What Being of Mixed Heritage Has Taught Me About Identity

How being labelled biracial ends up showing up the whole concept of race for what it is: an invention that doesn't really help to define people.

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Dec 10 2016, 2:00pm

This article originally appeared on VICE UK

"What are you?" When you think about it, it's a pretty stupid question to ask another person, especially when you already know the answer: a human, just like you mate. But that doesn't stop people directing it at people like me, who are of dual ethnic heritage or "mixed-race." If your parents are of distinctly different ethnic groups, you feel like you have to "pick a side"—and the inevitable questions vary from ones shouted in a crowded pub to those staring up in black-and-white next to a checkbox on a form.

We're so far down the road of thinking about race as a biological reality that we've forgotten it's a construct. There are no links between how much melanin someone has in their skin and their culture. There are no links between melanin and intellect, physical abilities or creative skills. Proximity and language have tended to have more to do with what makes people of the same ethnic group seem similar—the colour of their skin doesn't determine that.

For that reason, it's silly to think that the experiences of the 1.2 million people in the UK who identify as "mixed" would be identical. Some are happy to define themselves in that way, while last year the British Sociological Association deemed deemed the term mixed-race as "misleading since it implies that a 'pure race' exists".

Rather than have an academic association speak on behalf of people, I chatted to a few millennials of dual heritage to hear about how they understand identity, what it means to belong and whether the label really has expired.

Natasha, 30

I'm sort of conflicted when it comes to the term "mixed-race." I hate the way it's so vague: it can apply to someone who's part-Venezuelan and part-Malaysian, then again to someone who's part-Jamaican and part-Irish. However, on the flipside a large part of me wants to "own" it.

I describe myself as mixed-race, but even then it feels limiting—I often find myself having to explain things further. That's probably because I'm very light-skinned freckly and ginger. People just won't take "I'm half-white and half-black Caribbean"—they want to know why I have red hair.

It can be frustrating feeling like I always have to be defined but I do feel that it's just a very human instinct to want to categorize people and make sense of the world. I think a lot of people feel like the world is changing at an exponential rate and that it's a struggle to keep up with it all.

Do I think the UK has a fairly narrow view of what it means to be mixed-race? Yes. There's a stereotypical picture and it doesn't deviate much from that. But that ignorance extends well outside the mixed-race category—for example, a lot of us aren't really exposed to second or third-generation ethnic minorities who grow up in rural areas. An ex-boyfriend of mine is from a Bangladeshi family and he grew up in north Wales. Another good friend is from a Chinese family and she grew up in Ayrshire and has a beautiful Scottish accent. Nobody expects it and it's amazing.

James, 21

I prefer to identify myself as British. My mum has Indian parents but was born in Kenya. My dad has Irish parents but was raised in London. If someone asks where I'm from I usually assume they will have fallen asleep before I rattle off my various backgrounds, so I stick to saying "British." I don't believe a person's identity is made up of the countries their parents are from, it's more where you feel you most belong and for me that is, and probably always will be, England.

I feel most mixed-race people use the term in a similar way to me as a shortcut past explaining each parent or grandparent's origin. Being mixed-race isn't really an identity, it's more a warning flag saying it's complicated and I don't want to bore you.

Have there been occasions where I've felt I've had to "pick a side"? Definitely. I've rarely felt the need to hide my heritage but bringing up certain facets of my backgrounds is often a great way to connect to people. "Hey, I'm from Ireland too!" or "You celebrate Diwali with your family as well?!" can be great conversation starters. The only time it's a negative is when the side is picked for you. I've had times where people have said, "Well you're not really Indian, though," or "There aren't any Irish people your colour."

My particular mix resulted in me looking like I could be one of many races. I probably avoid receiving any racism since no one can quite guess what to insult at first glance. So I've never been made to feel like I don't belong, which I am grateful for.

Do I feel like we need a new term? It can be annoying on forms... always having to search for the right mixed heritage box to tick or I feel like I'm doing one parent an injustice.

Gabriela, 24

(Photo by Yasmine Akim)

I sometimes still find myself identifying as mixed-race. This is a bad habit I'm trying to fix. I guess it stems mostly from yearning to be accepted. I realize now that it's something pushed upon us, not just as mixed-race people but as those living within an environment that feeds off what's known as normativity.

Saying I'm mixed-race makes me yawn myself—what does that even mean as a statement? Nothing. Rather it explains more of the coming together of my parents, of racial divisions, of lost family connection. It says nothing about mixed-race as a culture, as a place in history. That's its failure. Mixed-race people don't get spoken to about their histories/perspectives and politics.

The main priority bestowed upon us is the question of how we should fit into the structural racial categories in place already—only a yes or no, black and white answer has ever been permitted.

The way we brag about diversity in Britain is hilarious. Yes, mixed-race people are the fastest growing demographic in the country but when your mum's side of the family passive-aggressively lets you know that there's too many immigrants nowadays, where's the progress?

Jen, 28

Would I say that the term mixed-race reflects my identity? If I'm going to give a resolute answer, no, it's not enough. I feel like I use different terms depending on who I'm speaking to and where I am. I think it's come from people willing to label very quickly, who I'm speaking to and why.

Indian-English is what I would say. But say if I'm in an area where it's less multicultural or where I feel like that person is going to be receiving of having to listen or there's no time for it, I'll just say mixed-race.

I think the term is limited. Say if you're three "things," labelling yourself mixed-race just helps people pop you one pot: "OK, they're in that one category so they're all kind of similar because they all don't know really who they are! They're all unclassifiable so let's just shove them in together," you know? I do think my whole life has been like that. I've put myself into that pot.

When I was living in Oxford with my ex-boyfriend, although I could tell people about my heritage I'd never felt that my history was understood. That's why I came back to London, because there's many people of different backgrounds that we've all felt a bit different at one point—and that's why we're all quite similar.

@its_me_salma

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