Three main themes emerged from the data. The first theme concerns how participants perceive their own racial and ethnic identities. The second theme concerns how participants understood their identities in relation to how others viewed them. And the third theme involves the role of the physical of body, which informs both their understandings of themselves and others’ understandings of racial, ethnic, and gendered categorizations.
In this paper, I put forth the idea that micro-level exchanges among the participants and outsiders are potentially powerful instruments of resisting monoracial classifications. A variety of factors contribute to this resistance including the variables age, gender, sexuality, etc., in addition to race and ethnicity. It is not singularly race and ethnicity that determine the experiences of these participants but rather the intersections of these complicated structures. Therefore, it is the combination of being multiracial or multiethnic middle-class heterosexual woman in California (for example) that leads to the construction of these unique experiences and paths of resistance.
3.1. Their Own Ethnic and Racial Identities
At the time of our interviews, the majority of participants identified with a liminal or marginal identity (Daniel 1992
; Park 1928
; Thompson 2009
). That is, in their own ways, they embraced a multiracial, in-between identity, which is a “both/neither” rather than an “either/or” monoracial identity. Many participants used various terms such as “multiracial”, “mixed”, and “in-between”. Some purposefully and clearly engaged with these terms in order to outright challenge racial norms.
Although at the time of the research, most participants self-identified as multiracial in one way or another, their identities as multiracial fluctuated. For the participants, self-identification varied over time and was often flexible and context specific (Poston 1990
) described shifting racial/ethnic expressions for the multiracial participants of her qualitative study. She found that many of the participants modified their racial/ethnic expression based upon the race/ethnicity of the people in their surrounding environment while some grew confident in their multiracial identity as time passed. My participants also demonstrated fluid identifications and expressions of their racial identity.
Ana grew up in the Bay Area of California with her Hawaiian/white mother and East Indian father. Her parents met in college when her father came from India to study. When asked, Ana strongly asserted her identity to me, “I identify as Asian Indian, white, and Hawaiian… Yes absolutely, I identify as multiracial”. Ana clearly and confidently embraces a multiracial identity both to me in our interview and in her everyday life with those asking about her racial and ethnic identity.
Sanya, Ana’s sister, whom I met through Ana rejected both a specific racial identification and a multiracial identity consisting of a combination of separate races/ethnicities. She explained to me when talking about the U.S. census, “it forces you to conform to one race. Even if someone is multiracial, they will not have the same experiences as you. I understand the census is trying to collect information, but it doesn’t make any sense to me because you can’t compare. They are defeating the purpose by lumping people into a category”. Although the census is meant to put people into categories based upon similarities, Sanya is saying that putting all multiracial people into one category does not make sense because there is such a variety of races, ethnicities, and experiences among the mixed-race population. The census, a population-wide example of how race is conceptualized in the United States, as of 2000, has allowed respondents to check more than one box for race. However, there is no multiracial box to check. However, as Sanya points out, even a multiracial box lumping all multiracial people in to one category would not demonstrate the variety of multiracial people.
Sisters Sanya and Ana, in their self-identifications, question monoracial norms and classifications. Sanya questions the racial order in the United States as exemplified by the census. Sanya takes on an extraracial identity (Renn 2005
) meaning she does not identify herself using any formal census categories. Ana takes on a multiracial identity identifying herself as multiracial (Renn 2005
). She rejects how she is “supposed to choose” to identify and embraces a liminal personhood. Checking separate boxes on a census reifies racial distinction, which defeats the purpose of identifying as multiracial. As Daniel et al.
) said, “Even the current formula … which allows individuals to check more than one box … puts forth the notion that multiracial-identified individuals primarily should view themselves as parts of various or multiple monoracial communities rather than also as constituents of a multiracial collective subjectivity” (Daniel et al. 2014
). Sanya questions these issues and resists classification as designated by the census and U.S. as a whole.
