Stephen Murphy-Shigematsu Ed.D.

Finding Meaning in Life’s Struggles

Save Your Mixed Tears and Other Tips for Mixed Living

Reconciling white-POC mixed identity and its privileges.

Posted Apr 28, 2017

Jonathan Fisk
Source: Jonathan Fisk

By Jonathan Fisk

I want to start by prefacing that this article is mostly written with white-POC mixed people in mind. As a white-Puerto Rican mixed person who strongly claims their Black and Taíno backgrounds, this is what I am, this is what I know, and so this is what I felt capable of writing about. Conversations about non-white mixes are definitely needed, and something being had, but not the focus of this article. That said, many themes here run true for other mixed people who might not fit this category, as well as for white-passing Latinx people.  

Know that this has all been written all out of love. I’m writing this with not a hint of shade in my words, but as someone who wishes they heard these words earlier on in their exploration of identity as a mixed person.

1. Don’t feel the need to downplay your non-white identity.

When it comes to your non-white identity, feel free to lean the hell in. That doesn't mean you need to perform your identity, but don't feel shy in claiming your identity loud and proud. If you’re in a place in your journey where you might feel insecure about your journey, I highly recommend reading (and rereading if needed) this concise mixed Bill of Rights. Sure, some people might question whether you actually belong to that community, but I've found that's often stemming from two main roots:

People outside the community you identify with (often white people) challenging this ownership of identity. Society’s rigid notions of racial identity and race-based communities largely internalized biases leading us to assume that people belonging to a racial identity or community should look and act certain ways. Historically, this has been used to both uphold stereotypes and push those who might not fit the mold to assimilate into generic (white) America’s culture, neglecting their POC identities. For those who benefit from these rigid conceptions of race (mostly white people), any challenge to these structures, or anything that counters these internalized biases, can raise internal alarms that their relative power is being threatened. Because of this, claiming identity with a community that you don’t fit the narrative for can be confusing, or even threatening, for others, especially white people. Because of this confusion and perceived threat, it feels natural for people to question, or even doubt this claim of identity.

People in the community you identify with who are skeptical of these claims to identity. In my experience, this is far more painful than the first type of question - as if the community itself is rejecting you. However, knowledge of where this weariness comes provides great solace. Time and time again, with Elizabeth Warren claiming Cherokee background, to Rachel Dolezal claiming Blackness, we see people falsely (often knowingly) claiming racial identities that don't actually match their background, often for their own benefit. Given this history of people claiming to be part of communities they don’t actually belong to for their own benefit (and often to distance themselves from their own Whiteness, as we see with Warren and Dolezal), it's no surprise that community members would be skeptical of someone who doesn't look like they necessarily belong in their community claiming that identity. Does that mean we should stop pushing the boundaries of what community members 'do and do not' look like? No. But does that mean we should understand the very real pain that informs why community members might question us? Hell yeah.

There's so much power, and personal reassurance, in boldly claiming racial identity as a mixed person. Actively contributing to and participating in your communities will not only help you become more secure and confident in your identity, but also reduce claims that you’re not actually a member. As they say, actions speak louder than words.

2. Don’t downplay your benefits from white/white-passing privilege and colorism.

Chances are greater than not that as a white-POC mixed person you benefit in some way from white/white-passing privilege or colorism, whether or not you’re cognizant of it. This isn’t your fault, but it’s important to recognize this since others in the community you’re claiming identity with don’t benefit from these same privileges and are discriminated against in the converse of the ways you’re privileged. That isn’t to say you won’t face many levels of discrimination that your community members do, or that you might not be second-hand impacted from discrimination against your family or loved ones, but you’re likely spared from some degree of discrimination because of being whiter or white-passing.

Realize there's a difference between feeling left out from being part of the standard narrative for being lighter skinned/less 'traditional' looking and being stereotyped/criminalized for fitting the phenotypic narrative. That isn’t to say it doesn’t hurt feeling left out from, or disregarded by, the communities you claim, but the scales of the two pains are different. Being lighter skinned or having less stereotypical features can lead to some degree of discrimination or emotional pain, but in the American context it usually affords us privilege, and even then the discrimination and pain is nowhere near the pain and fear that often comes with discrimination for being darker skinned or having more stereotypical features.

