The unique experiences of multiracial individuals are often overlooked

In the fall of 2022, 740 undergraduate students, six professionals and 63 graduate students identified as mixed-race out of Iowa State’s 29,969 population, according to Iowa State University’s semesterly multicultural summary.

Multiracial people’s experiences may be overlooked by those who do not experience issues themselves.

Rena Heinrich, an assistant professor of theatre practice in critical studies specializing in interculturalism and race representation at the University of Southern California, discussed the nature of America’s hypodescent society.

Courtesy of
Rena Heinrich, assistant professor of theater practice in critical studies at the University of Southern California.

“Folks are forced to identify with the parent that is considered sort of lesser in the social hierarchy,” Heinrich said. “If I’m talking about myself, I’m half white and half Asian, so I’m seen as Asian…If I was half Black and half Asian, I would be seen as Black, right? I’d be seen as a person of color.”

Heinrich said it is a mixed person’s right to identify how they want, which could change depending on geographical location, social context and the understanding of race.

Novotny Lawrence is an associate professor in the Greenlee School of Journalism and Communication and the English Department of Iowa State University. Although race is an important construct in society, he said, it is the exterior people who buy into stereotypes and hold discriminatory beliefs that police mixed people.

Courtesy of
Novotny Lawrence, journalism and English professor at Iowa State University.

“If someone is Black and white, then there’s this notion that, ‘Well, you have too much pigmentation in your skin to be white,'” Lawrence said. “And you have Black people who say, ‘You’re not really dark enough to be down and truly Black,’ and that can lead to this crisis of identity in terms of ‘Where do I fit in?’”

Heinrich coined the term “double liminality,” the state of being where one exists in a liminal space at the threshold of two racial groups but does not quite fit into either.

“You really get thrown out of both groups and exist in this liminal space, and I think that’s something monoracial people don’t understand, is somebody who is mixed-race is actually navigating both groups at the same time and this liminal space,” Heinrich said. “Folks who are monoracial can’t [understand] because they don’t have that experience.”

LeiLani Nishime, a communication professor who specializes in multiracial and interracial studies at the University of Washington, addressed why trying to put mixed people in a box is problematic. Firstly, Nishime said it alienates mixed people from whatever group they identify with by arguing that there is only one way to be mixed when there’s a spectrum.

LeiLani Nishime, communication professor at the University of Washington. (Tara Brown)

“We have very few images of mixed-race people, and when we do, we often don’t recognize them as being mixed-race,” Nishime said.

Secondly, she said it separates mixed-race people from that group and makes it seem as if they cannot have a connection to any of those racial identities and the problems they encounter.

A common microaggression disguised as a compliment describes mixed-race people as “exotic.”

“They’re saying, ‘You look great, so why would you be offended by that?’ And I think the issue is that the term ‘exotic’ may be about someone being attractive, but it’s also about them being different,” Nishime said. “When that’s attributed to being mixed, it’s sort of a racist individuality of people.”

Because “exotic” implies both beauty and oddity, Heinrich said there is an experience of being either glamorized or an aberration; people do not know where to place mixed folks when the social system is dependent on monoracial categorization.

The perception of mixed-race people traces back to American literature and misrepresentations in the media.

According to Lawrence, The “tragic mulatto” trope discouraged miscegenation (interbreeding) and interracial relationships, perpetuating racist stereotypes of Black and mixed individuals. He said this trope was portrayed in various films, including “Imitation of Life” and “Intruder in the Dust.”

Throughout the storylines, Lawrence discussed how audiences are led to believe that biracial characters could have been happy had they not been biracial. There is virtue through the characters’ whiteness but unhappiness and isolation through their blackness.

Preserving “white purity” has been a long-running theme, Lawrence said. He explained that Chinese men during their immigration and Japanese men during World War II were depicted as a threat to white women in print media.

During the rise of eugenics in the early 20th century, Heinrich said people believed interbreeding would lead to mental degeneracy and instability, causing the breakdown of America because whites were seen as a “superior race” that should not mix with “weaker races.”

Heinrich discussed the impact of “The Passing of The Great Race” by Madison Grant in promoting eugenics in 1916. She said Grant’s teachings were used as a basis for Adolf Hitler’s “Mein Kampf,” the Immigration Acts of 1917 and 1924 and anti-miscegenation laws.

For Native Americans, Nishime stated interbreeding was more acceptable because of the desire to claim Native land.

The “Pocahontas Exception” allowed mixed-Native Americans to identify as white as long as they had one-sixteenth or less Native blood. Nishime said the United States used this to make Native Americans disappear after a few generations, being more able to claim their land.

To address mixed racism, Lawrence said it is important to be mindful and willing to learn about people’s experiences without being afraid of making mistakes because that is how you become conscious of where you need to improve.

“Part of supporting biracial people is being attuned to the language and the ways in which they identify and understand the issues that they may face,” Lawrence said. “I always want to make it very clear that these are my perspectives from my positionality. But in that struggle and in that fight, I follow, and I don’t lead when I’m not a member of said group.”