By Sarah Glasser.
People claim that they are “colorblind”, that race is a social construct, and that they cannot tell Black from White, yet society continues to determine the race of multiracial youth on their behalf. Notice I said “race” not “races”. Multiracial youth, despite their amalgam of races, are often only associated with one of their races. Though it may seem like a harmless naivete, it actually perpetuates challenges with identity development and mental health issues.
Those who are Black/Asian, Latinx/White, Asian/White, etc., but look more like one race than the other, are frequently acknowledged as monoracial. Although, “only 6.9% of the U.S. adult population [can] be considered multiracial” (Parker, 2015), “[the multiracial youth population] is the fastest-growing youth group in the country” (Shashkevich, 2018). Multiracial children should be confident in their racial identity, but many end up feeling like part of a non-existent group that is unwanted by others. “Ecological components such as neighborhood, school, and family approach, directly impact a child's multiracial and multiethnic identity development” (Wardle, 2000). External influences play a critical role in defining which races are accepted and which are seen as different. While “[b]iracial youth are pressured to select one racial orientation,” they simultaneously experience “guilt/confusion based on denying one side of their heritage” (Wardle, 2000). Multiracial youth are torn between choosing a race to identify with and begin to feel like they cannot be comfortable in a variety of settings. This categorization creates internal tensions that act as a reminder of how marginalized communities feel.
Similarly, my own research on multiracial undergraduate students at Santa Clara University supported the idea that multiracial youth feel like their identity is discounted. From childhood to college, their multiracial identity developed in ways that led them to “take a side” and consider themselves as one race. Jack, a Black/White sophomore at Santa Clara University, told me that he feels “way more connected to the black side and … that's what people see anyways…” (Jack Antonio Transcript). He expressed that his communities tokenized him as their black representative and he began to see himself as mostly black. Erin, a Hispanic/White sophomore told me that she felt mostly White due to the homogeneity of the neighborhood she grew up in, and this hindered her willingness to partake in cultural groups. Consequently, Erin said, “I don't really identify with the Hispanic part of me, so it's like hard to join like the Hispanic club” (Erin Smith Transcript). Joining the Hispanic club presented a new challenge because she felt her “half” identity made a monoracial club seem inaccessible.
When multiracial children grow up without seeing examples of multiraciality displayed in society, they begin to think that they are not normal. This lack of belonging has proven to have harmful effects; “multiracial youth were found to have higher levels of mental health issues than their monoracial minority and majority peers” (Fisher and Reynolds, 2014). Lower levels of self worth stem from a nation that supports “only single-race group membership… ”(Wardle, 2000). Youth are raised questioning the validity of their identity, and ultimately identify with whichever race their immediate communities define them as.
Although many multiracial youth struggle to develop a balanced multiracial identity, there are exceptions to the case. I am an exception. I am a multiracial teen who genuinely feels equally biracial. Growing up in a relatively diverse neighborhood, where Asian and White were the dominant races, I was never made aware of my Asian/White biraciality. I could process that I was talkative, athletic, an only-child, but never “mixed”. It was not until I was forced to check off the “What is your race?” box on my first STAR test, that I realized I was not like everybody else. For the next few years – before “Two or more races” was an option – I would purposefully alternate between “White” and “Asian”. I knew I could be White-passing, but I felt just as Asian as I did White.
Even to the public, I have always been a puzzle. My hazel, yet smaller eyes, olive complexion, and dark, almost black hair, consistently confuse people. Those who are familiar with multiracial traits can usually figure out that I am half Asian/White. However, for those who cannot instantly tell, it becomes a guessing game: “What is your mix; I know you are different” or “Oooh, can I guess where you are from?” Even though it can be an awkward conversation, it has never been something I have shied away from; I am proud to be multiracial.
I am proud to be multiracial because my parents raised me with two unique cultures, I was told I was loved and respected for who I was, and my immediate communities reflected my identity as well. I went to Jewish school for nine years, Chinese school for three years, grew up with two multiracial best friends (one who was also Jewish), and participated in different cultural activities. My school lunches consisted of leftover fried rice and a Mott’s fruit snack, snacks were Haw Flakes and Wheat Thins, desserts were lai wong baos and egg creams. Not to say that foods and activities are the only way to support the development of a strong multiracial identity, but it positively impacted my upbringing in ways that I did not understand until now. As a kid, you do not think about how the food you eat, the activities you participate in, and the people you are surrounded by will later shape your identity. In hindsight, I know these parts of my life played a critical role in my multiracial identity today.
For the multiracial parents who are reading this: I encourage you, even beg you, to support your child’s multiracial identity formation from a young age. Bring them with you to places with cultural implications, introduce them to other multiracial children, tell them that their unique identity is valued. If you have the ability to proudly acknowledge all of your races, embrace them with confidence. The more the merrier, right?
Fisher, S., Reynolds, J. L., Hsu, W.-W., Barnes, J., & Tyler, K. (2014). Examining Multiracial Youth in Context: Ethnic Identity Development and Mental Health Outcomes. Journal of Youth and Adolescence, 43(10), 1688–1699. doi: 10.1007/s10964-014-0163-2
Parker, K., Horowitz, J. M., Morin, R., & Lopez, M. H. (2019, December 31). Multiracial in America: Proud, Diverse and Growing in Numbers. Retrieved March 16, 2020, from https://www.pewsocialtrends.org/2015/06/11/multiracial-in-america/
Shashkevich, A. (2018, March 28). Biracial youth's political views, self-identification examined. Retrieved March 16, 2020, from https://news.stanford.edu/2018/03/29/biracial-youths-political-views-self-identification-examined/
Wardle, F. (2000). Other Multiracial Families. Counseling Multiracial Families Counseling Multiracial Families, 77–96. doi: 10.4135/9781452231969.n4