the “mix” and on location. There is a spectrum of “passing privilige” one can have depending on context— my brother passes maybe 5 times out of 10 in Ethiopia, whereas (depending on what I do with my hair) I can pass maybe 4 times out of 10 in China. In Ethiopia I almost never pass, unless I literally cover my face (hello giant sunglasses) and its the same with my brother in China. Our life experiences have been different, even though we have the exact same ethnic background. The features that are emphasized on each of our faces are different.
I call this experience what other people might call “racism”, but I never found the term “racism” accurate. Racism implies a lot more hatred than I honestly think happens in this scenario, and it also just isn’t the same thing. Facelessness is when you do not pass for any group of people, and therefore no one knows which ethnic box to put you in. Not all mixed people have this condition — and you might even be able to change your degree of facelessness by changing your own physical appearance. My brother grew up with a lot less facelessness than I did — people simply assumed he was black or African growing up, and did not know or think he was Asian. I, however, more frequently faced the “so, what are you?” question. I can change my own appearance to be less “faceless” and better fit the phenotypic norms (and get stared at less) for whatever country I’m in — sunglasses if I’m in Ethiopia, straightening my hair if I’m in China.
3. Miscategorizing and Identity Theft
While not the same as facelessness, miscategorizing and identity theft can also be key stress points for many mixed and multicultural people. My brother experienced this more. In elementary school, none of my brother’s classmates believed he was Chinese. Even as an 8 year old, he was very upset at this and tried many tactics to convince them — he asked my mother to teach him Chinese words, he told them about our trip to Shanghai, and then finally, when there was some school play or activity, he eagerly brought my mother in front of his friends as final, undeniable proof. “See??!”
If, like most people, his classmates had simply not realized he was Chinese and thought he was only black or African, I’d call that “miscategorizing”. Because they continued to disbelieve him, and did not treat him the way he wanted to be treated, I thought there needed to be a more serious term: “identity theft”. That’s what it feels like, anyway. When people will not allow you to be who you are, when they will not give you what you were literally born into because of how you look, it is a harsh and hollow feeling. It feels like something has been taken away from you. To put it shortly, “miscategorizing” occurs frequently when you are mixed or multicultural and first meet someone. If they then refuse to correct themselves, or continue to deny you aspects of your identity, or refuse to see it, that is “identity theft”.
Another example of how identity theft can have serious consequences: a friend of mine, Leilani, is mixed latina Mexican and white American. As a child, she was detained at the Mexican border because she looked “too white” to be the daughter of her own mother, who was driving her. They assumed that her own mother was a stranger trying to kidnap her, rather than believing that they were a family — stealing an important aspect of her identity that had real and serious implications.
I’ve used this term already, but I want to elaborate. I’ve found that a lot of issues I face are not only faced by ethnically mixed people, but also people that are culturally mixed, often from growing up in another country where they are extreme minorities — i.e., places where it is so unexpected to see this ethnic group that it literally surprises people. In particular, miscategorizing and identity theft happens frequently to these people. Often they are only perceived to be extreme minorities, and the actual numbers might tell a different story.
Here are some examples:
- I had a teacher in high school that was a white woman, but born and raised in China. She spoke English with a Chinese accent. She was very culturally Chinese, way more than the American-born Chinese people I knew, though they of course “looked the part” more.
- I attended a discussion about Black Panther and the relations between African and African American communities in college, and one girl spoke up who was born and raised in Zambia. Her family was from Bangladesh. She was often confronted about this and didn’t feel “Zambian” enough for other people, even though she had a Zambian passport and considered herself an African. She met people, other Zambians, determined to leave a country she loved. “I am African,” she said, “but a lot of other people don’t see this”. (I wanted to hug her)
What Makes Life Hard
Of the terms I listed, facelessness, miscategorizing, and identity theft are the parts that make life hard. It feels like people are blind to us. It’s an entirely different experience than proper racism — though it can often be combined with racism. It is not that people hate you for what you look like, but more that everyone forgets that you are there, that you are even a possiblity in the world, and it is a strange, unique feeling to have others be surprised by your existence.
Another Word: “Half”
“Why half? Why not double?” — Trevor Noah
I am often surprised myself when I get into conversations with other mixed people about how much they feel it too. People who seem much less bothered and much more emotionally put together than I am will suddenly release a flood of experiences they have had. It might be relatives, which tell them “I love you”, but are extremely racist or demeaning to the other half of themselves, and the other side of their family. It might be friends or schoolmates who interact with them differently, choosing which “half” they decide to see them as.
