Today in Canada, a lot of people (read: white people) are gaining interest in race, politics, privilege, and intersectionality. A large part of this privilege-checking process is recognizing either a white identity’s inherent complicity and vowing to recognize that as an ally, or in dismantling one’s complex oppressions and finding possible arenas for resistance. A binary between white and non-white occurs because our power structures in society reflect a white dominance in various forms. So what happens when you’re half-white?
Well, a lot of things happen. And they’re all confusing, because you cannot fit into either side of this binary. Oh, you can try — try as hard as you can to embrace your whiteness and conceal your ‘ethnicity.’ In my particular experience, I was raised in a dominantly white area and I ate up the Canadian media’s centering of white values, white beauty, and white culture. I tried desperately to conform to these ideals. Many women can relate to hating their bodies as they grew up, and while I was lucky to not develop bad eating habits, I was sitting in front of the mirror figuring out how to make my nose smaller. My eyes rounder. How to flatten my wild hair into thin straight locks. I did not start the process of deconstructing my internalized racism until I was out of my teenaged years. I cannot speak for my half-white peers that grew up on the ‘other’ side of their mixed race, or even for those that live in direct communication with all of their family. I was never taught Kurdish, my father’s maternal tongue, and my visits overseas often left me awkwardly wondering what everyone in the room was talking about. The cultural dissonance I’ve had to consider throughout my life is one that leaves me confused still, and my politics constantly grapple with my specific oppressions and privileges that I encounter simultaneously.
I do consider that my ‘white-passing’ ability leaves me in a state of privilege. It feels strange that white people can gaze upon me and claim me as one of their own. Being half-white is not the same as being white. I have talked with white people and people of colour (PoC) who think I get to put on my ‘white’ hat and my ‘colour’ hat whenever I want. Nothing could be more wrong. Even having that notion of being ‘half’ anything is strange — I think mixed race people are constantly told that we’re living two different lives. It is a simultaneous experience for me; I am equally white as I am Kurdish. Yet, it is true that my light skin makes me a more palatable exotic ‘other’ for white people to embrace as one of their own, which is absolutely a facet of white supremacy. What some may not realize is what conversations take place in this supposed ‘acceptance.’
“Being mixed is so beautiful!” I’m sure many white people think this is the most tolerant, politically correct statement they can express to their mixed friends. When you say it to someone that’s half-white, this is fraught with racism. What I hear is, “Your people can pass as attractive once they are mixed with whiteness!” People with light skin are valued more than people with dark skin. When your beauty is a condition of your European features, this affirms white supremacy. When my “beauty” is attributed to my mixture of race, I do not know how people expect me to take this as a compliment. My own internal confusion and guilt I manage over my Kurdish cultural identity is not satiated upon the declaration that “I am better than my family!” I think that this encourages some kind of white adoption of half-whites. It feels as though I am a victory for a white goal of consuming every person of colour until we are all exotic olive-skinned mysteries. It feels horrible.
If white people indeed won me over as a white figure, they don’t do much to continue their racial tolerance charade for long. My theory is that by being half-white, white people are more likely to confide in me their racist thoughts. I’ve had people tell me that they aren’t sexually attracted to people from specific ethnicities, that people from country X are all lazy and stupid, and that people not so dissimilar from my region are dirty rapists. Someone will utter something like, “Oh, don’t go to that club, it’s full of dirty Lebs.” To which I reply: “You know, I’m Kurdish, and I don’t think that’s far off in the grand scheme of Middle Eastern stereotyping.” The response: “You’re not really, though. You just look tan to me.” White people get to construct you and treat you however their gaze defines you. I’m white enough to share in a conversation that alienates me and my worth as a person.
Ultimately, half-white people are used as tools for white people to justify the assimilation and/or whitening of people of colour. Since your biracialness is a symbol for the “future,” that future is light-skinned and Western, and it is up to you to recruit your PoC family. I had a recent experience in a university class where a guest lecturer challenged the feminism of meat eaters. I did not want to defend meat eating necessarily, but in my experience as a previous vegetarian I thought I would point out the racial/cultural components of veganism. I knew I could never visit Kurdistan and demand that my family cook vegetarian meals for me, because those visits have special cultural significance to me, as every few years I have about three weeks to experience the Kurdish world. I consider veganism to be a Western ideology, and since I am Western, I would feel wrong to impose this diet against the dishes my family prepare everyday. My attempt at an intersectional argument was diminished by this guest lecturer, who pointed out that I should be “educating my people” and that “we don’t lynch black people anymore so [my] family shouldn’t eat meat anymore.” I was offended that they would consider my Kurdish family to be guilty of the level of institutionalized oppression that white people have yielded for centuries. My culture was decontextualized by a white gaze that deems all people to an equally privileged basis. I didn’t hold up to my end of whiteness by refusing to assimilate my brown family.
Though I face strange oppressions that seem to divide my identity, I struggle to center half-white perspectives when that can easily cross the line in white-passing privilege. I tend to take a backseat in PoC activism, because my mixed friends and I don’t know where to go. At a recent PoC-led workshop festival, I didn’t know whether to buy the merchandise reserved for Indigenous, Black or People of Colour only (and assert my privilege in a space that is not mine), or to buy the merchandise geared towards allies (and deny my cultural background or assimilate). That is an issue that I haven’t resolved in my politics or activism. All I can fairly argue is that mixed people should be recognized on their own terms, and not erased by a white gaze. The desire for a supposed future of caramel babies is problematic and unfair. My interracial parents are no model for eliminating racism. My white family still posts Islamophobic content on Facebook. My private space with my family is often disrupted by racist aggressions and there is nothing futuristic about it. My heart breaks for the mixed children that feel burdened by their cultural dissonance. We should reach out to each other in managing these oppressions, because we will not find solace in either sides of our racial identities.
Banner photo courtesy of Wanderer Online Photography Editor Bryan Tran