33.8 Million Strong: Multiracial Experiences in America
Multiracial, Mixed, or biracial, others want to know “what” we are before learning who we are. There are more multiracial or Mixed-race people in the U.S. today than ever before, yet we can easily feel the experience of othering in the communities we grow up around.
I am the multiracial child of a Taiwanese immigrant, herself the child of parents who fled the Chinese Communist Revolution, and a White parent with French–Scottish heritage.
I spent my childhood summers in Taiwan and the rest of the year in San Antonio, Texas. In Texas, my brother and I were often the subject of other parents’ fascination, and I grew up thinking “exotic” was a compliment. I often fielded questions about where I was from and “what kind of Chinese” I was–better, I suppose, than the times other students offered up guesses about my Asian ethnicity while singing a taunting song and pulling at the skin around their eyes.
I was always seen as the outsider at school in Taiwan too. I can’t count how many times others approached me to practice their English, rather than relate to me as a potential friend speaking Mandarin, my first language. Instead of making friends, I was more often seen as an exciting subject to be photographed with; kids would ask to take a picture with me before asking my name.
Why multiracial mental health?
I was highly conscious of my race at a young age (we know now that children notice race by the age of 3, even if they don’t have the language for it) and others were aware of it too. Never sure where I could fit in, I spent much of my childhood feeling different from others. Disconnected from other multiracial Asian Americans, I had to learn for myself what it meant to inhabit a Mixed-race body and to navigate a bicultural life.
The experience and perspectives I gained are a big part of why I’m drawn to seeing clients in therapy who have felt othered or isolated in their identity journeys. As I unlearned the white supremacy myth and my own internalized racism, I became increasingly motivated to help others liberate themselves. These days, as a therapist for multiracial, hapa, Mixed, and bicultural adults & couples, I’ve learned a lot about the experiences that we share and that underline where our healing work begins.
As Mixed-race folks, some of us have had to get used to being othered. We may have been told we don’t look like who we say we are, or we’ve been mistrusted. Some of us have faced the harmful, striking impact of microaggressive questions, often repeated and starting, “Where are you from?” We’ve experienced colorism within our own family and beyond. Or maybe we’ve been accused of trying to be White, or of trying to be anyone besides ourselves. A multiracial child, we witnessed or navigated the dynamics of interracial relationships or, potentially, multicultural family life. And then there’s the race check box, where we’re usually forced to pick just one (denying ourselves) or just check “Other” and not be seen or counted.
Okay…so what? What do our experiences mean for our healing, and what do multiracial folks need when it comes to mental health? Let’s explore what it means to grow up biracial, multiracial, Mixed, or bicultural and talk about what our collective experiences might mean for our collective healing (More in part 2 of this series).
Why does the multiracial experience matter?
Multiracial children learn early on that we look different from others. We’re told that we look interesting; we are fawned over, exoticized, fetishized. Everyday life inevitably involves microaggressions. In addition, to the extent that our parents are culturally different from one another or from the dominant culture, we may be raised with ample conflicts over differences in language, norms around the family structure, values around parenting, values around navigating life, ways of showing affection, and other qualities that clash within an American context. We grow up unsure of how to describe ourselves, how to identify, and with whom we fit in. We are neither like nor unlike our peers and, inevitably, trying to belong leads to some form of erasure, invisibility, and unsung song.
Despite the heavy burden it can seem at first, coming to feel positive, comfortable, and confident in multiracial identity can lead to even better mental health, resiliency, and adaptability, compared to monoracial folks. We are especially empowered to heal when we have solid support systems, positive role models, accessible community resources, and when we really feel like we belong in a larger group with shared beliefs and values. At the end of this journey is the promise of being uniquely ourselves and the first-hand experience of being seen for our most authentic, unencumbered, and joyful selves.
What defines Mixed-race, multiracial, or bicultural identity?
Racial identity is nuanced, dynamic, and influenced by historical, social, and developmental contexts. And when several strands of identity are brought together, the complexity of racial identity only grows. Being multiracial is more than some breakdown of our identities into percentages. Racial identity encompasses family dynamics, appearance and presentation, perceptions, internalized messaging, and cultural context.
You may identify as multiracial, Mixed, biracial, multiethnic, bicultural, or of multiple heritage if your genealogy (family lineage) belongs to more than one racial background or cultural community. You may also be multiracial (or Mixed/biracial/multiethnic/bicultural/multiple heritage) if your family is integrated into more than one racial or cultural community.
