Rethinking Identity: Unravelling The Complexities Of The Mixed-Race Experience
At the heart of The Vanishing Half by Brit Bennett, Service95 Book Club’s Monthly Read for November, is an exploration of the nuances and complexities that come with being mixed race, told from two very different perspectives. Here, Aaliyah Cotton shares how learning to embrace her multi-ethnic heritage has transformed her sense of self
Brown. Tan. Dark. Mixed. Exotic. Exotic. Exotic.
Throughout my life, the word ‘exotic’ has been both a blessing and a burden when used to describe my multi-ethnic background. My father was born in the US from a South African father and an African American mother, while my mother was born in Okayama of Japanese descent. These two met in a serendipitous encounter at a Japanese nightclub in Okinawa, where my mother was DJing in 1992. Somehow, even with the language barrier, they still managed to find love across the dance floor.
In the beginning, they experienced a lot of joy and happiness while living in various places across the US – Montana, Chicago and Florida – but after several years, my parents divorced. I was around four years old when I went to live with my mother and her family in Okayama, in the countryside of Japan. Living far away from Tokyo, my unique skin tone often drew lingering gazes and baffled expressions, making me painfully aware that I did not fit in. Halle Berry summed up the feeling well when she said, “Being a mixed-race child, I didn’t always see colour in people… it was other people that made me see the colour all the time.”
Today, more and more children are born multi-racial. In the United States, the Population Reference Bureau found that people who identify with two or more races was the fastest growing group, increasing by 36% from 2010 to 2020. In England and Wales, 1.7million people identified as mixed-race in the 2021 census, up by almost 50% since 2011. This upward trend will continue as technology opens new doors for people to connect all over the globe.
When we are born into the world, we don’t have a predisposition to hate people who look different to us. It is something that we must be taught. The actual concept of race is an entirely social construct, without biological meaning. It was developed by European philosophers in the 1700s as a way to categorise the world, and then as a justification for the dehumanisation of non-white people.
One of its many legacies for mixed-race people like me, is the need to come to terms with our identity in a racially delineated world. It wasn’t until my mid-twenties that I learned how to fully embrace my multi-ethnic heritage, and once that happened, it was like a switch had been turned on inside me. I wasn’t in a position where I could turn to family to discuss my feelings about this topic. I knew they loved me, but what I was experiencing wasn’t something they could easily relate to. This put me on the path of devouring books, absorbing podcasts and educating myself on different cultures and races, with one question always flashing in the back of my mind: how are people learning to rethink identity based on their ethnic background?
It was this exploration that made me realise: whatever our ethnic background, we all encounter moments of feeling unseen, unheard, or misunderstood due to our uniqueness. Former US President Barack Obama – who is also of mixed heritage – summed it up beautifully when he said, “My identity might begin with the fact of my race, but it didn’t, couldn’t, end there. At least, that’s what I choose to believe.”
Understanding The Mixed-Race Experience: 5 Recommended Books & Podcasts
- Code Switch from NPR – an insightful podcast delving into broader societal issues that impact people of all races.
- Asian Enough from the LA Times – a captivating podcast that explores the multifaceted experiences of the Asian American life.
- Militantly Mixed by Sharmane Fury – a podcast unafraid to address the complex issues faced by individuals of mixed-race heritage.
- Born A Crime by Trevor Noah – a compelling novel that promises to tug at your heartstrings as you dive headfirst into Noah’s mixed-race past.
- What Are You? Voices Of Mixed-Race Young People by Pearl Fuyo Gaskins – an inspiring compilation of interviews between the author and the future generation of mixed-race youth.
Aaliyah Cotton is a Hawaii-based author of fiction with a passion for YA, fantasy, and sci-fi novels