Don’t tell me to ‘pick a side’ as a mixed race person
It’s no walk in the park
The difficulty that mixed-race teens face in the form of essentially belonging to two conflicting cultures is that one is constantly overlooked and needs attention. Displacement between cultures catalyses an identity dilemma in many teens of mixed heritage, and they often feel pressured to make detrimental decisions about identity they may not even realise they are making. Our view of race needs to change.
“Pick a side” are three words usually heard in the context of football teams, family arguments or moral debates. These three words aren’t usually associated with race, but they should be.
As a society, we currently perceive race as something singular and unalterable. This perception of race is having detrimental effects on many mixed-race teenagers. People of mixed heritage associate with two or more cultures. They occupy a special place in between what feels like entirely different identities.
Our notion of race, as something that is fixed, is not coherent with the multiplicity that is part of a mixed-race person’s everyday life. This often cultivates an identity dilemma in mixed-race teenagers at a time in which self-discovery is crucial. This issue is currently grossly overlooked. “Pick a side” therefore needs to be applied to the choice that many mixed-race teenagers feel pressurised to make, whether consciously or subconsciously, that has huge negative impacts on mental well-being.
Environmental factors pressure a large number of mixed-race teenagers to accept one culture as their identity, and reject others. They assume a narrow, limited self and discard several of their intrinsic characteristics. This is an unhealthy way of adopting identity at a crucial time in a life. Even after one or more cultures are entirely rejected in favour of another, a mixed-race teenager often finds themselves unable to actually fully assume the identity of that culture, because they don’t fit in. They are not purely that one race. A feeling of displacement and confusion can result far too often, that is damaging to mixed-race teenagers.
It is a well-known fact that throughout childhood and our teenage years, we want to fit in. Nobody wants to look different, and stick out because of it. For most teenagers, fitting in constitutes wearing certain clothes, makeup, hair styles etc – all physical alterations. But for a mixed-race teenager, the struggle to fit in often means rejecting half of yourself – the half that is inconsistent with the norm of your environment. It is not a physical change, it’s often mental.
I am nineteen, and mixed-race. My father is Jamaican, my mother English. I grew up in Kingston upon Thames, a small town in southwest London with a predominantly, if not totally, Caucasian population. All my friends were white, everyone I met was white.
The ethnicity of my environment impacted more heavily on my self-perception that any other aspect of my teenage years. My Jamaican heritage gifted me tan skin, although I didn’t feel blessed at the time. I felt different, in a negative way. Although I could not alter this aspect of my physical appearance, I changed my identity in response to my environment.
I pretended I was white.
I didn’t know I was doing it at the time. It was not a physical change – I looked the same. But on the inside, I rejected and discarded the elements of myself that were different. These elements were my Jamaican heritage. Throughout my childhood I was never confronted with any Caribbean culture and so I entirely assumed the identity of my Caucasian half with ease. I was white- just like everybody else.
Except that I wasn’t white, and I knew it in my heart. I didn’t look it, and although I forced myself to feel it for so many years (and did a good job of it) I could never fully identify with English culture. I knew I never completely identified with my white friends. Subconsciously pretending to be someone I was not had a severely negative impact on my mental well-being, and made me deeply unhappy throughout my teenage years.
Yet, I didn’t realise that I had suffered this identity trauma until I began university in Leeds. I did not know I considered myself white, I had convinced myself so deeply of a false self-image. Joining LUU Street Dance Society, where I met many students of African and Caribbean descent, opened my eyes to a culture I had entirely rejected. It put me in touch with a half of myself I had completely erased. I learnt about Caribbean culture in a place where I was appreciated, beginning with dance which then expanded into things like food, music and art. I saw a whole identity I had disclaimed any ownership of, and felt belonging that I hadn’t felt before.
I did not spin one hundred and eighty degrees and reject the English culture I had prioritised all those years of my life. I fused the two together, and discovered that was where my identity was.
Society perceives race as a fixed entity. But mixed-identity lies in a balance. Teenagers of mixed heritage need to be encouraged, at pivotal points in their lives, to transcend the boundaries between cultures. To appreciate and accept all identities. Our perception of race needs to shift into something that is fluid and variable. Race needs to be something mixed-race teenagers are encouraged to try out, explore and test all aspects of before they decide who they are. So they are able to locate themselves not as simply different, but as one of a kind people – who don’t need to pick a side.