by Anthony Lynch
If you know me at all, you know that I talk a lot about the mixed experience. Obviously, being mixed, I gain personal satisfaction from exploring my everyday experiences. However, I don’t just write about the mixed experience for trauma-dumping and identity-formulating purposes.
As the mixed population continues to increase, you are more likely to interact with people who don’t fit into the standard racial categories in Western society. This growth is rapidly challenging established notions of social hierarchy, stereotyping, and beauty. However, we are also seeing white supremacism adapt to separate and pit non-white individuals against each other. This rapid growth of a demographic which confounds our typical racial hierarchies presents a fascinating case study, and exposes our prejudices in a new light.
I’m suggesting that how you perceive and interact with mixed people can reveal your background beliefs around race. If you’re an ally who wants to do the work, understanding the mixed experience in all its forms can help reveal existing biases and stereotypes you may harbour under the surface. To be sure, I too am often guilty of these biases: writing this essay was as much to challenge my own internalised prejudices as other people’s.
However, navigating this minefield can be difficult. People are often afraid of saying the wrong thing and asking the wrong questions, so they disconnect from productive conversations. Part of the motivation behind In-Between Lines is to bridge that gap. I want to use this article to highlight a few key concepts of mixedness and offer some thoughts that may challenge established views. Hopefully, you’ll find it useful in conversations with mixed individuals, and more widely about race.
Hermeneutical injustice and the mixed experience
One key idea behind In-Between Lines is ‘hermeneutical injustice’, outlined by Miranda Fricker in her book Epistemic Injustice. While not a fun word to remember, hermeneutics is the practice of interpretation. When an individual cannot express their experience due to ‘a gap in the tools of social interpretation’, a hermeneutical injustice has occurred.
In simpler words, society lacks the language and meanings to attend to someone’s experience. Fricker draws on feminism for her examples, citing the creation of the post-natal depression diagnosis and the sexual harassment law in the 1970s and 80s. Before then, in a way it wasn’t possible for a woman to fully understand and articulate those experiences. Overcoming this injustice required them to meet together, share their stories, form a collective understanding of their experience, and push against the medical and legal status quo.
I believe that hermeneutical injustice also applies to the mixed experience. Western Societies–and therefore mixed individuals–lack the conceptual tools to consider racial perspectives beyond simple categorisation e.g.: Asian, black, white etc. Consequently, their experiences have been ignored in a multitude of ways. Meghan Markle says in Episode 2 of Harry and Meghan that, ‘People don’t talk about what it’s like to be mixed race…so much of my self-identification was trying to figure out where I fit in’. If the UK face of the mixed experience is confused about her racial identity, what hope is there for the rest of us?
The aim of this essay–and In-Between Lines more generally–is to flesh out some of these concepts that constitute the mixed experience. I am indebted to Natalie Morris’ amazing book Mixed/Other that lays out many of the featured terms in an insightful and compelling way.
Mixed identity and language
What term should we use to describe individuals with two or more ethnic backgrounds? Mixed-race, mixed, biracial, multiracial, multi-ethnic, multi-heritage–there are a plethora of options that all seem equally confusing. What’s more difficult is that the accepted vocabulary changes over time: look at the rise and fall of ”coloured” to describe non-white individuals in the 20th century. However, under closer inspection we can begin to understand some of these terms.
Let’s begin with the most familiar. ”Race” is a contested term with lots of different meanings. A loose definition is that it refers to some group of people differentiated by physical traits such as skin colour. Often, some attempt is made to ground these groups with some common genetic and ancestral heritage. Therefore, biracial refers to a person of two different races.
Race is a problematic concept for many because of its historical use in categorising and ordering humans and their ”worth”. Today, it structures our interpersonal relations (overt racism), and who gets access to certain jobs, education, and opportunities (institutional racism). In the sciences, there were multiple attempts to ground race biologically and to map it to important moral and intellectual capacities. These attempts justified colonialism, genocide, and slavery, and ironically reveals how much race is socially constructed: a product of human culture and practices.
This marred history has led to some alternative descriptors: hence the use of multi-ethnic, multi-heritage, and mixed. I describe myself as ”mixed” for the above reasons, plus it seems the most intuitive to use in conversation. I was raised by parents with different cultures, food, and music, and I am a proud product of that. ”Mixed-race” for me also evokes tired and untrue stereotypes of individuals being lost and confused about where they fit in. I am not caught in between two categories: I benefit from multiple cultural perspectives and have a perspective beyond the sum of both.
Again, I’d like to highlight the empowering nature behind all these terms. Society needs to move away from third-person categorising to first-person chosen identities. People are entitled to describe themselves as they wish, no matter how flawed you or I think their description is. It is also our duty to respect said description. For any mixed individual reading this, take whatever works for you.
Minority mix, black fishing, and the primacy of the white mixed experience
After a number of prominent mixed individuals started appearing in the public eye–Meghan Markle, Lewis Hamilton, Barack Obama–western society was forced to adapt the boundaries of racial categories. This, and the increasing value of black culture, has led to a particular mixed perspective being prized over others.
Natalie Morris describes this as ”the right type of mixed”. It took off in the UK when Meghan Markle first appeared in the press. You had to be mixed in a way where your blackness and whiteness can translate easily. Her appearance also aligns with the UK’s most common mixed ethnic background: black and white Caribbean. The mixed experience was finally in the spotlight, but it was a very narrow spotlight, with other perspectives kept in the dark.
