Breaking the Binary? Mixed Race Identities and Marginality


There’s one thing in particular that is plaguing my mind about the anti-racism movement and I think it’s important to talk about it. For those of you who have read my White Feminists Can be Intersectional Feminists Too piece, this is a follow-up, or amendment if you like, on something I touched upon: mixed race identities. In the anti-racism movement, there’s an over-arching rhetoric that people can be classified either as ‘white’ or ‘ethnic minority’ (or, in US politically-correct sanctioned terminology, ‘People of Color’). While I understand that this taxonomy is in place for a reason - to recognise the existence of white privilege in the Western world, and the racial disadvantage faced by those who do not have it - I think such a dichotomous binary categorisation is inherently problematic. We know that race is a social construction, and ‘ethnicity’ often refers to cultural affiliations rather than to one’s so-called ‘blood’.  For one thing, someone who is considered ‘white’ in one country could be considered ‘ethnic minority’ in another, and discriminated against on those grounds. Eastern European migrants in the UK may be considered ‘white’ based on their appearance, but might still encounter prejudice and racism. Class systems work differently in different places; granted, the common denominator is that they almost always privilege whiteness. But each place’s history is different, and by dividing racial classifications into only two categories we are not accurately representing the reality of everybody’s lived experiences.


Furthermore, when reading Pnina Werbner and Talal Modood’s anthology ‘Debating Cultural Hybridity’, one chapter stood out to me in surmising everything that needs to be elucidated about depictions of whiteness. Historical traditions of racism have painted certain pictures of what it is to be ‘black’; that is, inferior to ‘whiteness’. This is what one would call racial essentialism and you don’t need me to tell you about its horrendous consequences. The anti-racism movement therefore often refers to these political categories and brings to the forefront of political debate the fact that ethnic minorities are much more likely to experience racial discrimination, prejudice, and aggression.


The chapter in the anthology I mentioned above put forward an argument with which I agree somewhat. The author Alastair Bonnett argues that, in defining what ‘whiteness’ is - oppressive, discriminatory, privileged - those who put forward this bounded view are therefore defining what ‘blackness’ is in opposition to it. By setting the perimeters of what one category is, the other can be described almost exclusively as its antithesis, and this he argues is holding back the anti-racism movement.


I would like to add to that thought: where do people such as myself fit into this binary? What defines someone as ‘white’ or ‘ethnic minority’? Being part-East Asian and Polish I would say I fit into both categories: white, and ethnic minority. I have lived my life as someone who benefits from white privilege (having others identify me as white, and having a European name, has resulted in exemption from some forms of institutional racism, for example) but also have experienced some racial disadvantage and microaggressions (being ‘othered’, exoticised, having strangers shout ‘where are you from?’ as I walk down the street) – albeit not to a great extent. Likewise I have mixed friends who have had similar experiences. There are also people who might be from, say, Latino or Jewish heritage but look ‘white’ (this is called ‘white-passing’) and have a European-sounding name, and therefore are treated by society as if they are white. The same goes for the reverse. The white/BME binary has resulted in people, like myself, on the borders of it, feeling excluded from both and not feeling like we have a legitimate claim to either a white or an ethnic minority identity. Or perhaps we are privileged because we are able to claim both? In either case, we occupy a marginal space. Due to the rule of hypodescent, or the ‘one drop rule‘ where even having ‘one drop’ of black blood would make someone be classified as black by wider society), people of mixed white/black heritage have been classified as ‘black’. While this has had negative consequences, it means biracial people of this heritage have been able to legitimately claim an ‘ethnic minority’ identity. Although this is far from ideal, because there is a struggle to have their white heritage validated by others, it means these people do fit into one of the white/BME categories - whether by their choosing or not.


This is not to say that the white/BME distinction does not serve any purpose; rather, its existence allows measures such as affirmative action to be put into place, and for white privilege to be called out on. However I would say it also perpetuates the notion that the two groups of people are to be separate, in a political capacity at least. Perhaps in dispelling this binary, not only would it give mixed people a chance to be included, but it would allow for greater unity between minority ethnic people and their white allies. Or even acknowledging the existence of a middle ground – that these categories are not static, but circumstantial – might be a huge step forward in paving a way for discourse on mixed race identities and the identities of migratory groups to emerge.

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