The so-called multiracial experience is shared by an increasing number of Americans. In the 2010 U.S. census, around 9 million people self-identified as “multiracial.” However, this is becoming an increasingly difficult term. The line between multiracial and multiethnic seems to blur more, and the lexicon of terms like “mixed,” “hapa,”and “mestizo,” can also fall short in describing an identity, an experience, and for many a source of conflict and confusion.
The issues and beauty that arise from this ambiguity have affected me deeply- as my name, “Rekha Olsen”, suggests, my heritage is half white and half Indian. As I grow older, I feel I don’t have a racial community like many of my friends do. I have found that around white people, I am always thought of as Indian, or exotic and diverse. Around people from India, however, I’m usually seen as an outsider due to my lack of exposure to and knowledge about Indian culture.
Although my family is tight-knit, it is hard to accept that my racial experience is something that I’m never going to be able to share with them. My parents, who only identify with one ethnic group, don’t quite know what it feels like to have one foot in a certain heritage and another in a completely different background.
I’ve had to determine my place and my stance on various issues: Should I be able to call myself a woman of color? Am I a racial minority or am I white? Why does it feel like I can’t be both?
These questions still remain largely unanswered even though the “mixed” population in this country continues to rise three times faster than the U.S. population. But giving those who self-identify as multiethnic a platform on which to share their thoughts can in a small way provide that space that I lacked growing up, and in our own way, smash the very idea of race as a solely physical trait.
With ten students from different backgrounds and identities, a team of photographers, writers and editors who all identify as multiethnic explored what experiences distinguish us as a group and also as individuals.
Together, we unpacked the meaning of family, identity, culture, and intersecting constructions to better understand what it means to be “mixed” in today’s world.
These are their own words, edited for clarity.
Noah Brown, 20
Identifies as Black and Hawaiian
Just looking at me, you can’t really tell what I am. For someone to put me in a category is actually pretty hard. Everyone says, ‘no, you’re not’ and no matter how often you say ‘yes, I am,’ people are going to doubt you.
Being mixed actually does cause a lot of identity crises. You know on one side of me, there’s Hawaiian, and I gotta stick to that, I gotta stick to my roots. But on the other side of me, there’s the black part and then on another side of me, there’s an Asian part. There’s all these different cultures that you identify with and that you can see yourself as a part of, but it never actually really feels right saying you’re a part of each individual culture.
I think that this whole putting mixed people into one big pot is actually a missed opportunity to get to know other cultures.[Mixed people] have a different perspective of things than someone who is just purely one race because either you are part of a culture that you come from, but you were kind of like looked at differently, or you weren’t part of that culture and you were like half in this culture and half in another culture. That in and of itself is a unique experience and I think that, just like people, it needs to be looked at on an individual basis.
Julia Sircar, 20
Identifies as White and Indian
If I joined an Indian club on campus, I would kind of feel like I was appropriating Indian culture, as crazy as that sounds, because I grew up white, basically. While my dad is Indian, he’s completely Americanized- he doesn’t have any vestiges of his culture at all. It would feel out of place for me just because it’s not something I grew up with. If I had grown up with, for example, going to temple, I don’t think that I would feel as out of place, but I think it would be kind of weird for me to truly identify as Indian because I would feel like an outsider, like someone who is just going there to learn the culture as opposed to someone who is part of it.
Being kind of racially ambiguous has been strange coming to college and meeting so many new people. A lot of people will ask me, ‘what race are you?’ And I always get, ‘oh, I thought you were black,’ or ‘I thought you were Mexican,’ ‘I thought you were Hawaiian,’ ‘I thought you were Filipino,’ and it’s kind of weird for me because then I started feeling this sense of, ‘no, I don’t want people to think I’m this race or that race, I want them to think I am who I am. I’m Indian. I want to be proud of that, and I want them to think and know that I am half Indian and half white.
Ines Garcia, 19
Identifies as Mexican and Colombian
I would consider myself Latin American. I’m half Mexican, half Colombian – the Mexican is on my mom’s side and the Colombian is on my dad’s side. However, Mexico is more of a common ground for both of my parents. I’ve only been to Colombia once in my life, but I go to Mexico almost every year. So I’d say that I’m definitely more in touch with my Mexican side. Being Mexican is very easy in LA.
If anybody asks me what I am, Mexican is just the easiest way to describe it. But at the same time, my friends from Mexico wouldn’t consider me Mexican. They’re like, ‘Oh, but you’re white.’ I think that my experience as being Mexican in LA is different from a lot of other people who are Mexican in LA.
In the last few years, I’ve definitely started to question why I always say I’m Mexican and not Colombian when asked about my background, even though, technically, my blood is actually more Colombian than Mexican.
Robby Feffer, 20
Identifies as Black and Jewish
I’m half white, Jewish, and then half black, African American. When I had longer hair and an afro, it was easier for people to identify me as mixed. When I was younger and going to synagogue, unlike the rest of my brothers, I kept my hair long, so I would always have trouble putting my Yarmukle on. I’d always see the white congregation looking at it or make jokes about it. That was a time where I realized: I am Jewish, but I’m also black, and that’s affecting my experience.
I get written up as Hispanic a lot, or just white. I actually tend to feel closer to my white side since I mostly see my white relatives for holidays. We tend to do more holiday, religious stuff with my white [Jewish] family.
People, even if they’re both mixed, can’t relate to each other in specific. But I think that [the general category of] ‘mixed’ is still good because there is a similar type of experience with having to negotiate multiple backgrounds that is generally shared by all multiracial people. The understandings that come from mixed identity and being able to appreciate multiple races is something that could lead to a more inclusive future.
