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  • Writer's pictureLynn VanderWielen, PhD, MPH

Representation and Portrayals: Mixed Identities in Popular Media

At Samahra we often talk about representation and seeking to expose our kids to multiracial individuals who have come before them. There is a popular notion that ‘You can’t be what you can’t see’ and this relates to professions, fields, and roles in society. Popular media including TV and movies is just one place where we can be intentional about the characters our kids are exposed to and the messages that are both intentionally and subconsciously communicated.

Representation can be thought of in terms of the mirror, window, glass door metaphor. Mirrors are places where we see ourselves, windows allow us to learn about others, and glass doors offer entry into new worlds. This is important for our multiracial kids as they embrace their own cultures and appreciate others. The more our kids value and understand cultural differences they will internalize that those who are a part of monoracial cultures in the United States are not intrinsically better - we are all beautiful and valid in our own complex ways.

The article for today examines how mixed individuals are represented and portrayed in popular media. There are a number of TV shows that center multiracial characters and their mixed-ness is sometimes specifically discussed, though the depth and complexity of multiracial identities and multiracial families are often superficial. The research team identified four TV shows and all dialog about mixed identities and found that the multiracial experience on TV tends to lean on two themes that we will breakdown here: gatekeeping and questioning racial authenticity.

Gatekeeping is a phenomenon EXTREMLY IMPORTANT in the multiracial identity space. A racial gatekeeper is a member of the race in question who either claims or denies the identity of someone that is multiracial, validating them as ‘enough of’ or ‘not enough of’ to be a part of their group. Gatekeepers can be anyone: teachers, family members, strangers, and can be positive or negative. (ie. claiming or rejecting). Gatekeepers play a meaningful role - especially in adolescence, as teens are naturally transitioning from “externally defined ways of knowing, being, and constructing relationships, to more internally defined ways to do so.” In other words, it is a part of the adolescent experiences to start to take ownership in our own definition of self, which is a transition from the earlier phase of development where we lean on how others see us for constructing our identity. This is another reason that positive affirmations are so important for our kids early on - they believe what they are told about themselves as it creates their foundation of self.

The second element present in popular media regarding multiracial character arcs is around questioning racial authenticity. This shows up when seeking to claim an element of ones identity, but feeling unsure if it is ‘correct’ or 'right'. Our role as parents is to connect our kids with their many cultures so that when they begin to transition from external ways of knowing to internal ways of knowing, that they will inherently know and feel that they are a part of all of the heritages and cultural groups that compose their multiracial identity. The study authors share that one of the major gaps in portraying mixed characters on TV is the lack of portraying intentional conversation around racial socialization by parents and caregivers. Multiracial socialization are the ways parents and caregivers teach and connect their children to their races, heritages, cultures, and communities AND prepare them for bias.

While this research only identified characters in popular TV who were Black and another race, mixed identities include individuals from any mix of races and cultures. If your child is multiracial with a different combination of races, these findings are still relevant as these facets of multiracial identity development are the same regardless of the races and cultures relevant for your family. Our kids will likely still experience gatekeeping and they will likely still grapple with questioning their racial authenticity. Our role is still the same - we need to ground them in their races and cultures while we also prepare them to understand and experience bias, both at the individual and structural level.

Join the Samahra Community in our mobile app in the Apple Store or on the Google Play Store for daily evidence-based reading about multiracial identity development, finding intentional ways to connect with our kids to support their identity journey, and creating community with other parents/caregivers of multiracial kids.

The article for today can be found here.

Citation: Johnston-Guerrero, Marc P., and Lisa Delacruz Combs. "Mixedness comes of age: Learning from multiracial portrayals in young adult TV series." Dialogue: The Interdisciplinary Journal of Popular Culture and Pedagogy 10.1 (2023).

Photo by Vince Fleming on Unsplash

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