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Tiffany McLain LMFT

A Part and Apart

Here's how to navigate passing and belonging as a multiracial person.

Tiffany note: For the past few months, I have been writing about the experience of white mothers of biracial children. For the next set of articles in this series, I will be sharing the stories of white fathers of biracial children. The following article article is a brief interlude that invites us to consider the experience of the biracial person who has been raised by a white mother, despite being multiethnic.

The following article is written by Bay Area psychotherapist, Deva Segal , MFT. In it, she describes the experience of being a light-skinned biracial person in a society that desires a clear binary when it comes to racial identifications.

“A Part, and Apart”: Passing and Belonging as a Multiracial Person

Being a person of mixed ethnicity who is light skinned and can be read as Caucasian isn’t so simple.

White passing, or not? Ethnic, or not? Privilege on demand, or not? Unpacking the advantages of white privilege while comfortably owning my heritage is a complex matter. It is, by definition, a multilayered and shifting experience depending on the context and stage of life. The influences of one’s cultural upbringing, how one chooses to identify, and how they are received in the environment all play a role.

For people who identify with only one race (or monoracial), this can feel quite ambiguous - because it is. There are no easy conclusions. In response to how to identify as a mixed-race person, Heidi Durrow, author and founder of Mixed Remixed festival for multiethnicity, says, “what we like to say is, ‘I am a story.’ [...] You get to be exactly the story you are, in all of its complication.”

Ion Chiosea/123rf
Source: Ion Chiosea/123rf

My story: I was born in Houston, Texas to a Caucasian mother of European descent who was born in the U.S. My father emigrated from New Delhi, India to Texas when he was 20 years old in 1968, a time of cultural upheaval. My parents met in 1977 and went on to have three daughters before divorcing in 1986. My mother later remarried my Caucasian stepfather. Though I did not live with my father again until my late teens, the connection to my him and Indian culture continued throughout.

Over the course of my life, I have identified myself in many ways: half Indian-half White; just White; Other; South Asian; Desi; multiethnic; biracial; multiracial; light-skinned Indian; light-brown-but-probably-needs-to-go-back-in-the-toaster-a-little-bit-longer. In recent years, I have identified a “publicly white person and privately a person of color” in efforts to acknowledge my privilege. Still, that doesn’t always fit. Half my story is gone. Owning my own experience as a woman of color without apology while still kinda passing for white is a delightful grab bag of identity crises.

The desire for belonging to a greater group is part of being human. And our society has a need to place one another in those clear groups. The instinct comes from older, more primitive parts of our brain evolved to sort objects into categories quickly to make threat assessments. The newer, shinier parts of our brain that understand context and paradox take more physical resources and time to process. The concept of multiracialism is literally more taxing for the viewer to absorb. A visible tension can arise when others don’t know which box to place me in. As an ethnically ambiguous woman, it’s never completely clear how I am received by others and this can create uncertainty - for me, for them. Author and activist Sharon Chang’s work focuses on multiethnicity in the Asian diaspora. She points out , it’s never up to “us” if we pass for white. It’s within the eye of the beholder, and we don’t have full agency to determine when and how it is delivered.

The points in my childhood when I did identify as white were typically when the environment did not support multiple identities (damn you, 90’s choose-one checkboxes!). Couple this with the reality that I was raised early on in white spaces with few other people of color to reference or feel safe with my background. One can imagine why it easier for my little brain to simply drop itself into the “white” box. In my adolescence, that no longer worked. My sense of self was becoming more clear, my environment was becoming more diverse, and I didn’t want the burden of identifying as white for the comfort of others. The shifts in how multiracial kids identify is frequently a balancing act of an internal frame of mind plus how our external environments are responding to us. Those conditions are never static for anyone, but being biracial means managing those waves of change delicately.

On the other side of the spectrum, other South Asians have mostly been welcoming. It genuinely feels good when other South Asians see themselves in me, like a homecoming. Still, I find myself anxious that I don’t quite belong there either. My paranoia and shame abounds with the fear that I’m not really welcome. Are they entertaining me because they’re obligated? Are they proud to have me as one of theirs? Where is the tipping point they will close the doors on me?

Tomas Anderson/123rf
Source: Tomas Anderson/123rf

My inclusion in general POC spaces is a tricky one. While my ethnicity is very rarely discounted, the white privilege I’m afforded and responsible for owning quickly screws up the POC binary, too. Other people of color can respond with a hint of caution. Some openly recognize the complexity that I am holding and accept my lens as meaningful in the POC experience. Some do not. While prejudices I’ve experienced have punctured my bubble, guilt inevitably arises over how much to talk about these experiences as valid in contrast to my other advantages, especially with other people of color. I see myself as a woman of color with light skinned privileges. I hold the duality as both a recipient and an ally of a legacy of oppression and colonialism.

I imagine these explorations of identity contributed in part to my desire to study psychology. People of color, no matter their mix, often seek a therapist who they feel can relate to what it means to be a person of color in the world. Cultural congruence is not a guarantee of a positive therapeutic experience for clients, but POC do not have an abundance of good fit therapists that mirror their racial background. As a psychotherapist, an important part of my work is seeking to understand how our individuality is interwoven with our multiple group identities, cultural experiences, and stories of our ancestors.

One of the values I hold in my clinical work is that, while there are struggles that come with being multiethnic, there are also rewards. My world has been thoroughly shaped by East meets West in many positive ways. The multiracial clients I work with have incredible moments of exploring their biographies and get to honor the contrasting yet fascinating parts of themselves. This has led them to feel immense pride in their heritage. We have a psychological passport to different cultures in ways that a monoracial person cannot. It is a privilege to bring my own multicultural lens to my work when helping multiracial individuals navigate all their parts as we work together to explore their lives in a new way.

So, what’s your story?

Source: Anonymous

Deva Segal, LMFT is a San Francisco-based psychotherapist who works with individual and couple clients in the multiethnic and multicultural experience.

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