By Sofía Lewis
Our identity determines every aspect of our lives. Whether that’s the identity that we radiate through our skin color and body, or our passions that fill our lives with purpose — the way we define ourselves is how society defines us. Thus, so many people, especially young people, find themselves struggling to find the correct terms to associate with and the right communities to say we belong to. Above all, our race and our ethnicity contribute so much to who we become and the way others treat us, that it can be difficult to find out how to exist in American society.
In the literal sense, a majority is “a greater number.” However, the definition is much more complicated when it comes to race and ethnicity. In the United States, being a racial or ethnic majority means being a non-Hispanic white person, who make up roughly 57.8% of the US population. While all other racial and ethnic groups — Black people, Asians, Latinos, Middle Easterns, and more — are considered minorities. Being a minority is an identity that follows you throughout your life, no matter how far you go. All the while, you have to see members of your community overrepresent the incarceration system, poverty, and mortality rates.
It doesn’t take long to observe the way American society treats white people versus minorities. The difference is present in every sector of our country— from the politicians who make up our House of Representatives to the actors we see in the movies and TV shows across our screens. Being white in the United States has for so long been equated with being “normal.” At the same time, society views minorities as “different.” However, in recent decades, a social and cultural shift has taken place throughout America regarding this mentality. An effort to have diverse politicians leading our country is on the rise, workforces have adapted to treat workers of all races with respect, and the media is now much more conscious in representing the accurate demographics of this intricate nation. This new racial awareness is making young Americans question the meaning of their racial and ethnic identity, cultural history, and place in American society.
So what happens if in the eyes of the US, you are both a majority and a minority? What happens if you live between the lines of “normal” and “different” because of your racial makeup? How should biracial/multiethnic teens growing up amid this pivotal moment of our racial reckoning fit themselves into the tangle that is the U.S. social fabric? The only way to grapple with these questions is by talking to these teens directly, starting with myself.
I’m Sofía Lewis, and I’m a 15-year-old born and raised in NYC. My father is a white American from upstate New York, while my mother was born in Cali, Colombia and immigrated to America 21 years ago. I’ve grown up surrounded by both of my parents’ cultures, enveloped in the history and customs of these separate nations. American culture is a large presence in my life since I’ve lived in this nation my whole life. English is my first language. I eat American food, have American friends, and am a student in the American school system. However, my Colombian culture also plays a significant role in my life. My mom has made sure to not leave out Colombian culture from my upbringing, teaching me Spanish from a young age, and taking my brother and I to visit my family in Colombia frequently. My mom has passed down many of the cultural norms and values that she grew up with in Colombia to the rest of my family.
Growing up in the midst of these two identities has had its pros and cons. I value seeing and experiencing the world through two different perspectives, while at the same time relating to two different cultures simultaneously. However, I don’t love feeling like I don’t fully belong to either community, struggling with the distance I feel from both my Colombian and white backgrounds. Many multiethnic teens have experienced this sense of detachment from their identity.
My friend and fellow Beacon sophomore, Christina Kanyongolo, beautifully said, “I can relate to both sides, but both sides can’t relate to me.”
Christina is half white American and half Malawian. We’ve both grown up with one of our parents channeling their American culture, tethering us to this country we call home. However, there is another country whose very different culture mingles into our lives, splitting our identities down the middle. Many mixed-race individuals may have a lighter skin complexion than others in their community. Christina noted, “I’m seen as more of an approachable or friendly Black person because of colorism that’s in peoples heads. The lighter you are, the less different you are.”
The concept of society seeing you as a more approachable version of a minority is something mixed people constantly deal with. The closer we are to the white standard, the easier it is for us to “blend in.” Mixed kids can’t fully relate to the POC experience because we are half white, but we also can’t ignore the fact that society still sees and treats us differently because we are part-minority.
