“Social death” is defined by cultural and social philosophers as the condition of people not accepted as fully human by wider society. Throughout history, the term “social death” has been applied by many historians and scholars to marginalised groups that find themselves isolated by society, often first unofficially by other out-groups and then officially sanctioned by institutions. Notable examples include the treatment of Jews in Nazi Germany and Apartheid in South Africa. Social death in its simplest sense is therefore the neglect and ostracism of a particular identity group who do not fit in to the mainstream social norm.
Although by no means to the same degree of severity as the Holocaust or Apartheid, the Eurasian – and other mixed-race groups – experience is, in its own unique way, a form of unofficial social death. This social death that modern day Eurasians feel is a nuanced and invisible (to the public, but not to the individual Eurasian) form that marginalises the Eurasian for not “fitting in” to the acceptable conventional racial in-groups. For example, mixed-race Eurasians in the United States often feel marginalised due to their inability to be accepted by both the white community (who see them as fundamentally Asian due to their looks) and the Asian community (who see them as part of the “Other” due to their non-Asian heritage). This is even more severe if the Eurasian individual cannot speak the Asian language. Eurasians thus have a higher “bar” to “qualify” for “Asian-ness”; by virtue of ethnicity, full Asians who do not speak their language are usually by default fully accepted by the Asian community and are considered as “Asian-American.” Many Eurasians are not.
The social death of Eurasians is not confined to the context of the United States; rather, it is a phenomenon that has historically been widespread. Vicky Lee’s Being Eurasian expounds in great detail the extent to which Eurasians in Hong Kong felt isolated and excluded from both the white colonial and the local Chinese community. Utilising American sociologist Robert Park’s “theory of the Marginal Man”, Lee highlights how Eurasian achievements were neglected and how their alienation, separatism, and social neglect transcended class and background. The person of “mixed blood” is “one who lives in two worlds, in both of which he is more or less a stranger” (Lee 52). The Eurasian is the “mulatto in the United States”, a Marginal “whom fate has condemned to live in two societies and in two, not merely different but antagonistic, cultures.” Joyce Symons, a Eurasian woman born in Shanghai and principal of the Diocesan Girl’s School (a school created primarily for Eurasian girls), wrote extensively in her memoir Looking at the stars about Hong Kong Eurasian culture. Eurasians were inclined to tilt towards the West, but due to their adoption of Chinese practices, could never be accepted. Lifestyle and dress code was mainly Chinese, but education and culture was mostly Western. This antagonistic combination meant that “Eurasian culture” was a marginal creation unique to the colonial context Hong Kong. Eurasian families, who lacked the wealth of pure white expatriates but were nevertheless of a higher economic class than most Chinese, fell within an unprecedented socioeconomic category. Even more severe, Eurasians with Chinese fathers and white mothers were excluded from the category of Eurasians by the founders of the Welfare League, who considered the children to be purely Chinese due to paternal lineage, contrary to their physical, social, and mental experience.
Contemporary Asia is not much better. In 2009, Lou Jing, a half-Black half-Chinese girl entered the Shanghai’s “Go Oriental Angel” program and reached the top-five in the Shanghai region. Despite being born and raised in China by a single Chinese mother and therefore completely imbued by Chinese society and culture, Lou was subjected to intense racism by Chinese netizens. Many commenters referred to her with racial slurs such as xiaoheigui (小黑鬼 xiǎohēiguǐ; trans: Little black devil), and other bloggers publicly called her “shameful” for even participating in Go Oriental Angel as a “non-Chinese contestant.” By virtue of her family background and skin pigment, Lou is considered by many to be “non-Chinese.”
In the United States, many people of mixed-race heritage find themselves compelled to orient themselves towards the acceptable social norm stereotypes. On the popular dating show Bachelorette, a Eurasian mixed-race contestant remarked “I’m half Chinese and half Scottish. But luckily for me, I’m half Scottish below the waist.” In a simple sentence, the contestant becomes the worst kinds of stereotypes – that Asian genitals are unsatisfactory; that this is something to be ashamed about; and that “whiteness” is something that should be aspired to. This can be traced to colonial times; Robert Young’s magnificent work Colonial Desire: Hybridity in Theory, Culture and Race (1995) highlights how notions of hybridity in British colonies were predicated on whiteness and (British) white culture. The colonial self-image as a civilising force – a white man’s burden – created a “desire” for inter-mixing in order to “improve” the “darker” races. The drive for English global cultural supremacy, therefore, fuelled a desire for inter-racial sex. This drive is a contradiction with the other Western mindset, that of disgust for the “Other.” Due to this contradiction, British-colonial hybridity was simultaneously seen as an improvement but also disgusting, a phenomenon internalized by both colonials and natives.
Eurasians are not the only mixed-race subcategory to experience social death. Other mixed-race groups also experience social death. Afro-Latinos in America for example are one such group. In a 2015 Huffington Post article entitled “What it means to be Afro-Latino” many Afro-Latinos in Puerto Rico remarked the difficulty of fitting in.
“It was always difficult because I was never Boricua or Black enough. Other Puerto Ricans didn’t accept me because I wasn’t a fluent Spanish speaker and too brown. I also wasn’t ‘dark’ enough to be Black. These Black girls tried to jump me in the third grade because my Taino roots gave me long, wavy hair and they wanted to ‘tear it out and prove if was a weave.’
What is the solution? For one, mixed-race social death calls for a reflection and a rethinking of how we conceptualise in-groups, out-groups, and identity. As evidenced by the experiences of mixed-race individuals, identity is no longer simply confined to skin colour – it is also rooted in culture and language. Although these categories are historically inseparable with racial ethnicity, intermarriage between different ethnicities and cultures have dampened the prominence of skin colour as identity. As L. Tamar Minter remarks in the Huffington Post article:
“Black is the racial group, while the pan ethnic identification of ‘Latino’ refers to language, culture, and nation of origin. To be a Black Spanish speaker in the Americas means to feel, taste, hear, see, etc the West African heritage at all times in our phenoytype, in our music, in our dance, in our rhythms, in our food, in our language/daily lexicon, etc. We are the manifestation of our cultural memory. Often overlooked, when the very aspects of our culture that are praised as being ‘Latino’ come from the African influence on the Americas. We transmit the knowledge passed on to us from our ancestors through our very being; the very act of us living, surviving, and thriving is an act of resistance in the face of white supremacy in both the United States and the rest of the Americas. Sometimes this means living life on the hyphen, to borrow from Professor Juan Flores, neither being perceived as ‘Black enough’ nor ‘Latino enough’…but we’re Afrodescendientes and proud.”
The very existence of the mixed-race condition challenges the pervasive and often harmful conceptions of race in modern society. To be mixed-race is to embody multiple cultures, multiple cultures, and multiple experiences fused into one unique identity that is different for every single mixed-race individual. As the experience of each mixed-race individual is fundamentally different due to the variety of ethnic and cultural mixes, what links mixed-race individuals together is the abstract sense of diversity. Difference becomes unity. Identity politics must therefore catch up to the rapidly changing dynamics of individual identity, or risk perpetuating the very identity marginalisation that it purports to defeat.