In claiming identity with a community, it’s our responsibility to recognize that we hold many privileges others in our community don’t. There are very likely experiences our community members go through that we’re not readily aware of because of these privileges.

3. Use your privilege as a platform.

Although it can be difficult reconciling with these privileges, we can use and weaponize them to help our communities. At the most basic level, our relative privileges often allow us to access spaces usually unavailable to our community members. By occupying these spaces, we can then uplift others in our community. When we gain a seat at the table, it’s our responsibility to pull up and fill more seats with our community members, and eventually build tables of our own.

One key privilege we’re often allotted is that people outside of our POC community are more likely listen to what we say. Because of this, it’s our responsibility to use this platform to uplift the voices of those within our community who might otherwise be written off. One clear example of this Jesse Williams using his platform as a light-skinned Black man to publicly address the colorism and misogynoir that’s allowed him to be more appealing in the public eye than many others in the Black community. Additionally, don’t just reiterate the ideas of these community members, but give them the credit they deserve, not just because that’s what's right, but to also grant them legitimacy in the eyes of those who might otherwise ignore or disbelieve them.

4. Please, save your Mixed Tears™.

Far too many times I’ve seen mixed people take up far too much space, complaining how they’ve been left out of the narrative, aren’t readily accepted into the community, or are read as being white or part of a different community. Like White Tears™, Mixed Tears™ are often borne from a feeling of entitlement to having our experiences and narratives centered, often disregarding the privileges we carry or how we’ve already been largely catered to. This is especially true with many white-POC mixed people pushing our relatively narrow band of what being mixed can be as the primary narrative of being mixed. While conversations about inclusion of mixed people and narratives are definitely worthy to be had, as I’ve said before, these concerns are often on a much lower scale than the discrimination faced by community members who fit the narrative more. The level of visibility that comes with fitting the narrative also entails being more readily stereotyped and criminalized.

There’s a time and place for these conversations. In my experience, usually when this plays out it’s at the expense of the emotional labor of others in our communities, or is voiced in a way that discredits the efforts being done within communities. Before openly lamenting about the struggles that can come with being mixed, ask yourself several questions:

  • If you’re in a community setting, what is the purpose of the space you’re in?
  • What the goals are for what you’re about to say?
  • How might you be discrediting the work already being done in communities or their histories?
  • How might what you say work to center your narrative, or otherwise unwittingly erase the narratives of those more discriminated against in your community?

Although it may feel like our narratives have been left out, look more closely and see that this is far from true. Historically, mixed people, because of our relative privileges, have been able to rise to greater prominence than others within our community. For an example, look no further than President Obama. While strongly identifying as Black, we can’t ignore that his rise to presidency was largely allowed by him being half white. Even with all the discrimination he faced as president, it would be remiss to think he would’ve been able to get nearly as far politically if he wasn’t half white, even using his “biracial” identity to appeal to Black and white voters.

Realize that as mixed people, in many ways we’re both community members and allies. Although we have struggles of our own that need to be addressed, we can’t let our efforts erase the pains of our communities or the privileges we carry.

5. There's power and security in education and reflection.

In my experience, a lot of strife that comes with being mixed comes from uncertainty or insecurities around claims of identity. Being mixed in the U.S., there’s often a strong pressure to distance ourselves from our non-white sides, causing many of us to grow up distancing ourselves from our cultures and our communities. Assimilation politics can play strong for us mixed folk, and it’s our responsibility in claiming our identities to reject it.

Grappling with lost culture, various privileges, alienation from community, fetishization, and everything else that comes with being mixed can be painful and feel conflicting, but one of your strongest allies in that journey is yourself. Taking time to educate yourself about the full experiences of and issues faced by your communities, as well as reflecting on your own identity and experiences, is crucial to reconciling with these uncertainties and insecurities. Know that you’re not alone in this journey

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