Isabel, a woman of Japanese and European descent, grew up near Seattle, Washington in a relatively racially and ethnically diverse community. She spoke to me about how she checks boxes on the census and other demographic forms, “If you can pick more than one, I do Asian and white. If there aren’t any other choices, I do other. I can’t decide between Asian and white, so I choose other”. Isabel’s choice is an example of how someone begins to challenge the monoracial imperative and confront monoracial categorization. She has the opportunity to check white yet chooses not to do so. For Latinos in the United States who are not seen by the census as a racial group, checking the other box can be seen as a sign of resistance (Daniel 2001
Myra also resisted classification but in a different way than any of the other participants. She said that she would mark Caucasian (white) on a survey or census,
I guess if they saw me, they would wonder about that because I have darker skin. No one has questioned it or said anything about it. What would I mark? I have a German passport and my dad is as white as it gets. My mom’s darker genes are dominant in the next generation: my sisters and I have color and dark eyes and hair, but I didn’t feel that different. Only some people made me feel different.
Myra acknowledges her difference from other white people based upon skin color at the same time, she is aware of the whiteness of her German father. From Myra’s perspective, her choice to mark Caucasian or white on surveys is a reasonable response to a racial classification system with no place for multiracial people.
I interviewed another set of sisters, Phoebe and Carson. They grew up on the West Coast living between their white mother and Latino father. Their stories are examples of how racial and ethnic identity change over time as well as how the physical body figures into gendered multiracial identification. Phoebe described to me how she believes she is both Latina and white but how other people don’t see it this way, “It’s like when I say I’m white people are like, ‘oh but your last name is Garcia and you don’t really look white’ and when I say I’m Latina people say, ‘oh you’re white.’ People don’t think you can be both”. This is interesting in light of the U.S. census and other forms that require respondents to declare race and ethnicity because on the census one can be both white and “Hispanic”. However, as Phoebe shows, in her everyday life, being Latina and white are seen as mutually exclusive, especially when one has lighter skin color and can pass as white. She also said, “I’ve been more consciously identifying as Latina in the last few years because I’ve gained more of an understanding of multiculturality. Just because I’m white doesn’t mean I’m not Latina”. Phoebe points out common societal monoracial perceptions. Yet she clearly states multiple times that she believes she can be both Latina and white. Phoebe touches upon an important key to racial identity resistance in these participants’ lives.
Carson, who can easily pass as racially white, also sees herself through a multiracial lens. For example, Carson said to me, “Yesterday at work someone asked me my last name. It was good. We led in to a very good conversation about labeling someone as Hispanic or Latino …”. I then asked her if during this conversation she was choosing to identify as both white and Latina and she said, “when I was talking to her I was identifying as both, but I think she only asked me that question because my last name is Garcia”. Although at times she is perceived as only white, she still chooses to embrace a multiracial identity. This exemplifies how racial identity may vary situationally (Renn 2005
). Their identities and expressions challenged outsiders’ notions of race and ethnicity, which in turn affected how the participants viewed themselves (Cooley 1902
). A catalyst for discussion of race in the lives of sisters Phoebe and Carson was their last name, Garcia, a common Latino surname.
Carson’s and Phoebe’s identities can be viewed through a lens of multiracial studies and new Mestizaje studies as they are both multiracial and Mestiza. Turner
) outlined the similarities and differences, stating that one significant similarity is that both perspectives challenge inegalitarian concepts of race and racial mixing. Carson’s last name not only led to a discussion about race and ethnicity but also was a venue for her to assert her white and Latina identity. Because she can pass as white, her claim to a multiracial identity and resulting educational conversation with a coworker are mechanisms for questioning monoraciality. For example, her coworker had assumed based upon her appearance that she was white, “He said I don’t like curry. I’ve never met a white girl who doesn’t like curry (referring to her). And I was like excuse me, I’m not white, but I look white to you”. In this instance, she confronts this person’s perceptions about race/ethnicity. Carson also challenges people’s ideas of race and ethnicity through language, “I show up to job interviews and people ask me if I speak Spanish and I say no, even in New Mexico around white people they didn’t get that I didn’t speak Spanish”. People with Spanish surnames are expected to speak Spanish. Carson defies assumptions of essentialist categories of race and ethnicity. In this paper I put forth the idea that micro-level exchanges among the participants and outsiders are potentially powerful instruments of resisting monoracial classifications.
