Owho are we ? What is the name we call each other? Mixed people are the fastest growing minority group in Britain. And yet we are suffocated by a lack of language to describe ourselves. I first realized this in my early twenties, considering the past. As a Welsh-French-Scottish-American-Indian-Mauritian, when I was growing up, I had no word that defined me other than “mixed”, which seemed less than ideal: it conjured up the image of two scoops of ice cream melt in a bowl.
“Biracial” didn’t work either. Bi means two: bicycle; biannual; cut in half – and with my parents’ lives each encompassing more than a single strand, I was more than two. For me, biracial could suit people whose parents belonged to two distinct and clearly defined cultural backgrounds, “half this and half that”. But I had never been half this and half that.
“Multiracial” sounded too clinical, developed in a Petri dish; its parent, “polyracial”, was less clinical but somewhat mythical, Greek in scope, an all-powerful deity with undulating skin, changing color with the wind. The “double inheritance” was simply puzzling, suggesting the existence of a majority of “single inheritance” from cloning or asexual reproduction of plants.
I might just tell people I was Welsh-French-Scottish-American-Indian-Mauritian, but can you imagine giving that as a response to the ubiquitous “Where are you from?”. I could practically hear the rest before the words even left my mouth: “Wow, that’s an interesting mix!” – which made me want to climb out the window.
Our lack of vocabulary to describe diversity is detrimental. Put a tree, a fish, or a crescent moon in front of just about anyone from anywhere, and they’ll have a word for it in their language. The same cannot be said of the terms we use when we talk about race, because outside of our language they are meaningless terms that relate only to theories. Our current vocabulary is actively violent. Terms, like Bame (black, Asian and ethnic minority), which is being retired, and PoC (people of color) are framed in a “white” or “non-white” binary – emphasizing a majority white and defaulting all other groups to “minority”. They only make sense if you understand and accept whiteness as the default and position everyone outside of it as a cohesive group.
Even the word “race” itself is sometimes interchangeable with “ethnicity” or “nationality”. And above all, in some languages, none of these terms exist. Because race is one concept. We invented it. Learning how few of these terms exist outside of English really highlights how futile they are and how intangible the idea of race is.
But that’s not to say the effects aren’t real, including with language: in English, the way we talk about race is so limited, half-baked and attached to oppression that it’s another curse of whiteness that people of color must navigate. We can’t even articulate who we are, condemned to long speeches just to identify ourselves. On every level imaginable, we lack recognition and space.
A lot of mestizos don’t like the term “mixed race”: it conjures up racist ideologies of “mixing races” and the “drop rule,” and I can see that. But to me, “mixed” (without the “race” part) is the best of a bad group. It seems rounded enough to avoid further questioning and it helps negate any bonkers follow-ups about “if you go back far enough…”, or “technically all human DNA…” or whatever else a White guys with an interest in “history” might want to pitch you to prove they know your roots better than you do.
White people are always quick to ask where you’re from and how interesting your mixed heritage is. Of course, they could have had no idea of the hours, years, lifetimes you yourself might have spent pondering this question. The use of the single term “mixed” closes this: short, concise, provocative, finished. “Oh me? I’m mixed. End of story, let’s talk about something else.
Mixed obviously denotes almost nothing about a person because there are endless ways of be mixed. Naturally, within the mixed group, I share more with some than with others. I have a lot in common, for example, with people who have a white parent and another parent who emigrated as adults from a small, formerly colonized island. Even though we grew up in different countries and were of different ages, the friends in this group had almost identical experiences with our parents, right down to the phrases exchanged. Identifying a community of people who shared my experience – across generational, gender, geographic and class boundaries – was incredible. Imagine having a term for it, something easy like Piacin, so you can say, “Oh, are you a Peacin (adult immigrant parent, colonized island nation)?”, and immediately find the kinship in the simple answer “yes”. Yet, with no term to describe us, I’m still forced to ask, “So do you have a white parent and your other parent is a first-generation immigrant who immigrated as an adult from a small island nation formerly colonized by Europeans? ?”
Our language is missing. Although our existing vocabulary may be so uninformative that it makes no sense, let alone the fact that it is universally hated by the people it describes, that does not mean that the impact of trying to understanding yourself through a distorted lens is not real. Given that, apparently, by the end of the century, about one in three people in the population will be mixed, it looks like we could deal with the lack of jargon. Knowing that our language isn’t suitable for my purpose, I’m using whatever terms I can at the moment – blended, PoC – acknowledging issues without letting them derail me, rather than letting language be another factor who holds me back.
Laila Woozeer is a British singer-songwriter, musician and activist. she is the author of Not Quite White