Growing Up in a Family With Multiple Ethnicities Was Both Lonely and Beautiful

I always felt like an outsider, but being mixed is filled with beauty and complexity.

multi-racial family gathering

Growing up I always felt like an outsider. My name, my skin, my hair all tells the story of where my parents and my parent's parents come from. It all marks me as a bit different. I'm mixed Okinawan, Black, and Mexican, and there aren't a lot of people out there like me. I consider myself lucky to have grown up in a household with mixed parents and siblings because my parents made sure to teach us about our heritage, and about cultures all over the world.

This gave me respect for all sorts of different types of people, and instilled pride in my identity. I am also grateful that they encouraged curiosity about the world, and created an atmosphere where we all "got" each other.

I spoke with my younger sister, Hanako, about this while writing this article, and she agreed. "It was cool having a bunch of cultures I guess, but [it] just feels normal," Hanako says. "I suppose for most people it's a bit weird [to] grow up in a house with more than one culture, but since that's all I've known that's all there is." Outside of the house was a different story.

I can remember being made fun of for looking different, for having a funny sounding name. I remember one family event where my family left in a hurry after a distant relative began shouting slurs at my younger sister. I remember being told by classmates I had to choose which race to pledge my allegiance to—as if I could lop off the parts of me that didn't fit neatly into others' molds.

For years I divided myself into fractions—a fourth of this, a half of that—and used it to justify myself to other people. "I'm a quarter Japanese, I belong at the table with the other Asian kids."

"I'm only a quarter Mexican, but I feel like so much less because I don't speak spanish."

"I'm half Black. That's enough, isn't it?"

These divisions of self made me want to be smaller, made me want to disappear. Many people of color speak of feeling uneasy being the only one of their race. For me, that was magnified; outside of my family I never felt whole.

It wasn't until college that I met enough mixed people to see myself reflected in them. There were still differences. Many of the mixed folks I met were half white and dealt with proximity to whiteness in ways that I never will, but there was a certain language we understood. A certain balancing act we all had to walk. Mixed people have a certain way of looking at race from both the inside out and the outside in.

We are as captive to it as everyone else, but since we break its rigid boundaries we can pick it up, play with it, and ask it questions other people can't seem to understand. I asked four mixed people about their experiences living in the gray areas of race and ethnicity, and their responses were, even for a person who spends her life thinking about race and identity, eye opening and humbling.

While it can feel like an impossible task as a parent raising a multiracial kid to make sure that your child feels seen and understood, listening to your child and helping them understand their rich cultures and the complexities of race can ultimately become an advantage as they grow older. One of the great things about being mixed is the beauty of our diverse experiences, and these four people highlight how thoughtful mixed people tend to be about race, belonging, privilege, and oppression.

Mariko, a mixed Okinawan and white woman, also managed to find community amongst other mixed race people. She says, "I didn't really get involved until I was older, but it has been welcoming and enlightening. It's helped me to not have imposter syndrome, or the feeling that I can't fit in on either side. It's been validating. A lot of times I have found myself saying, 'Wow! You've felt that way, too? You do that, too?'"

That community of mixed people continues to grow. According to the 2020 US census, 10.2 percent of the population identify as multiracial. That's a 275.7 percent increase from the 2010 census and a dizzying jump. While the majority of this change likely represents the increase in multiracial babies being born, I can't help but wonder if a large percentage doesn't makeup a group of mixed people who have just starting to feel comfortable claiming multiple racial and ethnic identities.

The Oscar winner Ariana DeBose is an example of this. The Black, Puerto Rican, and Italian actress opened up about being mixed in her awards speech and interviews, "To anybody who has ever questioned your identity ever, ever, ever, or you find yourself living in the gray spaces, I promise you this: There is, indeed, a place for us."

While many mixed people are not mixed with white, the reality is that mixedness in the United States is tied in with issues of colorism, texturism, and featurism.

Dillon, a Samoan academic who is mixed with white states, "I have been fortunate enough to receive compliments at best, and confusion/exoticism/fetishization/passivization at worst when I tell people I am Polynesian. I think the harshest criticism I received was people who are Polynesian, specifically from Samoa (I am Samoan). Uncomfortable comments about how my white features make me beautiful and a prize (insinuating that Samoans wouldn't be without them)."

Heather, who Identifies as Black and has Chinese and Cree ancestry, says she "still [doesn't] see enough thoughtful engagement with how normalized mixedness has become as an aesthetic (see Kim Kardashian and Ariana Grande as examples.)"

Heather adds, "Further, it's fully 2022, and we still live in a world more likely to platform Black women with white features as 'respectable' ambassadors of Blackness over fat Black women, Black women with 4c (or short or no) hair, Black women with West African phenotypes, and Black women with dark skin."

But even amongst the politics of exoticism, othering and desire, lie special moments in the lives of mixed people.

For my sister, being mixed allows for a wide variety of experiences: "It's fun to confuse people sometimes and to also be fluid. I understand a lot about other people and other cultures living in a gray area I suppose."

For Heather, it's a feeling of syncretism. She tells me, "My mom's hot and sour soup sat on the same shelf in the refrigerator with jerk chicken and chicken and dumplings. We played mahjong with Busta Rhymes playing in the background."

For me, being mixed is a shorthand for a heap of experiences both bitter and sweet. Learning how to care for my natural hair, correcting bigots that yes you can contain multitudes, listening to my mother excitedly explain the similarities between Okinawan cooking and soul food, using my shoddy spanish to explain my background to curious neighbors. Being simultaneously seen as a local and a foreigner, and watching eyes widen and faces change when I explain who I am. I have chosen to thrive in the gray areas, and to make it as colorful as I please.

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