Age was another variable that played into racial and ethnic identification over time. As they grew older, a few of the women gained a larger and more nuanced understanding of race. This knowledge created space for them to embrace multiple identities. For example, through education about race and culture, Phoebe chose to embrace her father’s race and ethnicity. When I asked Isabel if she felt connected to her Japanese side she said, “I like to think so. I like the Japanese culture, and I studied the language and gained some of that culture back by learning Japanese. But, when I visit Japan I don’t feel like I really belong. “As Carson and Isabel gained knowledge of their respective cultures, they felt more comfortable identifying with said culture and in Phoebe’s case, the acquired knowledge not only allowed her to negotiate her identity but also demonstrated her deep understanding of the roots of race and privilege in the United States. Daniel et al.
) asserted, “multiracial identity formations interrogate monoracial norms supporting notions of white racial purity as well as European Americans’ investment in whiteness and its attendant privileges” (p. 13). This section addresses how participants chose to self-identify racially and ethnically in a society that challenges their mixed identity. Many of these women engaged with their identities and in doing so questioned dominant monoracial norms of classification.
3.3. Shame and Embarrassment
The way others perceive and act towards multiracial people is an essential element in determining how multiracial participants feel about themselves. Therefore, the role of outsiders plays a pivotal role in the development of a multiracial identity. Many participants explain feeling ashamed and embarrassed by their racial/ethnic background when they were younger. For example, Carson told me, “not wanting people to know my last name, embarrassed (ME?) and I thought people would think I was Mexican”. And Phoebe, “when someone reads roll call and I get butterflies in my stomach, I feel like people are looking at me like wtf: that white girl has the last name Garcia … Whenever I’d hear my last name, I’d be like ughhhhhh”. Being Mexican was a source of shame and imbued with a negative connotation in the white dominant environment where Phoebe and Carson grew up. Because they can physically pass as European American, they rejected a part of themselves that could be associated with being Mexican and instead embraced whiteness. This was made possible because the dominant and most salient race in their immediate environment was white.
When Carson was in high school, a Latino boy found out her last name was Garcia and asked her, surprised, if she was Mexican. Carson responded, offended, that the name was Spanish, not Mexican. Particularly within New Mexico, one can claim a higher status as “Spanish” or Hispanic rather than Mexican. She did not want the boy to think she was Mexican and thus of lower status than she believed herself to be. This suppression of multiraciality by the society around them, a parallel to what Collins
) discussed as suppression of Black women and Black feminist thought, for some, is a catalyst for resistance; to fight against what once oppressed them. Awareness and a critical mindset towards their past experiences led them to embrace a multiracial identity and put them on a path to resisting monoracial classification.
Shame and embarrassment led Phoebe and Carson to reject the Latino part of their identities at a young age. However, both sisters eventually grew to accept and maintain cultural ties to their ethnicity, which increased as they became older. Carson provides an apt example. She brought up colonization when discussing how she sees the difference between Hispanic and Latino,
To me Hispanic it means of Spanish origin so it’s like recognizing a conquered colonial past which to me, most people, if they are closer to an indigenous root, are less likely to accept that term. It seems the whiter people are, the more they want to associate with a Spanish lineage than an indigenous lineage. Latino is the safer term to use. I would never call someone Hispanic unless they identify as Hispanic.
She distinguished between Hispanic and Latino based upon her knowledge of a history of colonization. Her knowledge is based upon how she sees certain groups of people’s reactions to claims of being Hispanic versus being Latino. She equates identifying as Hispanic as more Spanish than indigenous. Her family is from New Mexico, which has a history of native populations choosing to identify as Hispanic or Spanish rather than Mexican or Indigenous in order to distance themselves from an oppressive past and approximate whiteness (Zavella 1993
). She then goes on to say,
I would never call myself Mexican. I say who is to say what Mexican is, when all of your ancestors lived in what was used to be Mexico. It’s so complicated when you get indigenous blood in there because we got that through rape or persecution, or something fucked up. My ancestors’ bones are in the mountains of New Mexico including my father’s.