Multiracial people sometimes describe their experiences of leading a double life (one race or culture at home and another at school or work), code-switching (shifting how you talk, present yourself, or act around different groups of people), struggling with identity conflicts within a polarized culture, facing microaggressions at every turn, all potentially while navigating cultural nuances and differences within our families.
The Legacy of Multiracial/Biracial Identity
In a country founded on the myth of White supremacy, our earliest Mixed-race Americans were the 1600s products of interracial relationships between White colonizers, White immigrants, enslaved African and Indigenous, and Indigenous people. What was described as “race mixing” was there from the very beginning. Historically, we know that a lot of these relationships were harmful and exploitative, though it’s likely that at least some were based in love. The backlash that would follow, in the form of “anti-miscegenation” (no interracial relationships) laws, was about power, in the same way that the race-based caste system was. When people defy classification, race-based schemes of classifying people break down. As a result, multiracial people have always been a threat to established power hierarchies and categories. And thus, we’ve been erased and uncounted throughout history.
Mixed American History 101
Ronald Takaki’s book A Different Mirror shares how in the U.S., interracial marriage was banned swiftly in enslaving colonies, though these laws also spread to areas where slavery did not exist. In the early 1900s, the Hays Code forbade any depictions of interracial/cross-cultural romance in the media. Intermixing between races was framed as a moral concern, and the “one-drop” rule was a strategy to threaten whole family lines with the mark of the oppression as Black, Indigenous, or Japanese, at the same time as it erased multiracial identity. Through centuries of racial oppression, multiracial folks existed through it all.
Despite this, it wasn’t until 1948 that, first, White and Asian couples were allowed to marry in California. And then it wasn’t until 1967 that the decision on Loving v. Virginia established that people of all different races could marry (This provided precedent for the 2015 decision on Obergefell v. Hodges 🌈🏳️🌈🏳️⚧️). At that time in 1967, only 20% of Americans said they approved of interracial marriages.
More recently, as of 2011, it’s 86% of Americans who approve of Black-White interracial marriage, a figure that apparently did not include the Louisiana justice of the peace who refused in 2009 to issue a marriage license to an interracial couple. To this day, the reason people still ask “WHAT ARE YOU” is because they want to understand where we fit into the racial hierarchy. We continue to defy classification–that is our multiracial experience.
So what’s changed in the multiracial experience? What hasn’t?
Growing up as multiracial, biracial, or Mixed in the U.S. means a history of persecution, invisibility, oppression, and intergenerational trauma laden in our shared histories, not to mention identity-related questions and concerns as we navigate a life where we are neither / nor. To heal ourselves and our communities, we must learn and unlearn, finding support as we deepen our awareness of our unseen true identity.
As the multiracial population has grown to create a more diverse America, we are gradually finding the empowerment to claim all the parts of our identities. In 2010, nine million people in the U.S. identified themselves as Two or More Races. The most recent census from 2020 showed that the Two or More population has more than tripled, to 33.8 million. No kidding: The multiracial-ization of America is one of the biggest changes to our racial demographics, due to both data collection changes and because interracial marriages and families are at an all-time high.
10% of Americans strong–there are so many of us out there, and yet we grew up so far apart and so isolated, at least in terms of our identity and likeness to those around us. During the Black Lives Matter movement, many of us have turned to look at ourselves differently, attending with care to our experiences of racial identity, privilege, and oppression as we seek to use our awareness to fuel anti-racism. This movement was the context for a discussion group I began on how to practice anti-racism as multiracial folks.
Some in the group reckoned with validating and speaking from their racialized experiences in the skin they’re in. Biracial and Black group members considered how to understand their own experiences of racial violence, having experienced prejudice but also potentially privilege due to having lighter skin. Many also explored how to be an advocate for the Black Lives Matter movement when sometimes, and sometimes not, racialized by others as part of the Black community.
Other tough questions and conversations have come up around increased hate crimes targeting Asians and Asian Americans. For those of us who are part Asian, there’s been a lot to reckon with around how we look, what that means for our safety and/or privilege, how that might differ for our parents, families, or other loved ones, and how we talk to our loved ones about their safety.
In the second installment in this series on multiracial mental health and the Mixed experience, I share what everything here means for our well-being as multiracial, Mixed, biracial, or bicultural people. What questions do you have so far? What would you like to explore of your own multiracial experience and identity? Share it with me via email or drop a comment below.