“Where are you from?”
This is one of the top three questions I’ve been asked throughout my life. I get asked this often because part of how we relate to people is by sorting them into little boxes we’re already familiar with. When people meet me, I don’t quite fit into any of their boxes. I’m used to it; it’s part of growing up biracial. I’m not really sure what it’s like inside either of my parent’s cultures. From one perspective, I get both boxes and both cultures. But from the other, I don’t get either.
As a China-born American citizen who neither looks like her mother or her father’s race, I’ve been an outsider long before the conundrum came along of which race box to check on forms.
When I was younger, I knew I was different than my classmates. I was American, and though I didn’t really understand what that meant, it gave me a sense of belonging. Sure, I was different from my classmates, but it was okay because there were people like me in America.
It wasn’t until I actually came to America that I realized things weren’t that easy. I didn’t understand American values or resonate with American pop culture. I already knew I wasn’t Chinese, but now I was sure I wasn’t American either. Once again I was on the outside… this time with no nationality to fall back on.
The older I grew, the more interested I became in the dynamic of exclusivity in cultures. No doubt, there have been moments when I think I’ve almost assimilated into a particular one. But then those moments will be pushed back with startling sharpness as my legitimacy is put to question because of my mixed background and heritage. The message will once again become as clear as it is elusive: You are not one of us.
This happens more often in the Asian American community, where I stand out more than I do with my Caucasian counterpart — and I have a theory on it. When your people have been subtly and systematically oppressed, you learn to form a tight-knit community. This community is created out of respect for preserved heritage, and it’s maintained out of self-defense. This community is a place of understanding, where one doesn’t have to explain the backstory of why things are done a certain way. In this community traditions are not ridiculed, and elders are not disrespected. Roles are clear and boundaries lucid. Out of preservation, outsiders cannot be allowed. They could jeopardize the space that has been so hard won.
In an attempt to protect a space of belonging and inclusion, the same communities who have been discriminated against feel that they must exclude.
So where does this leave me? Where does it leave those of us who don’t fit into one box or the other — those who feel outside of the cultures we so long to be included in? The feeling of belonging is powerful. With exclusive racial groups prioritizing purity of bloodline, it can be hard for those with multiracial cultures to find a place of belonging and understanding. With well-intentioned waves of attempted racial blindness and blurred cultural distinctions, it can be easy to brush over the complexity of the multiracial narrative.
As America continues along the path of desegregation, multiracial families become more and more common. Yet we, as a society, still fail to create a space of acceptance for children of mixed race.
Depression rates are higher in multiracial children than in those who only identify as one race. How can we navigate this? How do we create an environment where children of mixed backgrounds don’t feel like outsiders looking in?
There’s no easy fix for the increasing number of multiracial people who are slipping through the cracks of the checkboxes. There is no overnight cure. Perhaps the first step is recognizing the impact that race can play in personal identity and validating those who are born into complex cultural environments. We can accept them into the spaces of their heritage without enforcing a “one-box” mentality. We can encourage learning and pride in cultural understanding. We can make room without stripping the rich cultural heritage from race.
Race, culture, and identity are loaded topics in this day and age. Sometimes understanding begins as a simple conversation… but our search for understanding needs to include the experiences of those from multiple races.
Based out of Los Angeles, Iona Brannon is a writer and photojournalist who deeply enjoys hearing the stories of others and drawing out the beauty of the mundane. Her hobbies include sitting in LA traffic and occasionally yelling at other drivers. You can see her work and connect with her at ionabrannon.com.