What we would like you to know
It’s a warm summer’s day and you’re walking down the street when you see a stranger walking in your direction. As you get closer, your eyes dart towards them and you scan them up and down. Subconsciously, your mind begins to assess them, making up your first impression:
Female, white, long brown hair, mid 20s, slim physique, no ring, nice clothes, wealthy.
Some of these may be true, others may not. Given you’ve just walked past this person on the street, you will likely never find out if they were indeed married, wealthy or happy.
It doesn’t even matter, because you have another person to assess 5 seconds later:
Black, male, late 20s, muscular, ring, sports wear, headphones, kit bag, athletic, disciplined, either coming from or going to the gym.
He walks past you and vanishes moments later.
This process is nothing new. We go through it every day that we enter the outside world. Assessing our surroundings and making instinctive judgement calls about the people we come across.
According to the author of The Chimp Paradox, psychiatrist Professor Steve Peters explains that when we meet someone for the first time, we pick up on many factors: Demeanour, attire, the intonation of their voice, as well as their words.
Short answer: to survive.
Long answer: when you encounter new situations and especially new people, the blood supply in your brain is directed to the limbic lobe. The limbic lobe is part of a more complex entity commonly referred to the limbic system.
Two important things happen in the limbic system that you need to know about.
Number one: it is the area of the brain responsible for keeping you safe from danger by assessing threat. So any time you meet somebody new, it will kick into action to establish whether you’re in danger.
Number two: it recognises the emotions indicated by other people’s facial expressions. One hand, it helps you to perceive what they are thinking and feeling.
All of this takes place within seconds. In fact, forming a first impression of someone can be even faster than that.
Researchers Janine Willis and Alexander Todorov from Princeton University found that it takes just a tenth of a second for people to make judgements about you based on your facial appearance. Longer exposure to those same faces does nothing more than boost our confidence in those initial assumptions.
We are wired to evaluate the people we see in front of us, to decide whether we need to fight or take off.
It’s all instinctual.
How does this apply to race?
Taking a trip down memory lane, we used lived in groups or tribes largely comprised of our extended families. We would be surrounded by people who look like us and therefore perceived as safe. When others outside of the group would approach, this would be seen as a threat and often it was — difference meant danger.
The expansion of various empires has made the world a smaller place. So small that my parents came from Germany and Nigeria and my wife’s parents come from the Philippines, yet he we are eating dinner in West London on a Sunday afternoon.
Today, cultures once hidden have become integrated into the world order and race has now become the preeminent tool for social categorisation.
The colour of our skin of course is the most easily distinguishable factor, followed by the thickness of our lips, the width of our nose and the texture of our hair. If that doesn’t seal the deal then the slant of our eyes, the colour of our cheeks or the strength of our jaw should do it.
So when confronted with a new face, our brain will put together these characteristics and assign that face into a racial category.
Now here’s the dilemma some people have when they see mixed-race people: They can’t automatically place them into a category, because these faces don’t clearly align with a dominant racial identity. We are a combination of racial identities and that confuses their brains.
Queue the question: “so where are you from?”
The Struggle of Being Mixed-Race
This excerpt from an academic journal hit home: “Multiracial persons are often confronted with issues surrounding visual ambiguity, identity confusion, rejection from familial or ethnic groups, and inability to identify with every component of a diverse racial background due to societal pressures.”
In an ideal world, we would immediately have our own category and our identity would be seen as valid. Given the trends in mixed-race birth rates, this may become the reality sooner than you think.
Unfortunately until then, we are often categorised into a a dominant racial group and forced to abandon reference to the other portion of our heritage. This can leave us torn between two sides of an identity as we bid the forgotten part farewell.
From those who are mixed black and white — as I am — they will likely be categorised as black, despite having a white parent. Perhaps the features of our visage fall under the ‘black’ category, so we resign ourselves to being labelled as black, when were are in fact not wholly so.
The influence of other people around us may be the reason we do so. Many will seek to categorise us from an early age — including our family.
For example, in response to #blacklivesmatter, Alexis Ohanian — husband to Serena Williams — recently relinquished his seat on the board of Reddit, a company he co-founded and urged them to fill his seat with a black candidate. Seat at the cook-out earned, right?
When asked why, he answered: “I’m saying this as a father who needs to be able to answer his black daughter when she asks what did you do.”
I love the sentiment, but this statement confused me! You are a white male and you have a daughter that is made up of 50% of your DNA — why are you calling her black?!
It just goes to show, even the most devoting, loving parents are human and may be prone to categorise their children with one side of their heritage. As in this case, it may not even be with their own.
The Truths of Life
According to Professor Peters, “Truths of Life” are statements that you believe are true for the way that the world works. You may have accepted these truths subconsciously due to social conditioning.
For example, one of your truths may be “people who have one white parent and one black parent are black, therefore [insert name here] is black.”
The problem with this ‘truth’ is its logic is eerily similar to the “one drop rule”, meaning that a single drop of “black blood” makes a person a black. This policy was used in the Southern States of America to categorise a person as black and see them as inferior.
To put it bluntly — that is an idiotic and damaging logic to follow.
For people of mixed-race, both sides of their heritage are relevant and integral to our individual identity.
If you find yourself categorising mixed-race people with one side of their heritage, you are part of the problem.
As a person of mixed-race, you do not need to label yourself with a dominant racial group to feel belonging and value. Your own identity will flourish as you embrace all the influences that have made you uniquely you.
This is where the power lies.
For more insight into the mixed-race experience, follow me on Medium.