May 19, 2021

Not “Fresh off the Boat”: An EDI Committee Blog Post Series - Topic 2: “What are you?”: Experiences of the Biracial, Mixed, and Racially Ambiguous

The UCalgary Psychology Equity, Diversity and Inclusion Blog

The number of interracial marriages or common-law unions have increased in Canada since 19911.  This means (if couples decide to have children) that the number of bi- or multi-racial children is expected to grow. Mixed-race couples have been present throughout history2 and have been met with discrimination for being perceived as “deviant” or “odd” compared to couples that are similar in race. This sentiment often extends to their bi- or multi-racial children (referred to in the rest of this post as mixed children/individuals/peoples), although the ways in which this discrimination manifests has unique characteristics. Mixed individuals, with their (often) racially ambiguous physical features, are regularly posed the incessant question of “what are you?”. Although the implications of this question are felt by most mixed people, in this post, we convey our perspectives from our shared (yet different) mixed-(East/Southeast) Asian heritages. 

Racial Ambiguity, Stereotyping, and Benevolent Prejudice 

As mixed individuals, we tend to appear more racially ambiguous than those who phenotypically present as White, Asian, or Black. As such, it tends to take longer for others to racially categorize us and, often, we are miscategorized as some other group. Although the intriguing guessing game of “what am I?” is a common past-time at social gatherings (even when among those who share the same race), the constant need to distinguish why we look the way we do and watching others’ reactions upon learning our racial background – is rather peculiar. 

Like other mixed peoples, mixed Asians tend to be associated more with their socially-subordinated3 background. For instance, a person that is Asian/White may be associated more as Asian, whereas an individual who is Asian/Black may be associated more as Black4. At first, many people often describe us as “exotic” looking and assume – upon learning our racial background – that we “get the best of both (or many) worlds”. Although these descriptors seem positive at first, there are underlying notions of benevolent prejudice and racial hierarchy. The insinuation often is that the lighter-skinned and/or more White/European features we have, the better off we are compared to our counterparts that present as more Asian (or other socially subordinated race). Memories of Asian mothers being mistaken as foreign-imported nannies; siblings with “Whiter” features being more favoured; and White acquaintances explicitly targeting Asian partners (and vice versa) to fulfill a mixed-child fetish come to mind.  

Like most people, mixed Asians are susceptible to racial stereotyping; however, it manifests differently compared to old-fashioned or classical Asian stereotyping (e.g., being good at math; “FOB” accents; using chopsticks; etc.). Namely, because we are only “part” Asian (and whatever other racial heritage), the stereotyping process is less definitive. From moment to moment, Asian, White, Black, etc. stereotypes can be selectively applied to us. Although stereotypes – even if framed positively – do not serve racial groups, they do play a part in group identity and can shape how we contextualize experiences. For example, as mixed Asians, we might attribute our good math performance to the Asian stereotype; however, if our performance lacks in comparison to Asian peers (or is negative overall), it might reinforce the notion that we are not “full” Asian and, therefore, do not belong in this group. In other cases, because we do not look “stereotypically” Japanese, Chinese, Filipino, etc., we may be questioned regarding the “authenticity” of our participation in cultural ceremonies (e.g., tea ceremony, debu5, etc.) or donning of traditional attire or regalia. Inevitably, these notions surrounding our “Asian-ness” and how we fit into a given social context do not serve us, our families, nor the communities we are a part of. 

Feeling Rooted 

We often find ourselves navigating two or more worlds, which can present both benefits and disadvantages. These multiple worlds may differ based on parental origins, which may entail multiple cultural family customs or beliefs (e.g., which holidays are celebrated, coming of age ceremonies, religious practices, etc.) or geographical location (e.g., part of Asia, North America, Africa, etc.). We may also have to navigate the culture of our country of residence (i.e., Canada) in cases where one or more of our parents are immigrants. This lack of distinct connection to land(s) can make it challenging to distinguish where we belong or call “home,” which can be very isolating and reinforce the notion that – in some way, shape, or form – we are “not enough”. 

Despite these challenges, there are many privileges of being mixed race. Because we spend our lives navigating multiple worlds, we get the opportunity to broaden our perspectives every day; we see the similarities and differences among worlds; we can speak and advocate for many groups because they are our communities too. Lastly, we know that learning to respect, appreciate, (and love) others from a different world is not without challenges – but is completely worth it – because we would not exist if our parents thought differently.   


3 The social hierarchy in North America tends to depict White people at the top; whereas Asians are considered second as the “model minority”, followed by other non-White racial groups. 

5 A traditional coming-of-age party to commemorate a young woman’s 18th birthday. Usually part of Filipino culture.