clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

6 things I wish people understood about being biracial

According to the results of a DNA test I took recently, my ancestors on my father's side are mostly from West Africa (via Arkansas), and the ones on my mom's side come from Europe. When strangers inquire about my racial background, I tend to try to de-escalate their interest. I say things like, "I'm just your run-of-the-mill mixed person with a white mom and a black dad." In other words: nothing super exotic. Nothing to see here.

Why am I so dismissive? I'm a little self-conscious about engaging in excessive navel-gazing regarding my racial identity. It hasn't been particularly difficult for me to manage. If anything, it may have made life easier for me and meant I've encountered less racism than people who have two parents who identify as black. I definitely don't consider myself a "tragic mulatto."

And with 9 million Americans selecting more than one race on the last Census — not to mention a president who has a white mother and a black father — it's hard to argue that being "mixed," "multiracial," or "mulatto" (I've been called all of those) in 2015 is really all that unusual.

But I can't deny that as long as race and racism are hot topics in our culture, biracial and multiracial people will continue to be a source of curiosity and fascination. Confession: even I find myself looking a little longer at mixed-race families on the streets of Washington, DC, craning my head to see which parent the children resemble most and wondering how they'll see themselves. As a writer, I've been amazed by the way articles about interracial couples, families, or biracial children intrigue readers every single time. My guess is that it's because these stories provide fodder for people to grapple with the nuances of their own identities and push the limits of racial categories, which is itself sort of fascinating.

So there's nothing wrong with the continued curiosity about the experience of biracial people — whether their parents identify as black and white or some other combination society sees as interesting — but there are a few things I'd like people to know about those of us who are living it.

1) "Blewish," "Blexican," "just human": what we call ourselves is idiosyncratic

Biracial people might call themselves black, white, Asian, Latino, mixed, a "rainbow baby," "just human," a "person of color," "Blewish," "Blexican," or some other label they've concocted that perfectly describes their self-conception. This choice might be a political statement, into which they've put a lot of thought and energy. But it's just as likely to be a simple reflection of what sounds and feels right to them at a particular point in their life, or that it reflects an early internalization of how other people saw them.

Regardless, the labels we choose aren't about you, and while you're definitely entitled to think of us in whatever way makes sense to you, you don't get a vote when it comes to how we identify. Even if you're one of our parents.

I'm lucky that my mother and father have always understood this. They completely deferred to me, from the time I was a child who shunned racial labels altogether (because I'd picked up on the idea that they were taboo, and I didn't want to stand out as different), to when in high school I made friends with three other girls who had families just like mine and we — I cringe writing this — called ourselves "Halfricans," to when I went to Howard University, a historically black college, and decided that being biracial was just one way of being black.

I definitely don't consider myself a "tragic mulatto"

I've noticed that some people are much less tolerant. They get tied up in knots when people identify in ways that don't square with their own worldviews or racial math. Check the comments on any article that refers to Obama as the first black president, and you'll find someone lamenting that he is just as much white as he is black — half and half! — and it doesn't make sense to call him African-American. But he's chosen a descriptor that reflects his life experience, and, hard as it is for some to accept, we don't get to dictate what other people call themselves.

The same deference should be given to those who identify as black and white, or black and Asian, or Asian and Latino, or some other combination, refusing to choose only one label or check only one box. It's really important to some biracial people that all parts of their heritage are acknowledged equally. That doesn't necessarily mean they're rejecting the parts that jump out at others as the most physically obvious or politically salient. (It also doesn't mean they don't understand that they may face racism based on the way they look, versus the way they feel. It's just that racial identity is a calculation that's more complicated than a simple reaction to prejudice.)

The best bet is to accept that people's labels for themselves reflect only one thing: what's true to them.

2) What we call ourselves might change. Often. It doesn't mean we're confused.

If there's a dominant stereotype associated with biracial and multiracial people, it's that we're confused about who we are. But let's be honest: the very idea of dividing humans into racial categories is confusing. Who's in? Who's out? Where are the borders of each group? Who gets to decide?

When a person whose heritage is more complicated than average adjusts what she calls herself over the course of life, it's not a sign of being racially schizophrenic. It's simply a reflection of the fact that the main handful of racial categories have their limitations and that they can change with time, place, and perspective. This malleability may show up in our lives in more obvious ways than it does in the lives of people who know for sure they only check one box, but it doesn't mean we're unstable, unsure of ourselves, or conflicted about who we are.