Her family and ancestors are native to this part of the United States, which used to be part of Mexico. This interplay combining her personal choice of identification and awareness of the role of outsiders, is a powerful method of resistance on a micro-level. Carson connects hegemonic racial structures imposed by outsiders to her daily life and how she chooses to identify.
Due to their liminal positions, many multiracial people witness countless acts of racism from outsiders. Witnessing racism and naming it led women to question the dominant racial order. Collins
) discussed Black women existing in a traditionally white and male space. Similarly, mixed race women exist in a world geared towards monoracial identification. An example of this is Marie who lived between two worlds growing up in Albuquerque, New Mexico. She talks about her dad’s more Spanish side versus her mom’s more Mexican side. Her father remarried a white woman from Pennsylvania and moved their family to North Carolina. Marie learned to navigate a variety of different spaces throughout her life. She described how New Mexico is different from North Carolina in terms of racism, “People are proud of it (the confederate flag) and say the history of the South is rich and represents history. And this kid I knew wanted to put it up (hang it up outside his house) and I asked him about the history he was talking about and he couldn’t tell me about this history he was passionate about”. Marie also acknowledged racism between those who identify as Spanish and those who identify as Mexican in New Mexico (Zavella 1993
), “That side is more Spanish than Mexican which is different too. Nana always talks about how her dad and mom wouldn’t let her talk to this Mexican boy she had a crush on”. Marie’s experiences and family life led her to gain a unique understanding and perspective on race. She was able to question her friends in North Carolina about their pride in the South’s history and thus to question racist justifications.
When we were discussing her family’s class background, Katherine brought up the topic of racism between darker skinned people and her lighter skinned Mexican family, “Proud Mexican old ladies. Very light skinned, blue eyes, tall. My grandpa was very short with brown eyes, but light skin and hair and it was probably an arranged marriage, but she wouldn’t want to admit that. There’s a lot of racism, with darker skin Mexicans, Blacks, doesn’t matter, it’s super racist”. Within Mexico, lighter skinned Mexicans often have more privileges and higher status in society due to their closer phenotypic approximation to Spanish ancestry. Coming to the United States, her family may feel like they need to compete with other racial and ethnic minorities to boost their status.
Myra told me, “I used to reject the sari. My mom represented what was not loved and respected, so I did not want that. I did get the idea that white people are better. My mom was not that respected by the community. They didn’t fully take her seriously. They expected her to be practical. I didn’t want to identify with that”. Myra is clearly aware of racial dynamics present growing up around mostly white people. Because the community did not respect her mother, Myra also did not respect her mother. It is possible that Myra may feel differently about the situation if instead, her father was Indian and mother white. How having a parent of a specific racial and ethnic identity affects a child’s racial development is an area to be further explored in forthcoming research.
Witnessing racism by outsiders led many to question and take note of the role of race in society. This awareness, gained over a lifetime, aids the participants in developing a resistant consciousness.
3.5. The Physical Body
The thread underlying the perceptions of self and the role of outsiders is the physical body and embodiment of the participants. Participants engaged their bodies and knowledge of bodies’ connection to ethnic/cultural histories as a way of developing a gendered multiracial identity and resisting monoracial identity imperatives. The body as one of the main symbols of race in our society plays a significant role in the lives of these multiracial women. For these women, themes of covering and passing, and confidence emerged. As a feminist critical mixed-race scholar, the importance of the role of the physical body in the lives of these participants is key to my research. Feminism’s continued emphasis on women and gender’s connection to the physical body underlies this study (Butler 1993
; Wolf 1990
). I demonstrate how the body’s role is tied to the intersection of race, class, gender, and sexuality and how the body is strongly connected to multiracial participants’ awareness of the dominant racial order in the United States.
The participants’ paths to self-identification as multiracial individuals was facilitated by their own and other’s perceptions of their physical body. Many of the women’s chosen racial and ethnic self-identification emerged through a lifelong process of negotiating between societal expectations of race and their internal feelings, family dynamics, and racial and ethnic background. In some cases, one factor in how participants chose and currently choose to racially and ethnically self-identify is based upon the way their physical bodies are perceived by others. Carson and Phoebe can both easily pass as white. Earlier on in their lives they identified as white, not as multiracial. However, as they grew older and acquired knowledge about how race operates in the United States, both due to their subject position and their education, they began to question how their physical bodies were viewed by others, creating awareness of race and its connection to their experiences as multiracial women.
