Passing: Multiracial identity in a divided America

Back to Article
Back to Article

Passing: Multiracial identity in a divided America

Art by Rabia Muhammad and Ben Black

Art by Rabia Muhammad and Ben Black

Art by Rabia Muhammad and Ben Black

Art by Rabia Muhammad and Ben Black

Gwyneth Morgan, Podcaster, Writer

Hang on for a minute...we're trying to find some more stories you might like.

Email This Story

The 2016 Election marked the eruption of nationwide unrest in America. Partisan politics were amplified, further polarizing the country and its people. Disagreements and a pressure to choose between two opposing sides became more prevalent than any other time in the 21st century, particularly in the realm of race relations.


Amidst this divide exists a multiracial identity crisis in which those who identify with multiple races have trouble understanding where they fit in.


Rachel Hong, a graduate student at American University who works with the Asian-American Student Union and The Center for Diversity & Inclusion explained that being multiracial can make it difficult to navigate certain situations.


Hong, who is a quarter Japanese, a quarter Korean, and half Irish-American, explained:


“I often felt way too Asian for white spaces and my white relatives, and I feel really really white compared to my Asian relatives as well. So, it’s like you’re never quite enough of anything to feel like you totally relate. Same thing with Asian spaces with my peers as well. I just never feel like I have the full Asian or Asian American experience.”


Struggling to find a place of acceptance is not new to the multiracial community.


Yuni Higgs, another biracial student at AU, described what it was like to grow up as Korean and white.


“I’ve struggled a lot trying to figure out where I fit in,” Higgs said. “A lot of the time people tell me I’m not really Asian or I’m not really white, so growing up, I struggled a lot to find a community.”


Multiracial people in America continue to face a schism in identity. While most multiracial people have genuine connections and understandings of their cultures, they often struggle to find authentic acceptance in their communities and continue to battle with the dread of being ‘other.’


According to Pew Research Center, out of the 6.9 percent of U.S. adults that identify as multiracial, 1 in 8 say that their mixed racial background has made them feel like an outsider.


Leah Donnella, a news assistant for NPR’s Code Switch podcast, reflected on her experience growing up as half black and half white:


“I just wanted to be unambiguous and I think for me that meant wanting to be unambiguously black all the time,” said Donnella. “That was hard also because I grew up in an extremely white place. There were not a lot of other black kids, so I was kind of, in some ways, trying to create a community that didn’t exist.”


The inability to find and create communities is something all too familiar for multiracial people. Although Pew Research Center notes that about 9 million American chose to identify with two or more races as of 2013, there still appears to be minimal room for acceptance into existing communities or the creation of distinctly multiracial communities.


According to a report from Gretchen Livingston, a senior researcher with Pew Research Center, the number of multiracial children in America has nearly tripled from 5 percent in 1980 to 14 percent as of 2015. About half a century after Loving v. Virginia, the Supreme Court case that legalized interracial marriage, about 17 percent of new marriages are multiracial couples, the report states.


Even with this steady rise in the multiracial population, the 2010 U.S Census did not include a category for those who identify as multiracial and will not include it in 2020.


The path to acceptance is further blurred for multiracial people who are white passing or have the privilege of being accepted in society as white instead of a person of color. For many multiracial people, this white-passing privilege can further isolate them from the communities of color they feel connected to.


“I’m very, very aware of the passing privilege I have,” Hong explained.


“Even within my own family I have sisters who look way more Asian than I do and I have a different experience navigating the world than they do. I personally… always am more cautious identifying as a woman of color because I am more white passing and when people do think I’m not white…it’s seen as very beautiful thing that I’m half Asian and half white. So while that is oppressive in one way, I’m not in physical harm because of my identity,” said Hong.


Many multiracial people continue to face oppression, regardless of being white-presenting. Beyond the white privilege that works to benefit them in society, their identity can be a target of racial exotification.  


The experience of multiracial people, even if they are white passing, still isn’t exactly synonymous to their single-race counterparts.


“I just never feel like I have the full Asian or Asian American experience, but I’m clearly not living the same lives as my white friends who are blonde and assumed to be from here,” Hong said.


Being white passing can limit a person’s connection to their racial identities, causing them to feel like an outsider because of appearance and cultural understanding.


The same struggles are often experienced by those whose races contradict. When identifying with two races that have historically been defined as the oppressor and the oppressed, it can be even more difficult to form deeply rooted associations to each culture. While one may feel connected to their cultures, acceptance within each community can be challenging to find.


Donnella explained that it has been an ongoing question and journey to figure out what it means to have a white mom and a black dad and where that positions her in relation to other people.


“I always have the sense that there are big parts of what it means to be part of either group that I don’t have, that I haven’t experienced.” Donnella said. “I’ve never felt really rejected from any group, but I felt the need to do some explaining or qualifying in my own mind and having to [say] it’s okay that I haven’t had these experiences or I don’t connect over this thing because, nobody can do that for any group, for everything.”


When one’s racial identity is comprised of opposing races, it can be even more difficult, especially if each racial group has experienced drastically different societal experiences.


“I think it’s not that I ever wanted to change my race, I just wanted things to be easier.” Donella said. “I think part of that was the fact that I was in a very, very white place and there just wasn’t a lot of space to be different in so many different ways and race was certainly one of those ways. So, I don’t think I ever wanted it to be white, I wanted [my race] to not be an issue”


Donnella makes specific reference to an interaction between her and her mom:


I remember one time I was a freshman at college and my mom came to visit me and she asked me, this broke my heart, she said, ‘Are you embarrassed that I’m your mom?’ Because I was walking around campus. And I said, ‘No, I’ve never been embarrassed about that’.”


At American University, some efforts have been made to create spaces for multiracial people to share their experiences. The Center for Diversity and Inclusion has hosted Multiracial Mixers and plans to host more, but there is still room for improvement.



“I don’t think AU is particularly worse than anywhere, I just think that our conversation about race is really bad,” Hong said.


“We just haven’t figured out how to do it [in a way] that makes space for a variety of identities or experiences. And I don’t think that’s just about multiracial people, I think that’s just about making spaces for women of color in conversations about race, making space for LGBT people in conversations about race, along with people who grew up in different racial identity. A lot of students don’t feel like they have space to express their full identities, because there is so little space to be a minority student at all,” she said.


As a result, some people who identify as multiracial are trying to find a place in their respective racial communities and different social environments while also getting involved in activism around issues concerning people of color.


“I work at CDI right now, and we are trying to make space, like just invite people to eat food and to talk about whatever they want to talk about when it comes to their racial identity…So there’s steps,” Hong explained. “There’s definitely faculty and staff on campus who are very interested in this. And there’s a lot of students as well. A lot of leaders of student organizations identify as multiracial. But I think we are working to make it a whole thing, that students know that there is a community here,” she said.


Since race is such an integral part of someone’s identity, being multiracial can make it hard to find a sense of community. However, being multiple races can help how people understand the world around them and how they understand themselves.  


“It’s not that I ever wanted to change my race, I just wanted things to be easier,” Donnella explained. “I think part of that was the fact that I was in a very, very white place and there just wasn’t a lot of space to be different in so many different ways and race was certainly one of those ways. So I don’t think I ever wanted to be white, but I wanted it to not be an issue.”