We might even have different answers when discussing our personal, political, social, and cultural identities. This is a perfectly normal and level-headed reaction to a society in which the information people are looking for when they ask "What are you?" might be different depending on whether they're a census-taker, someone in your group of friends, a school or employer gauging interest in affinity groups, your doctor, or your hairstylist.

3) We're probably not interested in conducting an impromptu press conference on our identity

This experience isn't unique to biracial or multiracial people. Gay people, very tall people, people with mental and physical disabilities, people who are overweight or have recently lost a lot of weight, people who speak with accents, and pregnant women (just to name a few groups) all have to go out into the world bracing for well-meaning but invasive questions and comments from colleagues and perfect strangers who feel just a little too entitled to having their curiosity satisfied.

This phenomenon is especially striking when it comes to biracial and multiracial people, though. It seems to me that because race is so important in our society, some are very unsettled when they can't place someone immediately.

That's when the questions start coming: what are you? What are your parents? Where are you from? Where are you from from? Which of your parents is white? Do you choose one side over the other?

The questions aren't, on their face, offensive — but they're invasive, and, just like any other queries about details of someone's family, feelings, or upbringing, they can make for uncomfortable, too-personal small talk for those of us who don't like to be put on the spot.

4) We may or may not be sophisticated about or interested in issues related to race

I happen to be really interested in race, racial identity, and racism. This might be the result of what I've learned about these topics from an academic perspective or because I'm so struck by the way ethnicity has colored the experiences of my friends and family, black and white alike.

I think it's common as biracial people for our experiences and observations, and the way people react to us, to inspire us to think more than the average person about race. We may even think we have a little bit of special insight because of the different cultures in which we're embedded. Obama, for example, seemed to display this when he drew on his experience growing up with a white mother and grandmother in his famous race speech.

Because race is so important in our society, some are unsettled when they can't place someone right away

But this isn't the case for all biracial or multiracial people. In fact, a lot of us were raised by parents whose choice to be in an interracial relationship went hand in hand with the fact that they considered themselves postracial, or colorblind, or that they thought it was tacky or wrong to pay a lot of attention to race.

For example, a reader emailed me recently to say that when her own mixed-race daughters ask about their complexions, as compared with each others' and those of their friends, she simply says, "God doesn't see color." These children probably won't grow up with any deeper level of racial insight than the average American.

That's why although we provide a lot of fodder for people interested in talking and thinking about the complications of race, there's a decent chance that we were trained to do the opposite, and people who meet us shouldn't assume that we're oracles of racial insight or that we make a hobby out of talking about race relations.

5) There's no one biracial experience

This shouldn't be a surprise, given the 9 million–plus Americans who identify with more than one race.

That's not even including the majority of black people in America who have some European ancestry even though they have two parents who identify as black — some of them consider themselves biracial, and some of them don't. Many white people have "hidden" African ancestry, too.

Given the thousands of possible variations in heritage, and the way attitudes toward race can change with geography, culture, and even within individual families, it's futile to try to make generalizations about how our lives look, how we feel, or how we make sense of the different parts of our heritage.

6) We don't necessarily see ourselves as messengers of racial harmony

"Soon everyone will look like you!"

"One day we'll all be mixed!"

"Beautiful biracial children will show everyone that love has no color."

These are all things I've heard over the years from people who are really hopeful about eliminating racism. These people seem to think — not entirely unreasonably, I guess — that the increasing numbers of biracial and multiracial Americans represent the wave of the future and will be ambassadors for understanding, making it harder for us to judge one another and discriminate against one another based on race.

Despite these hopeful comments, there's no evidence that people like me spark racial healing

But personally, I'm put off by the idea that people who look and identify like those on either side of my family have to be wiped out in order to address racism. Plus, to the extent that this scourge has been addressed in American history, it's taken a lot more than people simply showing up and being racially ambiguous. (Just think: the children who were born to white slaveowners and enslaved black women didn't do much to change the minds of people who were prejudiced against African Americans. And Barack Obama's presidency has actually triggered increased racial polarization in American politics). So while these hopeful comments about a mixed-race future are well intended, there's no evidence that people like me spark racial healing.

That's not to say the lives of biracial people can't provide any insight into, or spark fascinating conversations, about American culture. They can. But there's more to be gained from paying attention to our experience now than there is from figuring out how we'll be useful in the future.

Jenée Desmond-Harris is a staff writer for

First Person is Vox's home for compelling, provocative narrative essays. Do you have a story to share? Read our submission guidelines, and pitch us at

Even Better

What to know about the new FAFSA

Social Policy

You can’t even pay people to have more kids

Even Better

My ADHD makes it hard to manage money. What should I do?

View all stories in Life