Mixed Race Identity And Embracing Ambiguity
Ailsa writes about her struggle with identity as a mixed race kid and how she’s coming to terms with it.
‘You don’t look Scottish.’
I joked about it and I still joke about it. But that comment hurt me.
I had just stepped off the train, floated through the glorious bustle of Edinburgh Waverley and was now exfoliating my hands for free with a hand scrub whose price was so far out of my spending power that I felt I had somehow cheated the system. My hands were feeling soft and I was happy to be home. And now this.
The man dispensing samples of the aforementioned hand scrub had asked me, ‘Where are you from?’ This was not an unreasonable question given our proximity to the train station and me being laden with bags so I explained that I’d just arrived back home to visit my family. His response was an exclamation mark wrinkle of surprise down his expensively moisturised brow and those words: ‘But you don’t look Scottish.’
I laughed, as I often do in situations where I feel uncomfortable. Then I asked what he meant. There was a pause. Confusion writing further creases across that impeccable forehead and then, ‘I mean…you’re too gorgeous to be Scottish’.
My comeback to this one was quick ‘Are you saying Scottish people aren’t beautiful?’ and he stumbled over it.
I listened as he told me that my skin was too good to look like I live here, in the cold, in the rain, and I used that skin’s elasticity as best I could to express my disbelief at his increasingly desperate comments.
Later on I Snapchatted my friends about it. I joked about it and I still joke about it. But that comment hurt me. I hadn’t been back home for six months and the first thing somebody said to me implied that I didn’t belong there. It particularly hurt because, since moving to Bristol in 2011, I’d proudly proclaimed my Scottish identity. It was an otherness I was willing to embrace in this new city full of southerners. It was a much more homely, truthful and grounding otherness compared to the more alienating and less relatable labels of foreign, Chinese, Malay and Asian. I am fully Scottish and I feel that, despite various encounters with people like moisturiser man. I have never felt fully Chinese or Asian though. And I have never felt foreign in the UK. I’m mixed race.
Moisturiser man’s comment shook me because ‘Scottish’ was a big part of the complex identity I had been constructing over the past few years. It was built out of a desperation to own my origins, to lay claim to everything I was and could be before another stranger came along and –like moisturiser man– took that away from me with their own words. It was an identity so multifaceted that if it were a diamond it would’ve been cut down to dust by this stage.
Mixed race people often get held up as proof that we now live in a post racial utopian society.
Mixed race people often get held up as proof that we now live in a post racial utopian society. We often get told that we are ‘exotic’ and ‘unusual’ and are expected to take it as a compliment. People love to talk about mixed race folks’ ethnic ambiguity and how beautiful and mysterious we are as a result. How we are the ultimate symbol of the generation preceding us overcoming racial prejudice because all we need is love and everything will be fixed.
Now, I’m not rejecting love’s role in making the world a better place. But the argument that mixed race kids and interracial couples are solving racism purely through existing is flawed. It rests on the assumption that mixed race folks and interracial couples are not racist, which is not true. Sexism is still rife despite the number of people in heterosexual relationships, and racism still very much exists within many interracial relationships. Likewise, I have had to work through –and am still very much in the process of– unlearning my own internalised racial prejudice against Chinese people, and my racism towards other people of colour.
…the argument that mixed race kids and interracial couples are solving racism purely through existing is flawed.
The ‘mixed race babies equals post racial utopia’ argument also puts a huge amount of pressure on those babies. Having people –whether on a familial or societal level– expect you, as an individual, to be a magical bridge between disparate cultures is exhausting. I want to exist for myself. That at times is tricky enough without the added responsibility of representing peace and unity between races. The discourse around ‘adorable’ and ‘beautiful’ mixed race kids all too often erases the ensuing struggle with identity when you are neither one nor the other and very much not living in a post racial utopian society. When you are neither one nor the other and very much living in a society that continually tells you that you are either us or the other. Where strangers feel compelled to tell you where you belong and where you do not.
