On Wednesday 16th December 2020, myself and the wonderful Bekkie Bury from PENGals Bristol held a discussion about White-Passing and Privilege, in an attempt to open up the discourse surrounding the experiences of mixed-race women. We were so pleased that so many WOC turned up and shared their experiences and stories - it was a lovely, safe environment for everyone to learn and relate from each other’s understandings. We explored topics such as: racial identity, family life, university and desirability politics – as well as acknowledging our privilege in being white-passing WOC.
In particular, we wanted to hear from mixed-race WOC who often felt as though their experiences were not valid enough to contribute to discussions about Black, Asian and minority ethnic issues. In light of this, we wanted to reassure these women that their feelings and experiences were completely valid, regardless of if they look Black, or Asian or minority ethnic ‘enough’.
In this article, I’ll overview some of the topics we discussed and the debates which arose. I’ll also offer some reflections on how I feel about my own mixed-race identity, as well as hearing the thoughts of some of our wonderful attendees, who I cannot thank enough for their valuable contributions…
[bf_image id="c4whjtmmnvqrn9bfr9hcnj"] *note at the time of the event we discussed terminology and decided "mixed-race" is what we felt comfortable with - The terms mixed-race, biracial or multiracial are generally accepted.
Part I: White-Passing and Privilege Event: Key Themes & Ideas
Part II: Reflections on Racial Identity – Myself, Jordan, Nadia, Vicky
Part III: Reflections on our Event – Bekkie, Dayana, Jordan
First, here are a few quotes reflecting the struggles and negotiations of mixed-race identity:
“Sometimes I identify as white because it’s easy. … Sometimes I just get tired of explaining who I am, and sometimes I just don’t care to. I also recognize that since I look white I sometimes identify that way because I know that’s what they think”
“It’s often funny and interesting to see people’s reactions when I do tell them that I’m actually half Japanese. ‘Oh, really?. … I guess I can see it. Your cheekbones or maybe a little bit in your eyes.’ But most people, say 8 out of 10, don’t see it at all.”
(Source: The Multiracial Identity Gap)
Part I: White-Passing and Privilege: Key Themes and Ideas
1. ‘Where are you really from?’
This question has in past experiences posed a problem for every single person who attended this event. The problem lay in the overt “othering” in which the question implies – for those of us who already feel different, assumptions of ethnicity or nationality are a reminder that we don’t fit in a box. Moreover, as Ravishankar has stated, it often translates into “you don’t seem to (already) belong here.” The neat boxes that the person has assumed does not reflect the complexities of racial identity. Ultimately, “where are you really from” is reductive.
Yet, equally just “where are you from” leads me to scramble at what answer it is that the person wants – my brain automatically thinks "argh do they want me to say Bolton? Or England? Or India? Or explain my whole family history?!" - When they probably didn't think it was such a complex question!
Instead, we can break down the question and think about what we actually want to know...
- Where were you born?
- Where did you grow up?
- Where are your ancestors from?
- What countries or cultures do you identify with?
First off, as mixed-race WOC who are often white-passing, we had to acknowledge our privilege. We cannot speak for the racism and discrimination felt by many WOC because of their skin colour, nor would we ever want to take up their space - or profess that our experiences are the same. In this discussion, we instead tried to reiterate that being mindful of this, the experiences and feelings of mixed-race WOC are completely valid and they too deserve a voice – especially when concerning the issues we explored at the event...
- For people of mixed-race heritage, negotiating racial identity can be a difficult one. Do we feel ‘white enough’ or ‘ethnic enough’, or do we feel fractured and piecemeal if we are only half of something. (See John Agard’s poem ‘Half-caste’!) Thus, in being both we sometimes feel like neither.
- e.g. We questioned - Do we feel distanced from a part of ourselves because we do not look like that race? (the identity gap - here)
- We discussed what shaped how we view our racial identity, whether its physical appearance, personal values, religion or society etc.
- In light of this, we asked whether this meant we felt we had to justify it, with one attendee feeling like she was on the offensive, having to prove herself or prove her roots/heritage.