Two subthemes emerged within the larger finding of the importance of the physical body in the lives and identities of these multiracial subjects. The subthemes consist of covering and passing, and confidence and acceptance.
3.6. Covering and Passing
Throughout their lives, a few of the participants completely broke with half of their background and passed as white (the majority of participants are half white, see Appendix A
, Table A1
for more information on participants). Passing is on the extreme end of covering (Daniel 2001
). Covering is defined as disguising one’s physical body in an attempt to distance oneself from a stigmatized identity (in this case, the intersection of being a woman and being mixed race) (Yoshino 2006b
). The majority of the participants engaged only with various methods of covering (Yoshino 2006a
). I highlight the physical aspects of passing and covering to show how the women in this study presented their physical bodies in order to cover.
A powerful part of covering is how one fits in physically to the dominant phenotypical model, “Overall, skin color along with other phenotypical features such as hair texture, eye color, as well as nose and lip shape working in combination with attitudinal, behavioral, and socioeconomic attributes has increased as a form of ‘racial capital’” (Daniel et al. 2014, p. 24
). The physical body is inexorably linked to race and gender (Butler 1989
; Omi and Winant 2014
). Historically, light skin has been the prerequisite for passing. I argue that based upon these participants’ stories, passing and covering are heightened by other attempts at body modification. These types of modifications include the lightening of skin and avoidance of tanning to bleaching of eyebrows.
For the participants, the path towards developing an embodied multiracial consciousness was fraught with contradictions that in some cases also upheld the monoracial hierarchy. The women’s relationships with their bodies demonstrate how they do not need to be free of patriarchal constraints on the female body to be resistant to a monoracial society. Bunsell
) in her ethnography on female bodybuilding in the UK wrote, “I find myself becoming increasingly skeptical of second-wave feminist claims that there is a ‘female body’ which can be ‘reclaimed’ from ‘patriarchal’ society … there can never be a resistant ‘female body outside of discourse, or a resistant body that can stand as a simple exception to forces of normalization or domination’”. Like Bunsell, I find that the multiracial women participants in my research are complex subjects whose bodies play an often-contradictory role. However, these contradictions do not prevent them from questioning dominant structures.
Phoebe is an example of a participant engaging with her body from the intersection of gender, sexuality, and race. She recounted a memory of the past, “(in) junior high, I was obsessed with being as white as possible. I would wear long sleeves and pants in the summer so I wouldn’t get tan, bleached my hair, bought skin-bleaching lotion and I’m not even that brown! I didn’t want anyone to think I was close to Mexican or anything”. I asked her why and she said, “I was embarrassed. All the kids who were Latino—most of them Mexican—they had such a bad reputation as being bad kids and (having) bad families and stuff”.
Then as she grew older, “In high school I was like, ‘oh fuck that shit I’m going to wear dirty overalls every day and chop my hair off and wax my eyebrows off.’ And as much as that was rebelling from those societal norms it was within those norms”. She altered her body in a different way—by trying to look “different” than she did before and by appearing “alternative” and androgynous. And now, after college, she embraces her body and is now mostly comfortable with herself (Hooks 2003
; Walker 2001
Phoebe’s presentation of her body is a powerful statement in a monoracial society. This is demonstrated through her path to embracing a multiracial identity. She is aware of how passing and covering in the past were reactions to not fitting in to society. Knowledge gained through her education and subject position led her to see this and then to embrace a multiracial identity. Today Phoebe embraces a fuller body shape. She is also aware of how others view her body. When she says “my body is Latino” she means that the way her body is perceived by outsiders is as a Latina body; she has wide hips, a big butt, and breasts—all features stereotypically associated with the bodies of women of color and in this case Latinas specifically. Phoebe’s nuanced awareness of her past relationship with her body and her racial/ethnic identity in addition to how she is perceived physically today demonstrate monoracial knowledge. Both Phoebe’s and her sister Carson’s awareness of societal ideals and normative about women’s bodies allows them to begin to resist normative monoracial expectations and make decisions about their own physical bodies in today’s society.