There is one universal comment I have heard from every mixed-race and multicultural person I have interacted with.
Everyone complains about not being “enough”.
Not black enough. Not Asian enough. Not African enough. Not Mexican, or Japanese, or Danish enough. Not granted the rights of belonging to one culture or another, the very culture they call home.
What people often don’t seem to understand is that a human being is not a glass of water.
There is really no such thing as half. We are only whole. We are all of one thing and all of the other. I have three full cultures; I grew up in the U.S. visiting family in China and Ethiopia. Though I may be called “half Chinese”, or “half Ethiopian”, I do not have “half” of an identity. I have all of it.
I don’t understand exactly how this form of rhetoric came about. Maybe it’s that people are so focused on the mechanics of identity, of genetics, but let’s face it, on a biological level there’s no such real thing as “race”, and certainly not a biologically-tied culture. But the common narrative still insists on speaking of mixed people as somehow diminished rather than enhanced, when truly, it is the latter. I have met many mixed people who speak multiple languages, who have traveled to many countries, who have passions for many different communities. We do more, not less, on a cultural level than those in just one or another culture. We often appreciate our cultures much, much more than others, because we don’t take them for granted. Being unable to claim your own identity makes you jealous of people who can do it so easily, and frustrated when they seem to not even try. Many mixed people will study their parents’ languages much harder and more seriously than non-mixed people, because it can seem like a way to “earn” their own identity. We do not have the luxury to take it for granted.
Talking About It
The other day, I posted a piece I wrote for MIT’s Isabelle de Courtivron prize called “Outside the Looking Glass”, which is a sort-of-poetic, memoir-essay describing the experience of facelessness. The reason that I write about my experiences is not just to vent or catalogue (though that’s useful too), but rather because, I had always wished more people had talked to me about it. It’s difficult because often, the parents of mixed people are not mixed, and so cannot always relate the same way to the issues they are going through, or might even fail to realize these issues exist. There are so many mixed people out there — Obama as an example — that people will forget are mixed entirely, and miscategorize as only one thing or another. Seeing other people, who are mixed and don’t talk much about it, made me wonder if I was the only one who felt this way, and generally contributed to strong feelings of loneliness.
The rest of this essay was an attempt to explain to those who may not understand, and comfort those who do. But I also wish other people would talk about experiences like these more, whether they have prominent platforms or simply the small and powerful ability to share things with their friends and social networks.
Every time I have heard stories and feelings shared by others, it has made me feel comforted and less alone.
Some things I’d recommend to read or listen to, if you find yourself relating to a lot of this:
- “A Prescription for Racial Imposter Syndrome” — This is an episode from the podcast Code Switch by NPR that almost made me cry (in a good way). A lot of different people share stories about the struggle of a mixed experience. It told me, “what you are going through is real and true”, when I didn’t know how to talk or think about it.
- Born a Crime by Trevor Noah — I haven’t actually read this yet but I am very excited to and put it on hold at my local library.
- Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie —A detailed description on being frequently miscategorized as a multicultural person in both America and Nigeria, where African immigrants to the U.S. face particularly peculiar treatment.
- Fresh Off the Boat by Eddie Huang, The Autobiography of Malcolm X as told by Alex Haley, Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe — These are books by authors that fit in my own varied ethnic background, and I’d encourage you to find interesting authors that fit in the various pieces of yours. While not explicitly about the mixed experience, for mixed people of color (which, I mean, we basically always are, passing privilige or no) the other conditions of being POC, like racism and microagressions, can feel magnified by the miscategorization and feelings of imposter syndrome that we go through. Understanding these parts separately helped me understand my whole self better, too.
- Trevor Noah, Live at the Apollo — just go consume all his material on being mixed-race really lol, and especially after all the heavy stuff, it’s nice to have beautifully relatable humor once in a while.
- Professional Counseling— Lastly, please remember that whatever you may be going through is real and it has been proven (listen to item #1 for scientific evidence) that mixed people really are treated differently by others, and furthermore, that this can have detrimental effects on mental and emotional health. In particular, for me, if things closely related to culture or family went wrong in my life, I found myself deeply depressed. During those times, I only wish I had gotten help sooner, because afterward, I was better and happier and more productive. Recognize that these are real, true, hard things, and do not hesitate to seek therapy or professional counseling when you need it.