Here’s What It’s Like Being a Teen of Mixed Race in America

In this week's 'Teen Talk' column, a teen explains her experience growing up in a biracial family.

illustration of biracial child atop his father's shoulders while walking with mom
Photo: Illustration by Yeji Kim

In my eighteen years growing up as mixed race, I've only had one biracial friend. She was a year younger than me and endlessly realistic—the one friend everyone needs who really tells it like it is.

"Being mixed isn't some great injustice," she said to me one morning after I brought up some of the discomforts I had about feeling "othered" by our friends. Growing up, my school district was predominantly white, and my identity had developed around that of my peers. Now, being in an art school where it's much more diverse, I've had to acclimate to the many ways blackness presents itself around me. "Talent scouts, modeling agencies, casting directors...they all love racial ambiguity—it sells better," she added.

I'd never thought of my mixed skin tone like this before. My mom is white and my dad is Black. Although I don't pass for white at all, with an Afro and dark skin, I am definitely light-skinned compared to others, which has its advantages. But my mixed look has definitely been complicated for me. I was 4 years old the first time I realized that my mother's hair was nothing like mine and never would be.

At age 12, I was referred to by the N-word for the first time and felt such rage and confusion that I didn't know how to react. My white friend later explained to me that it wasn't a big deal, her friends said it all the time.

Now 18, I have predominantly white friends, and a white partner. I'm finally at the age where I can recognize not only my privilege in being mixed, but my luck in finding both Black and white people that I love and identify with.

Colorism, or discrimination based on skin complexion, plays a huge role in the ways that modern society operates and picks the minorities it wants to show. There is also truth to the fact that being mixed can be incredibly difficult and confusing at times. There have always been a thousand little things that make me feel disconnected from my single-race family and friends. I want parents to understand the complexities that come with raising a mixed child, so they can help their children navigate the "in-betweeness" that I have felt and that never really leaves.

I Live Within Two Identities

Initially, I thought that there was something wrong with me. My brother and I bounce from being Black to white to Black to white again, depending on where we are, who we are with, what we're thinking about, and what we're talking about. We've both admitted to making friends through the practice of code-switching, or subconsciously adjusting your dialect depending on who you're with.

Everyone does it, but when you're mixed it's almost as if you switch your whole identity based on who you're around. I have learned that there are certain experiences I can't discuss with my white friends, like the emotional effects of watching police brutality, and certain ones that my Black friends wouldn't know how to take, like my difficulty acclimating to their lingo comfortably or fully relating to their experiences. It's confusing to grow up like this; constantly hiding an aspect of yourself and figuring out who you truly are when your identity is constantly shifting.

I Want My Feelings and Experiences Heard

As a mixed-race child, there were things about my parents helped me understand about their culture, history, and social perception that I would not have known naturally. Colorism plays a huge role in the ways in which mixed people are treated versus single-race people. I've also had the opportunity to teach my parents about my own experience, too.

Your biracial child may be dealing with things you may not understand, like feeling separated from their race. At its core, being biracial makes you a little bit different than your friends, parents, and extended family. I'm living two truths, functioning in two ways, learning two sets of rules.

I Needed Help Developing My Own Identity

There have been many ways in which I developed that my parents did not identify with. They still helped me navigate these experiences. There are so many resources available for mixed-race families. If your child faced racism in a place you never saw it before, you can meet with a therapist who specializes in working with mixed family dynamics. If you're not sure what to do with their hair, find a salon with a stylist who is also mixed.

The Bottom Line

All children are their own beings. Mixed children are in a unique position, independent from their parents in terms of race. They're a beautiful amalgamation, just like a kid should be. Help them. They have things to learn from you. You have things to learn from them.

Adiah Siler is an 18-year-old senior at a local arts school in Pennsylvania, where she studies writing. She's active in the political scene in her community.

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