This exclusion comes from two sides. Firstly, we see whiteness taking centre stage. The proximity to whiteness is what allows mixed individuals who fit the ”acceptable” mould of blackness to have a voice. This is an example of colourism: a hierarchy of skin tone where darker shades are discriminated against. The practices of digital photo lightening and skin bleaching highlight this damaging form of prejudice.
From the other end, the arrival of black culture in western mainstream media has led to the phenomenon of ‘blackfishing’. A form of cultural appropriation, it is the practice of white individuals incorporating elements of black appearance and culture without acknowledging its history of oppression. Celebrities such as Ariana Grande, Kim Kardashian and Jesy Nelson have been accused of darkening their skin and adopting black hair, clothing, and slang. It commodifies the black experience while ignoring any of the traumatic reality. Combined with colourism, being mixed is now a marketable form of blackness–notice the narratives about desiring ”mixed babies”. As a result, black culture is stripped of meaning while also marginalising other perspectives.
Meanwhile, the experiences and meanings of those who are minority mixed–people with multiple non-white backgrounds–are excluded from the conversation. We are seeing an intensification of hermeneutical injustice. Although this is due to the white media portrayal of mixedness, we should also acknowledge the racism between non-white groups, which often flies under the radar. As black individuals, we need to uplift other perspectives not on the black-white continuum
There is beginning to be some recognition as minority mixed individuals continue to break boundaries and glass ceilings. US Vice-President Kamala Harris–born to an Indian Mother and Jamaican Father–is one prominent example. However, the mixed perspective will be limited as long as only kind of mixed is recognised: the mixed experience is by its very nature diverse.
To sum up, minority mixed individuals expose the colourism and hierarchical nature of white society. It encourages me to consider mixedness outside of a black-white spectrum, and value every viewpoint on race. It also challenges me as a mixed black-white male to examine my own relative privilege in the community and uplift all voices. If we can only accept mixed with whiteness, it’s still just white supremacy–just with a bit of brown in it.
Passing is the capacity for a member of a racial group to be seen as another. Another example of the subjectivity of racial categories, passing can compromise mixed individuals as they are forced to assimilate to one racial identity.
Due to the invisibility of whiteness as race, most mixed individuals are automatically considered members of the non-white race. Under slavery, mixed individuals arose due to the rape of black slaves by their white owners. To avoid issues relating to paternity and inheritance, the US instituted the ‘One-drop rule’, a legal precedent which categorised anyone with a single black ancestor as black. This kept visibly mixed (known then as the now outdated ”mulatto”) individuals in slavery, leading to society viewing the mixed experience as identical to the black experience.
For example, Barack Obama–widely hailed as the first Black president–is equally white as he is black. This is not to invalidate his (or my) blackness: mixed individuals are an important part of the black community and its history. Rather, I suggest that the inability of western society to consider the mixed perspective is another example of hermeneutical injustice. Mary Seacole was mixed. Bob Marley was mixed. The mixed experience being subsumed in the black experience is so common that the term ‘’black-passing’’ doesn’t really exist. It is incredibly frustrating to have half your racial identity denied because people can’t be bothered to acknowledge your nuance. This happens in the black community too: behaving in a ”non-black” way often results in being called a ”coconut” or ”choc ice”–black on the outside, white on the inside.
‘White-passing’–a controversial term which will be acknowledged later–is the tendency for certain individuals with non-white ethnic backgrounds to be perceived as white. It has a long history which has been covered by Hollywood–a 1929 novella called Passing by Nella Larsen was adapted for the big screen in 2021. Some lighter-skinned individuals passed as white so they could oppression and segregation.
On the one hand, white-passing is a privilege: it allows you to access places in society that darker individuals cannot. However, this privilege is precarious and dependent on white individuals. Passing in this case is third-person, and therefore not a true form of empowerment–this is why some people prefer the term ‘white-assumed’. How can you feel safe when you have to deny part of who you are?
On the other hand, a white-assumed individual can often be denied access to their non-white culture. Natalie Morris interviews one Asian-white mixed individual, who says ”I know so [sic] much about my heritage…but I feel like I’m constantly having to battle for the credibility to be able to do that. This experience highlights that the ability to pass brings its own struggles and is not a simple question of privilege.
Whatever side of passing is possible, it always involves self-erasure to fit into the established racial hierarchy. It’s an outdated practice that involves laziness on the part of the observer and invites me to embrace my messiness. Whereas some people see my racial identity as complicated, I see as complex. Before, I used to assimilate to my black culture: now I embrace my whiteness and the coloniser-colonised duality. I refuse to simplify my identity for anyone.
I hope this essay has helped in clarifying some of the key meanings and concepts of the mixed experience. This is an exciting time where so many perspectives are being articulated and uplifted. Terms and concepts will change as individuals revaluate race and what it means to them.
My hope is that as societal labels and categories are broken down, these terms connect lived experience across difference, rather than labels that generalise groups of people. As Audre Lorde said, ‘divide and conquer must become define and empower’.
Miranda Fricker–Epistemic Injustice: Power and the Ethics of Knowing. Published in 2007 by Oxford University Press
Natalie Morris–Mixed/Other. Published in 2021 by Trapeze
Facing History article on Scientific racism
Article on famous mixed individuals in European history
Vox article on Kamala Harris’ racial identity
Huffpost article on Blackfishing
Metro article on the term ‘white-passing’
Harvard Gazette article on the One drop rule
Image: Karim Manhra, Unsplash