As someone identifying as multiracial, people often tell me, “Mixed people are the bridge between races.”
While true that multiculturalism is defined as the coming together of multiple races or cultures, I’ve always wondered why we pressure our children to fill the gaps between our families and racial factions of our country and of our world?
This month I met with Noha Elbahouty, the co-founder of Seattle Pacific University’s Mixed Student Union (MSU). Upon moving to Seattle, Elbahouty yearned to explore new cultures and understand her own, in part because of her engaging with her friends’ relationships to their own cultures. But, at Seattle Pacific University, she never found a club in which she belonged. This led to the birth of Culture Shock, later named MSU, a club designed to support other multiethnic and multicultural individuals that are looking for community, self understanding and connectivity.
Growing up in Duvall, a small town north of Seattle, her early sense of identity was informed by the primarily white demographics.
“I didn’t realize being mixed was a thing,” Elbahouty said.
Many people did not understand the implications of being mixed, including her own parents. No one else seemed to understand how she felt being constantly questioned for her identity. But no place is perfect and Elbahouty continues to feel marginalized in more diverse settings.
To anyone who asks about her ethnicity, Elbahouty explains that she is half Egyptian from her father’s side and half white from her mother’s.
“[I often hear] ‘That’s so cool. That’s so interesting’ [in response],” said Elbahouty.
Although meant as a compliment, this sort of response makes her and other multiracial people like her feel ostracized — as if their identities are a form of entertainment.
She once heard “that’s so ethnic” after providing her name to a college professor. Upon explaining that her name comes from Arabic, the language spoken in her dad’s country, the professor continued to question why she was now studying in Seattle.
“I was born here,” Elbahouty responded.
Regardless of her discomfort, these interactions trigger the need for her to make others feel comfortable because many don’t recognize the impact of what they’re saying. This conversation is experienced by most people who look foreign in our society, but those asking these intrusive questions remain oblivious to that fact.
So, mixed people feel the need to explain themselves because society teaches us that our ambiguity or our darkness is disconcerting. People can’t simply look at us and have an idea of where we’re from or how we’ll act and their probing questions reflect their discomfort. But in our society, mixed people have also become conditioned to entertain these questions and offer answers because to do otherwise would silently confirm their assumptions: that we are unknown and, therefore, dangerous.
But in our society, mixed people have also become conditioned to entertain these questions and offer answers because to do otherwise would silently confirm their assumptions: that we are unknown and, therefore, dangerous.
From Elbahouty’s and my own experiences, when passersby ask someone ethnically ambiguous to explain their backgrounds, it is not out of sincere interest in the other person or curiosity in their culture. Reflecting together on our shared discomfort around these encounters, Elbahouty and I determined that many people ask this question in the interest of making themselves more comfortable around us.
It is a result of white supremacist culture in that they feel entitled to know exactly what we are and hear satisfactory answers. In response, we feel an inescapable responsibility to engage with their personal questions, even if they’re strangers to us, to put them at ease. If not, we are submitting to their labeling of us as mysterious, unknown and threatening.
Yet the questioning does not end here for Elbahouty and many others of mixed identity.
Elbahouty described a pattern that deeply resonated with me: people often seem more comfortable talking about race to someone who is half-Black than someone who is full-Black. Growing up, I noticed this, too.
“Oh is that racist?” people have asked me after making jokes about Black culture. Others have asked why the “n” word is oppressive. I have even had people ask why my parents chose to marry outside of their race and express how uncommon this seemed to them.
Deferring to mixed people with questions like these, assuming they are not equally disrespectful when directed to us, insinuates that we are not an equal part of this ethnicity. Ultimately, their comfort in these interactions at the cost of our own makes us feel invalidated and self-conscious about our multiracial backgrounds.
“I don’t want to feel like I have to educate people all the time — I barely understand myself,” Elbahouty said.
Last updated 11/22/20
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