- In particular, names are very significant, with racially ambiguous names blurring lines whereas an overly white name seeming to erase racial identity in the eyes of others.
- For many mixed-race people this uneasiness with our racial identity means we can feel like an imposter in either white or non-white spaces. For instance, in a cultural society or BAME network or even at a family function. (See, imposter syndrome)
4. Family Life
- Here we discussed mixed-race experiences growing up: discussing parental attitudes and if they ever had conversations about race and identity. And if so, with which parent?
- Equally, it was really interesting to learn of the first moment when people realised they were mixed-race or felt ‘othered’.
- Language was one of the most significant factors here. For many attendees, not knowing the language that one side of your family speaks is a great barrier, and perfectly reflected the distance and difference felt from part of ourselves.
4. Relationships and Desirability
- One of the key terms here is: fetishisation
- For many of the women that attended our discussion, they felt as if they were viewed as exotic, yet still being ‘white’ enough to be digestible – race in a digestible way for other people.
- For instance, with beauty standards reflecting fetishisation of certain features, some felt a need to combat certain stereotypes e.g. of Latina women
5. Appearance and Colourism
- Here, we discussed whether anyone had tried to look a certain way in regards to their ethnicity e.g. more White to fit in.
- Moreover, we discussed situations where we had felt guilt with embracing our culture for fear of it being viewed as cultural appropriation. For example, wearing traditional clothing or a bindi at a wedding.
Part II: Reflections on Racial Identity
Thoughts on being mixed-race and white-passing
Yasmin Kumari Gledhill – White and Indian
"Growing up in predominantly white schools, the fact that I was mixed-race was something I had to come to terms with on my own. I knew there was something slightly different about me, but I ignored any questioning of my racial identity until I was much older. It wasn’t until I started to talk to my mum about our family history that I started to negotiate how I felt about being mixed-race. My dad’s family are all from Yorkshire, not far from where I grew up – and my mum’s side of the family are from India – pretty far from Bolton! My Nanaji had fled Kashmir during the Partition of India in 1947 and after studying in India, he migrated with my Nana to Southall, London in the 1960s. In the ‘Little India’ (or ‘Little Punjab’) of Southall they found a little terrace near the Gurdwara, and this is where they have been ever since.
With this in mind, when visiting Southall, I often felt ‘too white’. Especially as I can’t speak Punjabi, so this language barrier felt like an all too real metaphor for my distance from that part of myself. Yet, the irony is that in other places I felt I wasn’t quite white enough either. In being both White and Indian, I often felt like I was neither. For instance, I still feel uneasy about going to a BAME event or wearing cultural dress in case people think I’m not actually Indian, or that I don’t look Indian enough. Even when discussing Indian history, I wonder if people think I’m saying too much, when in reality I have extremely close ties to it and in essence it’s the history of my family and my culture. But this reclaiming of my family and culture has been something I’ve had to work on. I’ve really had to reframe my mind to see both sides of this racial identity as ‘me’. Not two fractured pieces, not a piecemeal blend – but me as a full and valid person.
So, I started to shape my racial identity on my own terms, having my own understandings of my heritage and upbringing to view myself from. This was rather than use comments about being ‘half-caste’ or ‘where are you really from’ shape how I saw my identity. I now see my mixed-race identity as something wonderful and I feel really lucky to be able to have access to two cultures and be a bridge for both sides of my family. I love Southall with the sari shops on Broadway, the smell of jalebi, the little burfi boxes that Royal Sweets sells and the incredible pajami suits we get to wear to functions and weddings. And I love that I get to be a part of it all and share the rich and beautiful culture with my family - as well as with my non-Indian friends at home, who are rightly fascinated by it all. So, I’m Yasmin and I’m White and Indian – being both doesn’t mean I’m neither."
