An Interview and a Snapshot
Updated: Sep 8, 2019
Recently, I was contacted by someone out of state who wanted to interview me for a documentary they are filming for their thesis. They needed a professional or expert to discuss Mixed identity. I said no a couple of times due to time constraints as well as concerns about the project. A portion was sent to me that featured a White mother offering commentary about her Mixed children that was problematic - tone deaf comments about "good hair" and her perspective that her kids had no problems with their racial identity. After being reassured that this was exactly why they were seeking my perspective to add, I agreed to answer their questions via email.
I thought my answers turned out to be a pretty good snapshot of where I was at in December 2017 in the way I would describe my perspectives and experiences. It's always tricky as a therapist to answer personal questions. Part of me wants to be completely transparent when talking about being Mixed, and part of me knows I need to take good care of my boundaries. It's a flexible balance. The questions and my answers:
What has your experience been and how has it influenced your work? What adversity have you faced if any being mixed?
I self-identify as Mixed. My father was from Nigeria, and my mother is a White woman from Minnesota, whose heritage is Scandinavian. I was raised with my mother's White family only, as my father was deported. I met my father by traveling to Nigeria alone at the age of 29.
I grew up in Minneapolis, MN, in the 1980s. It wasn't very diverse at that time, though it currently has the largest multiracial birth rate in America, as well as a large immigrant and refugee population. The family I grew up in was White: some extended family by marriage were known racists but accepted me as an individual; other close family members would never consider themselves racist, though they had their own unexamined racism and biases which I was aware of even as a small child. I was always aware of my uniqueness within the family, being the only Brown person among all the White people. And I was aware that two things could be true at the same time - like people being racist (overtly or covertly) and loving me very much.
My mother, a single parent, had a diverse friend group and dated almost exclusively Black men. I noticed her code switching to fit in with the different groups of people, and felt her judgment when I didn't do it - I think I was bad at it and it just seemed very phony to me. I talked like I talked, as raised by White people. I have early memories of Black kids insulting me for how I talked, while also insinuating that because of the way I talked and looked, I thought I was better than them. As a result of this and other factors, I learned to be very quiet as a child, to not voice my opinion, and to get my self-esteem where I could - by excelling in school. As a kid I noticed that Black kids were more likely not to accept me and to berate me, and White kids were more likely to accept me as an individual if I downplayed my race. Eventually I gravitated toward Asian kids (also neither Black nor White) and later to trans-racial adoptees. This was not necessarily a conscious decision at the time.
I always felt very othered as a kid, like I didn't belong anywhere. And I never spoke about it. My mom did not understand my experiences and I felt she was disappointed that I didn't try harder to have more Black friends, but it was complicated and I didn't think she would understand. Family, friends, and even strangers appeared to feel like they have a right to be vocal about how I should racially identify, and it often didn't match up with how I felt about myself. What I knew in my heart as a young person was that I was "definitely not White," but also definitely "not Black enough." I knew what I wasn't, but I never could put a finger on what I was either. I didn't think anyone would understand so I kept it to myself, believing that I was oddly obsessed with race and focused on what I wasn't able to do to fit in with people. I didn't see a way for anyone to accept me as a whole person. But I understood people saw me as Black so that's what I was.
In college, I happened upon research about Mixed people and I was flabbergasted. I had no idea researchers were studying Mixed people, and that I could find research projects that reflected things I was thinking about that I'd never discussed with anyone. This was a turning point for me and I absorbed as much research as I could find. At this point, I still wasn't talking out loud to anyone about my racial identity, as a full adult in my late 20s/early 30s. Also by this point, I had been to therapy for depression with a number of different therapists. I had good experiences in therapy, but not one of them ever explored with me how my race has impacted my life and my mental health. This is part of what led me to a career in mental health. That and being a good listener and observer, which I also attribute partially to being Mixed - always trying to figure out how people fit in tends to make you a great observer.
