Mixed race identity: externally imposed or internally constructed?

Much of modern day scholarship pertaining to the study of mixed race people have tended to be “ethnographies.” That is, an approach whereby one proceeds to interview or interact with individuals of a given community in order to provide an adequate description (or grandly hypothesise) the nature of a given community. In identity studies, this typically involves interviewing individuals to elicit their thoughts, feelings, and responses such that we can tease out the nature behind their perceptions.

The problem with this, as described brilliantly in Mixed Race Amnesia by Minelle Mahtani, is that there is a tendency to forget the historical and structural forces that inform the identity of a given group, particularly if that particular group has historically been subjected to oppression. Contemporary ethnography fails to elicit any meaningful idea of group subjectivity by solely focusing on the individual identification and supposed rational predispositions of the interviewed individual. What is lost, therefore, are the external factors that contribute to the formation of a given identity. By fixating on defining identity as self-identification we are unable to provide a satisfactory understanding of identity as a whole. More often than not, our self-identifications are not a product of rational thought or choice, but arrived at through subliminal interpellation – be they positive or malevolent – due to circumstantial contexts. The structural influences of wider society – be they public (institutional) or private (familial) – will indubitably have an effect on one’s identity formation. Societal norms and ideals, including but not limited to ideas of race, gender, and class, often operate along the lines of “acceptance” or “rejection.” Though it is true that there is always leeway for people to push back against these established norms, the very act of “fighting back” implies that there is a norm to begin with, and it suffices to say that not everybody in an oppressed community participates in romantic resistance.

I argue that this is especially true of mixed race individuals. The societal norm of modern day society still, I believe, operates along the lines of “monoracial” or “monocultural” ideologies despite a tonne of evidence that point to the contrary. Mixed race people often find themselves “confined” between heritage or the other. This “confinement”, expressed in the language of “not fitting in”, is a clear indication that outdated norms surrounding race and culture are not only pervasive but ingrained. In the case of Eurasians, many of us find the massive discrepancy in cultural norms between our parents’ respective heritages extremely hard to navigate. This is because irrespective of cultural differences, many societies still subscribe to ideas of racial/communal “purity.” In Korea today, for example, despite recent efforts by the government to instil multicultural acceptance the notion of a “pureblooded society” remains: danil minjok (pureblooded Korean race) is a concept deeply embedded in Korean society despite a plethora of evidence pointing to its historical inaccuracy and even outright fabrication. In America the residuals of the one-drop rule that existed throughout the dark age of eugenics in the late nineteenth century and well into the twentieth is something that is often ignored despite its pervasiveness. Black-white mixes are often simply considered Black; Asian-white mixes are often considered simply Asian. In Asia, Asian-white mixes are often considered white. The fact that Eurasians (and many other mixed race people) feel like they don’t “fit in” has a simple explanation: we do not fit within the confines of mainstream ideas of race and culture. Despite mixed race people having vastly different experiences (a half-Japanese and half American person has a very different social and cultural experience to that of a half Chinese and half English individual, for example) it is common for mixed race people to “share” a similar epistemic experience: that of “not fitting in.” This feeling of “not fitting in” is not something that we ourselves construct, it is something externally imposed.

Is this feeling transhistorical? If we scour the memoirs of Eurasians (for example) throughout the last few centuries, it would seem as though this phenomenon has always been around. Of course, everyone is technically “mixed”, but if we define “mixed race” in terms of cross-cultural miscegenation (for lack of a better term), we can see that these feelings have always existed, expressed through more or less the same kind of language. I am sure those of you who are reading this are at least somewhat aware of mixed race identity issues, and do not need any modern day examples of the language used by mixed race people today to express their struggles. If we look at texts by Eurasians from a century ago the language used by these writers are strikingly similar in their meaning and emotion. Despite the radically different social, political, cultural, and linguistic contexts that separate them from us and us from them, the epistemic experience that links many mixed race people together is unmistakeable:


“To the Eurasian Lads Who Fell in the Battle of Hong Kong” 

Here ‘mid these eternal hills they found their rest,

No solemn cross to mark their peaceful sleep,

With name and date. Upon their tranquil breast

The sod lies easy; they slumber sound and deep.

Theirs was no rod of Empire, rule of men,

The seat of power, the pomp of circumstance;

Helots of the office ledger, desk and pen,

They trailed no purple robes of governance.

They knew no homeland, dearer on distant view,

The ivied cottage, the ancient spreading tree,

The smell of purple heather damp with dew,

The cliffs of Albion looking out to sea.

But youth was theirs in running measure full,

The joy of life, the urging discontent,

The dawn of love, roseate, wonderful,

And hope, surpassing all accomplishment.

These they gave in their stintless giving,

For this Eastern homeland of their own,

They faced the surging tide and perished fighting,

In these lone hills, unsung, unhonoured, unknown.

They sowed in blood that we in joy may reap,

In the peaceful evenings, who’ll remember them?

Only the stars will their nightly vigil keep,

Only the soughing pines’ll chant their requiem.

– Dr Edward Law

20th October 1945

As cited in Eric Ho, Tracing my Children’s Lineage, (Hong Kong: Hong Kong University Press, 2010), p. 329.