“It kind of makes me feel like an imposter among my Indian peers,” says Sitara Soleil, a half white and half Indian Beacon sophomore. “Because while they’re all colored and face discrimination every day, I can get away with it because I’m white passing. At Indian weddings I’ll get compliments about my white skin and big eyes, and I’m happy about those compliments, but also I feel like I’m reinforcing the beauty standards that aren’t attainable to people of color.” I myself have experienced this, many times when I have gone to visit family in Colombia I have been complimented and admired for my light eyes. It wasn’t until I got older that I began to realize the meaning behind these compliments, that I looked more like the light-skinned Spanish actresses and models on Colombian television than the rest of my family.
However, even when you are white passing, that does not mean you are spared from microaggressions. Sitara goes on to talk about how when she was in middle school there was a trend where people would make fun of Indian music, imitating the traditional sounds that are found within the songs. Sitara explains, “I take pride in that music, that’s the music that I grew up listening to, so it was disheartening to see people making fun of it.” Similarly, Eos Perez, a friend of mine who is also half white and half Salvadoran, talks about some microaggressions she herself has experienced, such as when she was trying to explain to a girl from her school that she is from El Salvadorian, but the girl continued asking “where in Mexico are you from?”
Since I was in middle school, many of my peers have made jokes to me about illegal immigration and drug trafficking, things that they associate with Colombia, and therefore associate with me. I try not to take these jokes personally because I know that people are just trying to get a rise out of me, but at times it has made me regret telling people that I am Colombian because it can become all people see in me. I never really know how to react to these jokes, especially when they’re being made to me in front of a lot of people, so I’ll usually end up momentarily freezing and then fake laughing, even though inside I feel embarrassed about the fact that I’m being associated with such negative things.
But not all mixed people can get away with being white passing, and for those who are clearly part minority, racism can be very upfront. Miles Hallett-Brown, a Beacon student who is half white and half Black, told me about a time a stranger yelled at him while he was on vacation. “In Vermont me and my dad were driving down the road and this guy pulled in front of us and then he came out of the car and he was like ‘what are you doing here? We don’t want your drugs and your crime in our state.”
What I have learned from looking back on my own experience as a mixed person and interviewing my mixed friends is that the way you are perceived and treated varies greatly on who you’re talking to. Some people see me as white, others see me as Hispanic, and others see me as a blend. Some people who live in less diverse American cities and neighborhoods see me as exotic, other people (especially New Yorkers) see me as just another person with a miscellaneous ethnic background. And how do I see myself? For a long time, I tried to become one of my identities. I’d either tell people I’m full white, or I’d tell them I’m Hispanic (I tended to use general terms instead of specifically saying Colombian). One half of myself took center stage while the other fell behind, and it wasn’t really until I was talking to my mom one day that this changed. I asked her “what do you put me down as in the census?” She shrugged a bit and told me, “it depends. I usually put you down as white for race, and as Hispanic for ethnicity.” I think in this moment it clicked in my head that I was indeed more than one thing, and that that’s ok. I don’t have to try and force myself to assume one label.
For Eos, she finds that white people see her as white and people of color see her as mixed. For Sitara it’s the opposite. Miles and Christina think they are seen mostly as Black. Miles added that especially in places like Vermont, where the population is 89.8% white, he is seen overwhelmingly as a minority. Clearly, every mixed person experiences their multiracial or ethnic background differently, and that experience is constantly evolving depending on the environment that a mixed person finds themself in.
However, being seen as a different part of your identity every time you talk to a new person or go to a new neighborhood, city, or state can be exhausting and perplexing, which is why if I were to ask one thing of non-mixed people who happen to be reading this article, it is to fight the urge to try and fit biracial and/or multiethnic people into one box. We are not just white, and we are not just a minority. We are a mix of both, and whether or not that fits into American society’s single-minded views on race is not our problem. While it can be exhausting, I am sure all my friends can agree with me that it is as much a blessing as it is a nuisance to grow up in America as both a majority and a minority.