Lynn VanderWielen, PhD, MPH
Growing up Multiracial
Sometimes the world is offered a glimpse into the life of a writer in a way that elevates our understanding and contextualizes terms that we may hear, but not fully understand.
Situational identity. Racial ambiguity. Feeling like a racial imposter.
As parents of multiracial kids who may not be multiracial ourselves, we can learn from the experiences of multiracial adults to guide how we parent. Today’s article is a Honor Scholar Theses from a graduate of DePauw University, and we are grateful for the thoughtful and open insight into her experiences as a multiethnic person. This post will lean on this publication for the three concepts mentioned above and provide context for how they relate to our families.
Situational Identity - Taking on varied roles in different social and cultural settings such that a person’s behaviors may shift to adapt to the situation and those around them - this can be a conscious decision or a natural, unconscious, shift.
All of us can relate to situational identity, but we may not be able to relate to the idea when it comes to our race. Think about walking into different environments and taking a look around the room. We see the people in the space, observe their appearances, consider the noise, content of the conversations, the environment we are in.
Imagine walking into your local public library. Folks are sitting around tables, maybe with a book or magazine, people are on computers navigating the internet. You may hear a printer in the background or the quiet whispers of staff guiding a patron to an item of interest. Perhaps you are headed to the back for a book club meeting for the first time. How would you introduce yourself? What would show up as a part of your introduction? My identity in that moment may feel something like this “Hi! My name is Lynn, and I live here in Denver. I love to read, especially while sitting outside” Other parts of my identity that people would see and understand from my appearance and interaction - I am a White, able-bodied woman with a Midwest accent. I carry a backpack with my computer, which people may interpret as that I work or am a student. My hair is pulled back, my clothes are stained from breakfast with the kids. I don't look as put together as I would like. People see this.
Now think about walking into a toddler section of a children’s museum - noisy, filled with parents chasing around their kids, laughter, strollers scattered everywhere, and exasperation as parents try to make the day fun for their kids. In this scenario if I were to introduce myself I might say “Hi! I’m Lynn and those are my two kids over there with the beautiful curls”. My identity is that moment is a Mom of two mixed-kids in addition to the unspoken identities I hold (White, able-bodied woman with a Midwest accent.) People may empathize with my stained pants and the last-minute look of my hairstyle.
Situational identity describes how our identities are dependent on our environments. For multiracial individuals this means that elements of their racial and cultural identity are emphasized or muted based on where they are and who they are with. Situational identity is not inherently bad, it is something we all use to navigate new spaces and find connection with others. However, when core elements of one’s identity are overlooked or misinterpreted, it can feel like not being seen as whole or having to downplay a part of you to fit in. This can feel inauthentic, emotionally draining, and painful when it feels like your whole self is not welcomed. Our older kids are constantly leaning on their situational awareness as their situational racial identity shifts, dissolves, and reappears.
Racial Ambiguity - When someone’s physical appearance doesn’t clearly signal their racial/ethnic identity.
Many multiracial/multicultural/multiethnic individuals share that they are racially ambiguous or a “racial chameleon”- their racial group membership is not clear based on their physical appearance. Racial ambiguity often triggers the infamous “what are you?” question or look, and the author translates this inquisition as “what stereotypes can I attach to your body and how I am supposed to treat you?”. Our society and history in the US are so deeply rooted in race and and the racist notion that race is a proxy for our worth that we use physical appearance including race to judge others. When someone is racially ambiguous it seems to not compute in our heads leaving uncertainty, which people tend to be deeply uncomfortable with. Our faces are often visibly puzzled, which is seen by those we are aiming to understand.
When it comes to our multiracial kids, many of them are racially ambiguous. We need to prepare them for intrusive questioning, scrutiny, and the puzzled reactions they are going to encounter. They do not have to prove themselves to anyone and we want them to have confidence in themselves to weather these challenges, comments, and interactions. (Join the Samahra Community in our app for specific guidance on this!). Importantly, we all have control over ourselves and how we interact with people that challenge our understanding of racial categorization. Don’t be that person who asks or finds it ‘interesting’.
Racial Imposter - Feeling fake or inauthentic in a part of one’s identity that is true.
The author of this article shares a bit about her experience moving away to college and owning her identity as a woman of Color. She shares:
“My parents found it hard to accept that I have begun to identify as a woman of color…Their reaction to my new found identity in college made me doubt and fear this label I put on myself. This combined with comments from friends at school about my skin color, my hair, and my lack of cultural knowledge gave me feelings of imposter syndrome that have not been easy to shed."
When the perception of others doesn’t align with your own definition of self, it can feel challenging and wear away at your confidence. While we may not have experienced the feelings of being a racial imposter, I am sure that many of us have felt like other forms of an imposter in our lives. Think about when you started a new job or a new educational program. If you are like many of us, there were probably moments you felt like you didn’t deserve to be there or there ‘must have been some mistake’ in the process. When I was accepted into my dream program for my masters degree, I was nervous opening every new email and envelope from the University as I was sure they were going to revoke my place sharing there had been an error in my original acceptance. Furthermore, we often don’t talk about these feelings with others as we fear it may be interpreted as weakness or fragility, which can lead to feeling isolated and deepening our feeling that we don’t belong. Now consider how it may feel to have these emotions and reactions when seeking belonging and acceptance with the racial and cultural groups of your identity.
It is critical that we, as parents of multiracial kids, understand that our kids may one day hold the feelings of being a racial imposter. We need to be intentional to root them in their many cultures and identities, connect them to to their heritages, and continuously affirm their strengths, beauty, and the love we hold for them. This is just one way to reinforce their belonging and confidence, and minimize relying on the acceptance of others.
Our app for multiracial parents was designed to support you to do just that, and our soon-to-be-released app for multiracial teens was designed as a safe and inclusive space for affirmation, validation, and celebration of multiracial identities. We can be intentional to not only increase our knowledge about what our kids may experience in the world, but prepare them for situations that we now better understand.
A deep and profound thank you to the author of today’s article, which can be found here.
Article Citation: Flores, Maria, "Multi-Ethnic Chronicles: Interrogating My Imposter Syndrome" (2020). Honor Scholar Theses. 136.
Photo by Joice Kelly on Unsplash