Beginning in grad school internships, I have been lucky enough to spend nearly all of my professional career as a therapist in culturally specific settings, first working with African Americans, then with immigrants and refugees. But I always wanted to create a practice that was specific to the needs of Mixed people, trans-racial adoptees, and second generation Americans. Now that my practice is off the ground, I know I'm on the right track. The relief my clients feel in being able to heal with someone who understands an aspect of their lives that even family don't generally understand is amazing. I'm not sure I would've become a therapist, and certainly not in this specialty without growing up the way I did.
Have you been mistaken for a specific race and judged based on that? If so how did you react or respond or how did it make you feel?
I think people often see me as Black, though many tell me they knew I was "mixed with something." As stated above, in childhood Black kids made a lot of judgments and statements about how I talked and looked, and made assumptions about what that meant about what I believe ("you think you're cute" or "you're trying to be White" or "you think you're better than us"). It made me feel horrible, shocked and disappointed, not knowing how to respond, misunderstood. I remember thinking that I didn't want people thinking I was Black, not because I thought I was better than them (which was the misunderstanding), but because I didn't want to have to explain why I wasn't Black enough. The whole experience was me operating out of shame based on an identity and upbringing that I had no control over, so it felt like there was something deeply wrong with me at core. I generally responded by staying as quiet and withdrawn as possible. It took a lot of work on myself to gain comfort with my own identity. I found my healing through research, intentionally putting myself in more diverse places, especially among Black people to combat my narrow experiences as a child, through connecting with trans-racial adoptees as POC raised in White families, in traveling to Nigeria to meet my dad and his family, and in building Mixed community. It is hugely important to be with other people who understand your experience.
How does your work help the new generation of mixed race kids deal or identify with their mixed culture?
I offer a safe place to explore identity. I believe that Mixed people are the ones who define their own identity, and that identification may change based on situations and settings, and may change over the course of their lifetimes. It's not up to me or anyone else to label them. Mixed people may identify as one race, as Mixed or multiracial, as a POC, as White. There are so many factors that influence a person's choice on how to self-identify, including who they grew up with (and who they didn't), how they look and how they are perceived by others (for example, having a racially ambiguous look, being white passing, or looking Black or Asian or Latina or Indian only, etc.), geographic location, generational factors, time they lived in history, access to other Mixed people and families, social environments, and many more. My current work in therapy simply provides a safe space for people to be who they are completely with a person who personally understands and who has studied a lot about Mixed people. I have done some writing and blogging in the past which has helped people through sharing my personal experience. In the future I am hoping to write a practical workbook on Mixed Race Identity Development based on what I have learned through personal experience, my therapy practice, and through my Master's Thesis. I want to pass on the research that helped me to the general public in an accessible way.
Is there any statistics on mixed race identity crisis? If so what does that look like?
I fully reject the term "mixed race identity crisis." The crisis is outside of the Mixed person, with people who can't accept, nurture, and support someone who doesn't neatly fit into boxes that other people can easily understand. There is a lot of research on Mixed people, racial identity, and theoretical frameworks on how to understand Mixed people. And with the technology boom, there are many resources available to people who would like to learn more and connect with others.
How do you know or what are the signs of a mixed-race individual dealing with such an issue?
I don't think there are universal signs of a person who is struggling with their racial identity. The experiences of Mixed people are quite varied, and there are many different combinations of Mixedness (Black/White biracial people seem to be the face of Mixedness, but there are plenty of Mixed people who don't have a White parent, a Black parent, or either). I think rather than identify which Mixed people have a problem, I would focus on creating safer spaces for Mixed people to discuss and explore what has impacted how they racially identify, how they feel about it, and what they can do if their racial identity feels uncomfortable or painful. Ask open ended questions. Avoid making assumptions. Ask what they notice and how they feel. Know that two Mixed siblings in the same family may have completely different identities and each is valid. Parents have a lot of power, and if they can be more curious and less judgmental, speaking less for the Mixed person, helping the Mixed child find their own voice and be supported, I think they will raise more confident children.