Myra also felt self-conscious about her physical body and attempted to alter herself growing up as a mixed-race woman in Germany. She was often the only person of color at her school and the people who looked like her were maids and of a lower-class status. She told me, “I had horrible moments in my life when I wanted all my facial hair to be blonde, my eyebrows too much work to tweeze, I lasered it once. People said I had a moustache. I have the Frida Kahlo look. It felt like self-hate about it, I wanted to be like the people that are popular”. Although less extreme than complete passing, Myra, like Phoebe tried to change her physical body to look more like the blonde European ideal. As mixed-race women, some of the participants recognize how they engaged in covering to alter their physical selves in order to fit into both the standard beauty ideal and negotiate a multiracial identity.
3.7. Confidence and Acceptance
Ana and Sanya both resist physical monoracial norms. They do so through the need to not define themselves physically as either Indian or Hawaiian. They are aware of how others perceive them and their family—as racially ambiguous. Not fitting into a dominant and expected phenotype for Indian or Hawaiian people compounds Ana and Sanya’s multiracial self-identification and conviction in their in-between identities. As Desfor Edles
) discussed in her piece “’Race’, ‘Ethnicity,’ and ‘Culture,’ in Hawai’i, The Myth of the ‘Model Minority’”, there is a popular conception of Hawai’i as a mixed-race Utopia. Ana and Sanya both have an awareness of history on both sides of their family and how this history has affected their family and themselves including dispelling the myth of Hawai’i as a racial utopia. This awareness allows them to make decisions about their physical bodies. The sisters consciously exist within a liminal physical space neither attempting to look phenotypically or stereotypically Indian or Hawaiian.
Marie told me, “I never felt negative about my body because my mom was super positive … I’ve never really felt unconfident … I’ve never been one to watch or count calories I just like enjoying food”. Marie mentions her mother as a key figure in her acceptance of her body. Later in our conversation she also mentions the positive effect of her grandmother, who had a large hand in raising her. Scholars have long debated the role of mothers in the lives of their children (Freud) and while mothers do affect the way their children see themselves, as scholars like Thompson
) have pointed out, there are many other reasons such as racism, classism, and heterosexism that affect one’s relationship with food and their body.
Carson also exemplifies the connection between physical appearance and multiracial identity. When it comes to her body she explains how she feels in an either/or monoracial framework, “If I was actually Mexican I could have big boobs and hips, and it would be good and sexy but if I’m white then I have to be skinny, very consistently that goes through my head”. Keeping with cultural and social body ideals, she is “allowed” to have big hips and breasts if she is Mexican, but if she is white she must be skinny. She struggles between feeling the pressure to be skinny as a white person and the ability to embrace a curvier figure as Mexican. This struggle is strongly facilitated by her identity as a multiracial individual. Because she does not fit neatly in to specific phenotypical racial categories she is ambivalent about how her physical body fits in to the framework. In Carson’s quote, she is playing off the stereotype that women of color are supposed to be heavier, have larger butts, hips, and breasts, while white women should be thin. But this limited and dichotomous view of ideal bodies does not leave room for many women in any category, above all not multiracial women. Although not explicitly stating this, Carson is pointing out that she does not know where in this dominant discourse about “ethnic” beauty standards she fits as a multiracial woman. Carson demonstrates both ambivalence and confusion towards how she is supposed to look while at the same time telling me that while it is a hard process, she tries to accept her body as it is now.
A powerful way of resisting society in general and society as monoracial was through women’s acceptance and love of their bodies. Many of the participants embraced their physical bodies and accepted them as they are. This is the case of Marie with Katherine. I suggest here that one factor in their ability to accept their physical bodies is their approximation to ideal standards of beauty. Marie, who identifies as “Hispanic” may feel less pressure to be skinny because of society’s expectations of the bodies of Latinas. For Katherine, who passes easily as white, her slender figure, which closely approximates the white slender societal ideal may allow her acceptance of her physical body.