One of the greatest psychological challenges of being mixed race is regularly having your racial identity questioned and rejected by people around you. Living in a society where single race categorization has been the social norm for centuries, mixed race people who look racially ambiguous often face public questioning about their race. Many mixed race children and adults regularly experience strangers approaching them to ask questions like “what are you?”, “where are you from?”, “where are you really from?,” “where are your parents from?”, and “what’s your background?”.
While public questioning might sound harmless, and some people may argue that most people are simply curious and have no malicious intention, this line of questioning can lead to the mixed race child’s confusion about themselves and their identities. It may make them feel different at a time in their life when they want most to fit in.
Often times, the “what are you?” question will lead to incongruence between the asker and the mixed race person, whereby the mixed person will provide an answer that the asker rejects. The asker’s reaction to the mixed person expressing their identity might be, “no way,” “you don’t look like that,” “I don’t believe it,” or even “no you’re not,” or “you’re lying.” These kinds of responses can lead to psychological distress in the mixed race person and a negative sense of self. Even “positive” responses (like “that’s so cool!” or “how interesting!”), while not directly challenging the mixed person’s identity, may serve to make them feel othered.
However, the “what are you” question is not always be perceived negatively. Sometimes questions can be hurtful, infuriating, annoying, exhausting, and frustrating. On the other hand, as mixed race children develop their identities and sense of self, some will go through periods of time when they appreciate being asked or having their difference pointed out — being mixed makes them feel special or unique. This may be contingent upon how the person asks, and on the situation/context/environment where the question is asked. A mixed race child growing up in a predominantly white neighborhood and school may have different experiences of the “what are you?” question than those of a child growing up in an urban, multicultural environment where difference is celebrated.
Introduce the “what are you?” question and it’s variations to your child from a young age, so they can be prepared to face it in the future.
Help your child understand and identify their ethnicity in a way that makes sense for them. Perhaps comparing the different skin colors in your family; taking out a world map and talking about where their grandparents or great grandparents came from; mixing paint hues together to represent the blending of melanin.
Reassure your child that they never need to explain themselves to anyone. If someone asks them the “what are you?” question, they should only answer if they want to, and only to the extent that they feel comfortable with. Teach them ways to turn the question back around or deflect it (“I’m human, what about you?”).
Remember that there is no “right” way to identify or express identity. You can only help your child explore how they feel and how they wish to identify themselves. Check out our “Mixed Who?” page to see how real mixed race people choose to answer the “what are you?” question and other questions like it. Inspire your child to create their own variety of answers that make them feel proud, comfortable, and confident.
One of the most common experiences of being mixed race is simultaneously feeling part of multiple cultures and feeling part of none. Mixed race people often identify with both or all cultures/ethnicities/identities that comprise them. They may get to celebrate traditions and eat foods and have friends and family from multiple cultures. This is one of the most wonderful things about being mixed race.
Yet, many mixed race people feel that they are never fully accepted or cannot fully belong to either/any of the cultures they identify with. When spending time with single race groups, there is often the experience of being the odd one out. Many mixed race people explain that “when I’m with Asian people, I’m perceived as white. When I’m with white people, I’m perceived as Asian.” Mixed race scholar Maria Root describes this non-belonging as a “‘squeeze’ of oppression as people of color and by people of color” (in Racially Mixed People of America, page 144). While mixed race people might identify strongly with multiple groups, often times those same groups reject them or only allow partial belonging.
Many mixed race children and adolescents engage in a practice called “shifting expressions” in which they alter their dress, behavior, voice, or composure to better fit in with peers of a particular ethnicity. It may last for a few hours, or a few months or years depending on the child. While shifting expressions can be a positive tool in children who have healthy self-esteems and well-developed identities, allowing them to culturally code-switch, it can also be detrimental to children who are not confident in their sense of identity, leading to deflated mental health. It is important for all children to learn how to confidently assert their identities and exist among their peers as individuals learning and growing together, rather than constantly struggling to assimilate.
While mixed people can belong to more than one ethnic community, and often feel comfortable navigating multicultural situations, belonging is always partial. This lack of full belonging can lead to what some mixed race people describe as a constant search for “home”. As mixed people grow up, we are often ethnically “other” even within our own homes. Monoracial parents are not able to model what being mixed is, nor provide guidance on navigating monoracial society as a mixed race person. Sometimes it feels like everywhere, we are other. Often times mixed race people find the most solace, sense of belonging, and relatability when among other mixed race people with whom they share similar experiences.
Familiarize your children with all of their ethnicities so they can better navigate and move between various communities with ease. Speaking the language, knowing the traditions, and understanding cultural nuances will help children feel more comfortable and like less of an outsider in specific communities than their appearance may already make them.
Pay attention to sudden shift in your child’s preferences or wishes and check in with them to make sure everything is okay. Have they suddenly asked you to stop sending a Bento Box to school with them in preference for cafeteria food? Have they asked that you or your spouse don’t pick them up from school? Respect your child’s wishes if they are appropriate and understandable, but open up a conversation in case they are hiding bullying or issues with peers from you.
Encourage socializing with multiracial families so your child can see themselves and their experiences reflected back to them and validated. If you don’t know any other multiracial families, check online for local meet up groups.