Over the years inhabiting the ‘ethnically ambiguous’ flesh prison that is my body I have had countless people ask ‘Where are you from?’ and, upon hearing ‘Scotland’ ask again, ‘No, where are you really from?’ I’ve had people shout all the East Asian countries they can think of at me in the street as I walk by as if expecting me to put my hand up when they come across the right one and go ‘Yup. That’s me. You got me’. (Joke’s on them: there is no right one.) I’ve had people ask me ‘What are you?’ straight to my face and expect me to calmly give them an answer. And I’ve had people straight up to refuse to accept that my dad is my father. I’ve even had my dad mistaken as my husband when I was 14, at the gynaecology department no less. On the more subtle level I’ve had people fold up their foreheads in concentration as their eyes crawl over my face and body trying to identify me through the features that don’t quite fit ‘Asian’ but aren’t all white either.
The recurring theme over all of these interactions is that to many, I am a puzzle to be solved. Before I am human, I am a mystery. Before I am human, I must have some easily recognisable label stamped over my freckled face with its flat nose and monolidded eyes. But of course there is no neat label.
No one has a concise label. But most people aren’t regularly having labels desperately thrown at them like a lasso. Having spent many years evading said lassos, you begin to question why. Why the desperation to etch countries on my face and stick ‘made in…’ labels on my soles? It is a very human trait to categorise. Categorising means we can assume. It’s a kind of shortcut to knowing what to believe about somebody. And when you are not easily categorised, it upsets people. They get desperate. They don’t know how to treat you because you are something they have never encountered before so they try and fit you into their prefab boxes which are inevitably too cheap and small.
I’ve had people shout all the East Asian countries they can think of at me in the street…
For a long time, my response to this labelling from others was to create my own, far more complex label. My reasoning was that I could fight others’ pens if I had one of my own. It was empowering to be able to scrawl my own identity across my body. To stop anyone else writing their words on me by leaving no space for anything other than what I had chosen. I found myself constantly trying to get closer to encapsulating my identity by writing a list of words that only ever got longer. I would unwind this list from my tongue in response to people’s insistence that I tell them what categories I fitted into and enjoy the confusion on their faces as I reeled off this list of –to them– contradictory words. But it was never a completely satisfactory response.
I began talking a lot more to other people, discovered fantastic resources like We Are All Mixed Up, Mixed Race Problems tumblr and Mixed Race Politics. I became a photographer with gal-dem.com and met lots of other people who were made to feel like they don’t belong to the places they’ve called home. Who also felt like they were always being pulled in many directions across the globe but never allowed to be all in one place.
The mixed race community is very much an unusual one. In that, everyone has vastly different experiences and upbringings and cultures, but the one uniting thing is a sense of not quite belonging. Of not having a clear label of Who You Are. And it’s that which brings us together. So that is what I focus on now: on embracing uncertainty. Now, when people impose the question ‘Where are you from?’ on me, I don’t try and answer concisely or even at all. I think instead about why that question is important. Do I need to feel like I’m from any one place? In a world with increasingly blurred borders and blended identities it is freeing to not feel tied to one nation, home or culture. It is terrifying too, because I have been told my whole life that my narrative needs to be anchored in where I came from, but more and more I am experiencing it as liberating. I am focussing less on where my I want to belong and more on who accepts me with all my messy multifaceted diamond dust which I sprinkle liberally wherever I go. Now, home is not a place but the feeling of safety and contentment which comes from being around people I love and who love me in return. It is not constant but neither am I.
The mixed race community is very much an unusual one. In that, everyone has vastly different experiences and upbringings and cultures, but the one uniting thing is a sense of not quite belonging.
Not having a defined identity gives you space to move about, to change, to be Scottish, a Bristolian, Asian, Chinese, Eurasian, Malay, European… all at once. It does not make you a bridge between cultures but it does let you see how arbitrary the borders you are laid across are. And those shifting lines and walls in the sand are still tricky but they are fun to play with too –to build new castles out of that no one expected. Being confused and confusing is powerful: it allows you to pull people who have never been stretched between worlds into new ones.
Of course there are still pressures to perform my identity in different ways from other sources. And people still try and figure me out before asking me how my day’s going. But that one person who I always have to live with –myself– is much more content with ambiguity than any other words I, or others, have put on me. Ambiguity gives me the flexibility to always be me, whatever version that may be. So no, my mixed race identity and I are not your post racial society personified but my ambiguity is a challenge. One I want you to accept.
The Unity Youth Forum is a great space for BAME voices to be heard.