Arthur Johnston, 20
Identifies as Japanese and White
Things are very different here versus in Hawaii, where I’m from. I think this whole difference in place affects the way people identify me. In Los Angeles, I’m just broadly lumped into the category of ‘Asian.’ But in Hawaii, I think the majority of people, or at least Asian people, there are actually Japanese. So there, I’m white. I’m basically just lumped into the minority in whichever place I’m in.
As much as I can be marginalized, I can also really identify with both minorities and the majority in different situations. I actually like this ambiguity. It’s a cool combination of different cultures.
I think in the future, racial lines are going to be so much more blurred. If you were to draw all the races in a big map, we’d just fill the in-between spaces of different races. I don’t think that mixed race people can be grouped all together, because they’re just the result of everyone mixing. I’m not saying that there won’t still be clear categories of race, but I think that with more mixed race influentials and people in power, we’re going to see a lot more acceptance of different cultures.
John Tanner, 20
Identifies as Black and Native American
I was adopted at birth, so my whole family is white. So I actually didn’t know that I was half black, half Native American until I was 18. So for my most of my life I didn’t know what I was, so I’d say I identify with my different racial backgrounds equally at this point.
My family didn’t really push on me that I was different, so this allowed me to take in culture where I found it. So instead of saying, ‘oh, my family traditions are this,’ I would kind of just absorb the different cultures that I found at home or that I found at a lot of my friends’ houses that were of different races. I’ve being doing martial arts since I was five, so a lot of my friends were of Asian background, so I’ve identified with a lot of Korean culture and a lot of Taiwanese culture. I had a really good French friend growing up too, and a lot of the martial arts masters were from South American countries.
Aidan Harris-Tyrrell, 19
Identifies as Black and Caucasian
As I’ve gotten older and I think about it more, I realize that there are lots of similar things like this, where people come to the assumption that you are of one race– people have predefined notions are what you are and find ways to justify that. Just by their nature, it’s hard for mixed people to stay in one region, or one category, so I think that some issues arise when they are forced to do so.
Chandra Ingram, 19
Identifies as White and Indian
My mom grew up in a very Indian household, but she grew up in Spokane, Washington where their family was the only Indian family in the town. Because of this, she hasn’t passed down much Indian culture to my brother and I. Sometimes, she pushes this onto me and my brother and tells us, ‘you guys made me ashamed for being Indian.’
My brother and I dealt with stereotypes a lot when we were younger, especially when we moved back from India. We went to the same school that we had gone to before we moved, but suddenly were started being labeled as ‘those kids from India,’ or ‘those Indian kids.’ But, I had a few other Indian kids in my class who were way more culturally Indian than I was, and I found myself wanting to be separated from that because I didn’t personally relate to that culture or any of those stereotypes. But both of my parents grew up in the United States, so culturally I would say I’m American.
Recently in college, I’ve realized that, as someone who is mixed, I don’t have that kind of community that a lot of people do have. That’s why my brother and I have kind of swayed more towards the white community because that’s the community that we identified with culturally. Even though we don’t look like them, they would be our community.
Whenever I meet mixed people, I get really excited, because we do have a common connection and shared experiences. They know what it’s like to grow up with parents from different races and religions and to be seen as racially ambiguous. Even though we don’t have the same culture on both sides, we have enough in common that we still have that special bond. I think that mixed people have a unique outlook on life because that have seen the multiple perspectives and how they come into play with each other that they, in my opinion, are very open-minded people.
Ryan Rivero, 20
Identifies as Cuban and Irish
I don’t think of myself as biracial. I don’t look it, and I think that’s a big reason. I definitely consider myself Hispanic, because all of my dad’s relatives speak Spanish and he always cooks Spanish stuff and Cuba-this, Cuba-that.
The Cuban background is more prominent in my family over the Irish background, because my Irish family came here so many generations ago, versus my dad and all his relatives have all come here within the past fifty years. My dad came here in 1962, without his parents because they couldn’t all leave together, and went and lived with his aunt in Chicago. He left I think around the time Fidel Castro was in power. He’s lived here ever since and has not gone back to Cuba. I, however, would love to go to Cuba and see where my dad came from.
There should be a distinction between mixed people because their experiences aren’t all the same. There’s varying degrees of intensity; It’s difficult to lump people together because some people have to interact with their mixed identity far more than others. For me, it’s something I hardly ever think about. In my case, I look pretty white, so I haven’t had a lot of the same experiences with being seen as mixed that other people have had.
Alexandria Yap, 19
Identifies as Korean and Chinese
I would never say I’m biracial, but I do relate to the ambiguity that surrounds multiethnic people. When I was younger, I was very insecure about my appearance. I was spending a lot of time in this Korean culture, but I felt like I never looked Korean or even Chinese, for that matter. In both cultures, light, porcelain skin is valued, but I’ve always had tanner skin. Also, I have larger eyes than the normal teardrop, Asian eyes and I don’t have the classic pin-straight, black, Asian hair. It sometimes feels like you don’t truly belong with your family if you don’t look like them. You feel ostracized.
One time, on my mom’s side of the family, we went to to Yellowstone and we were walking behind some Chinese tourists, and my grandmother was kind of making fun of their language– she was saying, ‘they’re so loud and annoying.’ In that moment, part of me thought, ‘wait, I’m half Chinese– should I take offense to that or should I laugh along with my grandmother?’
I think my background has definitely been more divided than most just because my parents were divorced and I never really saw how these cultures could be mixed. My mother is Korean and my dad is Chinese, and I think it’s been even more split because my dad is fifth generation Chinese, which makes me sixth generation, but my mom immigrated to America when she was in second grade. Because of this, I’ve always been an alien to Chinese culture. I don’t know much about the country or its culture. Whereas I’ve spent more time with my mom growing up, so I feel like I was more immersed in Korean culture.