New Words for Mixed Race People of Colour – With or Without White Ancestry

by Special Correspondent Thea Lim

Earlier this week, while writing about my affinity for Mariah Carey based on the fact that we are both mixed race, I forgot to mention something important. I forgot to clarify that, while me and Mariah are part white and part POC, there are a lot of people who are mixed race but have no white family members, or have all white family members.

willeva It seems like an obvious point, yah? It seems obvious that a person is mixed race if their family is composed of more than one race. But you don’t need me to tell you that for many of us, the term mixed race is synonymous with being half-white. In other words, when we say mixed race, the assumption is that we are referring to people who have one white parent and one parent of colour. Or even one white parent and one black parent.

We assume mixed race people always have one white parent. We forget that children of part-white ancestry don’t have a lock on mixed raceness; you’re still mixed race if you have two parents of colour from different ethnic backgrounds. And (this one’s a shocker), technically you’re mixed race if you have two white parents from different ethnic backgrounds.

This is problematic in and of itself because we are erasing the experience of mixed race people who don’t have white ancestry. But further, it’s simply another way in which we center white experiences in our culture. We don’t note the experiences of mixed race people without white ancestry because their combo leaves white folks out of the picture; a mix without whiteness is not considered worthy of comment. As a culture we continue to fail at conversations involving issues that have nothing to do with white people. Embracing and recognising our mixed race non-white brethren is yet another way that we can break the The Wheel of Tyranny.*

Usually when I write about mixed race issues, I write about mixed race people who have one parent of colour, and one white parent. This is because this is my experience. And usually, I stick a little note at the end of my post explaining my use of the term “mixed race.”

From last June:

Alibhai-Brown uses mixed race to refer to people who are part white and part of colour, so that’s how I’m using it here. But yes! I do agree that mixed race really refers to people of any mix. Which includes at least half of North America.

From last August:

Let’s also note that defining “biracial” as half-white and half-something else is not accurate! Like you could be half Pakistani and half Malaysian. You’d still be biracial! Let’s stop ignoring the experiences of people who are mixed race but have two parents of colour. Doing otherwise makes it seem like the mixed race experience is only remarkable when a white person is involved – it insists white experiences be included.

Last week, it seems like I promptly forgot. Commenters queerhapa and Death of a Dynasty noted my error:

queerhapa wrote:

oh, and i know you’re mostly talking about mariah, who is half white, but a couple times in here it is implied that all mixed-race people are part white. which, obviously, is not true. just wanted to point that out.

Death of a Dynasty wrote:

Queerhapa is right that the article implies half-whiteness. It’s a trend that demands more than just a disclaimer. This albeit beautifully written and moving article implies that the experience of being mixed is also always about white privilege and guilt.

So why did I forget? Part of it is that I guess I think of my writing on Racialicious as a continuous conversation, and if I’ve said something once, I don’t think to repeat it again. But obviously not everyone has read every post I’ve written on the site. Part of it was just plain f-ing up, and for that I am sorry.

Yet, another part of it is that, like Death of a Dynasty, I agree that we need more than just endnotes to correct the constant assumption that mixed race means half-white. This is what I said in response to queerhapa:

I wish there was terminology that indicated mixes that are between communities of colour and that are between people of colour and white people. Because mixed race is always assumed to mean half white/half POC, & biracial, even more annoyingly is always assumed to mean black/white. People who fall into neither of those categories but are still mixed get forgotten, and I wish there was a way to indicate what we are talking about (that is, without the perennial footnote…).

The more I think about this mixed race conundrum, the more I feel like we need language that indicates when we are referring to mixed race people with white ancestry, and when we are referring to mixed race people with only ancestry of colour. In this way we indicate that we are aware there are mixed race people who do not have white ancestry, simply by the words we use, and without the need of annoying disclaimers that reduce folks to a footnote.

The term “people of colour” was thought up because we needed a way to recognise that all non-white people share a common experience, despite their vast ethnic and cultural experiences. At least as I understand it, it’s intended to emphasise the solidarity we have with each other. And the term “non-white” didn’t cut it because it identified us via what we are not, rather than what we are.

This is part of the problem I have with the term “half-white.” I could simply write a post about me and Mariah, referring to us as “half-white.” But in the first place I’m not half of anything, i.e. somehow incomplete (I have all parts of myself intact, thankyouverymuch), and in the second place, simply referring to myself as half-white seems to imply that whatever my other half is, it isn’t worth naming. Again, we centre white folks.

But the term “half-Chinese” (as we would say for me, or half-Kenyan as we would say for Obama, or half-Dominican as we would say for A-Rod) has its own problems; in only indicating one part of my heritage, the implication is that you can assume my other half must be white. We circle back to our original problem: the assumption that all mixed race people are half-white.

And let’s not forget that even the word “half” has its issues; I’m actually 1/2 Chinese, 1/4 English, and 1/4 Irish. Using terminology that deals in halves ignores folks who have more than two heritages. Like our friend Keanu.

When you really begin to probe our language, it becomes clear that we force simplicity on an experience that is not simple at all. We insist on binaries that lose, erase and ignore the complexity and vitality of our family trees. And we also touch on that conversation with no end: how do you define “race”? Is someone who is Czech and Polish mixed race? What about someone who is Tibetan and Burmese? Someone who is Tamil and Sinhalese? Someone who is Welsh and Scottish?

Have you seen the movie Hitch? It may or may not be worth the rental, but it is noteworthy for its pairing of Will Smith and Eva Mendes. In all my years of trashy viewing, they are the only fictional interracial couple that quickly comes to mind – and does not include a white person. Othello & Desdemona? Nope. Jon & Kate? Nope. Angie & Flipper? Nope. Aaliyah & Jet Li? Yes!…oh no wait. They were just friends.

People who deal in anti-oppression are more than familiar with the importance of finding the right word, and inventing one if the ones we have are inadequate. This is why the terms cisgendered, chican@ and freegan are in common use.

The only neologism I can think of right now is this: when I am referring to mixed race people with white family, I will write “mixed race (WA/AOC),” and when I am referring to mixed race people with no white family, I will write “mixed race (AOC).” WA = white ancestry; AOC = ancestry of colour. When I am referring to all mixed race people, I will just say mixed race. Because that’s as it should be.

But…these are not the sexiest of terms. Let me know if you’ve got something that works better.

* The Wheel of Tyranny refers to a pattern whereby where communities of colour circle constantly around a hub that is white folks, while never communicating with each other. In other words, too many conversations involve a community of colour, and a white community, and there are not enough conversations going on between communities of colour.

** If you are not familiar with her, the lady in the picture is Amerie. According to Wikipedia her family is African-American and Korean.