On Being Biracial

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Prince Harry and Meghan Markle in the Sunken Garden at Kensington Palace, London, after the announcement of their engagement. (Photo by Dominic Lipinski/PA Images via Getty Images)

Growing up biracial in the eighties, elderly couples used to stare at my family as we would pass in the street. Kids would ask awkward questions at school. It was almost impossible to understand myself in relation to popular culture or even my own family tree.

So seeing a biracial woman become a princess and marry into the Royal family is a huge moment for me.

Racial identity in general is a complicated thing. Although racial categorization has no firm basis in biology and historical conceptions of racial identity shift over time, race still has a lasting influence over social relations in society. It governs access to power, and continues to impact the marginalized through personal bigotry and larger systemic forms of discrimination.

Just look at the news. It defines the world in which we live in major ways.

Biracial identity exists within all of this. As with bisexuality, those with a biracial identity tend to experience a form of erasure and a cultural pressure to adhere to a single identity. More often than not, this identity is selected by the world at large, and adheres to the odious “one-drop rule” – namely, if you have any ancestor in your bloodline who isn’t white, than you are not considered white. Case closed.

And it is here that racial classification exposes its own internal biases by revealing how racial identity is informed by concepts of purity, privilege, and access. Because while racial otherness is immediately presumed and accepted, whiteness is never on the table. Your DNA, your cultural upbringing, the colour of your skin, and your own thoughts on the matter have nothing to do with it. You are simply not white. Whiteness is inaccessible.

But you’re also not black, or Asian, or whichever racial identity has been assigned to you based on your appearance, or the identity of your non-white parent. You fall somewhere in-between, but that liminal identity is largely ignored by a society looking to include or exclude you based on various physical characteristics.

And so you have to make choices in order to survive. You accept yourself as other, or perhaps you attempt to assimilate in the interest of access. The politics of “passing,” as explored in Nella Larsen’s fantastic novel of the same name.

Still, self-identifying is not a perfect solution. It can also be seen as a form exclusion, or a rejection of one’s own birthright, which can open up its own can of worms. Take former president Barack Obama, whose complex racial identity was ever-present within his political career, and the line of questioning that he had to navigate when he chose not to define himself as a “black president.”

In that linked interview on The View, Obama had to choose his words carefully in order not to alienate white or black Americans. He recognized that his “otherness” was an important symbol to so many citizens, and instead chose a message of inclusion. He tried to build a bridge, using his own mixed heritage as a way to bring people together.

Man, I miss Barack Obama.

As I’ve met and befriended many other biracial people, I’ve often asked them if their self-defined racial identity syncs up with how they are seen or treated by other people. More often than not, it hasn’t been a reflection of how they see themselves or how they self-identify, but they have chosen not to pursue the discussion. I mean, do you really want to spend your time parsing out the very personal dimensions of your racial identity with a stranger? Or better yet, leave it open to debate?

So you adjust to the context of the situation. And it is this shifting form of self-identification that is perhaps most familiar to any marginalized individual with the ability to “pass” in our society. It is a survival mechanism borne out of having to navigate environments with a certain degree of caution. You recognize that your identity is going to be a moving target depending on the context, whether that be a personal or professional sphere. You never know how you’ll be read in any given situation, and so you do your best not to rock the boat, or at the very least to avoid conflict.

But things are changing. Even with the right-wing backlash and the ugliness rising to the surface in the post-Trump/post-Brexit years, society seems to be moving forward. Things are continuing to evolve, even in the face of a very vocal minority interested in turning back the clocks. Our understanding of the complexity of racial identity is growing, and its use as tool to disempower is being called out.

I mean, we still have a long way to go, but watching that beaming interracial couple on the news, standing in a garden and backed by a very, very old institution feels like a massive step forward. It will help shift opinions in an important way.

I honestly wish them the best.

 

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