Jordan Wylde – White and Indian, with Trinidadian Heritage
“To me, being a white-passing mixed-race woman is to feel estranged from both sides of my cultural and racial heritage. Discomfort among whiteness yet alienation from my Indian-Trinidadian community is a constant, making the journey to self-acceptance an extremely isolating experience.
It is undeniable that my name and complexion grant me privileges and freedoms that are inaccessible to far too many, and for that reason alone it may (rightly or wrongly) seem that any identity struggles I have regarding my ethnicity are a ‘non-problem’.
The more I have learnt about the crimes committed in my (white) name, the more I have struggled to balance my own white guilt with my Indian ethnicity and Trinidadian heritage- and especially so as my Trinidad heritage itself stems from the atrocities of the British Empire.
Hence, the all-too-problematic question, “Where are you really from?” holds a lot of weight for me. Not only are the, “Oh, so you’re white enough to be palatable yet still just about foreign enough to be intriguingly exotic” insinuations that I am so often met with infuriating, but they also reinforce the racial imposter syndrome that follows me in both white and non-white spaces alike.
Navigating whiteness exhausts me. My complexion seems to empower those that outwardly present themselves as ‘anti-racist’ to express their true prejudices under the misguided premise that I will either tolerate or encourage their bigotry. In terms of dating, Caucasian men seem to revel in my identity for only two reasons: Indian cuisine and their overly sexualized fantasies of West Indian women; for all other intents and purposes, I am to remain white-British for them.
Meanwhile, I feel much more culturally connected to my Indian-Trinidadian heritage and yet always more ostracized. My complexion plays a strange role in this disconnect; on the one hand my light-skin is celebrated by the community as the exemplar of Eurocentric beauty, on the other it serves as a constant visual reminder of my mother’s decision to ‘sell out’ on her culture by marrying a white man abroad. Having been raised in Britain with liberal values itself further exasperates this divide as I struggle to passively accept family policing my body and behaviours according to traditional Indian customs.
Ultimately, it sometimes feels like my white-passing name and appearance somewhat betrays my mixed-race identity. It feels hypocritical and self-serving to participate in BAME networks, disclose my mixed ethnicity in job applications and development opportunities, or to wear traditional clothing… like I would be taking up space that is not mine to claim. Yet to actively avoid such situations through fear of disserving those communities would be to erase my authentic identity and, therefore, disservice those same communities.
Being of mixed heritage can be a blessing- to experience multiple cultures, religions, languages, and customs is an opportunity that few are afforded. And being white-passing presents unique complexities that are difficult to truly understand without first-hand experience.”
Nadia Rahma Sajir – Moroccan/Amazigh and White
“I have always struggled with my identity. My dad is a first-generation Moroccan immigrant with brown skin and I’m white passing with blonde hair. Growing up in my family home I was always surrounded by Moroccan culture, from the food I ate to the language we spoke; but outside of my family home my white skin made me an intruder. I often feel like I’m too white to engage in conversations with peers about my African heritage and culture and I’m too ethnic to relate to my peers who are white.
Being white passing makes me feel like my pale complexion is a mask that hides the culture that shaped my identity. I don’t feel safe in any spaces, as my white skin paired with my ambiguous features makes me an outsider everywhere.
Whenever people find out that I’m Moroccan, they almost always make a comment that fetishizes me, whether it be about the size of my bum or my almond shaped green eyes. Nobody ever wants to know about my Moroccan culture or learn about where I’m from. It’s dehumanizing. I’m not a person to them, I feel like they see me as a circus act. It’s like I’m tolerably ethnic.
Society often neglect the experiences of prejudice and racism white-passing people undergo because they assume our white skin gives us complete privilege. This makes my experiences feel invalid.”
Vicky Best – White and Indian
(Foreword from Yasmin: I also owe a lot of my curiosities around racial identity to my dear friend Vicky, whose own reflections on being mixed-race are below. It was quite a moment when we discovered that we both had an Indian mum and a white dad – as at our schools this was definitely a rarity. A spark inside me lit immediately, knowing that it wasn’t just me who had this beautiful hybrid of cultures and therefore a slightly confused racially identity. We were both in this together, and whilst it had affected us is completely different ways, it felt incredible to finally be able to share my experiences with someone. So thank you Vicky, my fellow half-Indian sister! Who I hope will always be there to poke fun at my gradually increasing obsession with Southall!)
“I guess like with many things that made up my identity it is something that has developed over time. I'm not ashamed to say that possibly because of it, or having being informed by it, I did grow up 'colour-blind' and while at the time I thought that this was a 'good' and while it wasn't bad this mentality could have been just as damaging to me and the people around me. As a child I liked being the 'go-between' being able to relate and understand both 'white- culture' and Indian culture, this also meant less gratuitously more comedy fodder for me. While I only really began to question my being mixed race when faced with others who were unable to understand how my family and my life had blurred the lines between cultures leaving me 'relatively' unscathed at the time, and happily, with two Christmases.
It was only when I began to see where the lines of culture and religion with regard to my India family had merged into something that I didn't agree with. Finally taking up the mantel of being a 'feminist' left me in a position where I was, and had always been opposed to some/ if not all of the traditional ideals that didn't favour me as: the youngest female in the family. I am reaching another point or rather corner stone of understanding with regards to my acknowledgment of being mixed race and my place within that, where now I am looking at the intersections between my up-bringing, my being a woman and my being mixed race to find and to acknowledge my position as a human. And am learning to 'respect' the culture which is half of my heritage while being able to be against or rather disagree with ideals that I fundamentally disagree with. I contribute this a lot to moving to uni. I meant people that weren't dumbfounded by the mixed heritage but genuinely interested and I meet this with a suddenly found pride and wanting to share my heritage and aspects of Hindu and Indian culture, while also being able to 'respectfully' and possibly sometimes not so respectable acknowledging what I believed as a part of the first generation of my Indian family to be born in England, and therefore a relatively 'modern woman born in a western country' believed to be short coming. And while I don't enjoy wearing saris or slaving in the kitchen all day to have to eat last and then be met with all the washing up, I do light candles at Diwali to guide Rama and Sita home.
And in the words of my Nanima: 'there is no point holding on to ideas from a 100 years ago you need to do what works for you but you need to keep your faith in you family and the way in which you are with others you need to keep that positive and close to your heart.'”
Part III: Reflections on our Event
Bekkie Bury, Co-Chair – White and Chinese
“I really enjoyed the event and I’m so glad that we have the opportunity to create spaces where women and non-binary people of colour can share their experiences, whilst supporting each other. As white-passing women, I feel we have a unique responsibility to use our privilege for good, but we are also made up of so many different heritages and background that it can be difficult to understand who you really are, or where you really ‘belong’. I am so often conscious of being either not white enough or not Chinese enough, but I learnt so much by listening to the ways other young women are navigating their racial identity. Ultimately, it reminded me how proud and lucky I am to be able to experience multiple incredibly versatile cultures, and to be a part of such a rich history.”
Dayana Soroko – Russian and Kyrgyz
“Explaining where you are ‘from’ can sometimes be exhausting for someone of an ethnic minority- especially when you attend a predominantly white university. Her Campus Bristol, FemSoc and PENGals opened up important discord for non-white but white passing people - who for some reason also feel like they cannot embrace the multiplicity of their ethnicity because they weren’t born there/ cannot speak their family’s language etc. However, the inclusivity of the event encouraged us all to keep embracing and preserving our heritage.”
Jordan Wylde – White and Indian-Trinidadian
“Being of mixed heritage can be a blessing- to experience multiple cultures, religions, languages, and customs is an opportunity that few are afforded. And being white-passing presents unique complexities that are difficult to truly understand without first-hand experience. Events such as this one are incredibly important in order to provide a safe space for mixed-race women to explore such complexities together. Thank you so much to the both of you for creating a supportive and uplifting space to have these discussions!”
I owe special thanks to all of the lovely women who kindly offered their thoughts to help me with the construction of this article. The women below are absolutely wonderful so thank you…