This is likely the most difficult piece I’ve ever written, because it is so intimate and personal. Since childhood, I have struggled with my identity, seeking to find a place in the world. As the son of a mixed couple, raised in northern Europe in the 1970s and 1980s, I never managed to fit in. By the time I reached my twenties, I understood that not fitting in could be a blessing. Now in my forties and having lived in communities around the world, I know that identity is subject to change and diversity makes us stronger. There are majorities and minorities in every sphere of our lives. We may look, sound or feel different, but we all belong to the same species. Increasingly, the world is evolving and starting to look more like me: mixed and adaptable.
The national conversation in the United States is devoting more time to issues like race and equity, including both dialogues and diatribes. It’s a cultural minefield that feels like a revolution or a reckoning, depending on your identity. Once repressed minorities are standing proud, demanding to be seen, heard and have equal opportunities, while shrinking majorities are entrenching themselves, wanting to turn back the clock. We are all trying to untangle complicated attitudes that are deeply embedded in our society. However, it is not so much a cultural war as a generational struggle and the times they are a changin’.
Growing up as a child in Croydon, to the south of London, I remember very British moments, like celebrating the Queen’s Silver Jubilee. But, in reality, the country also smelled of Indian curry and sounded like Jamaican music. It looked and felt pretty multicultural, at least when you were working class in the city. The owners of the local newsagent were Bangladeshi, the neighbors were Pakistani and some of our friends were from the West Indies. When Brits in the media talk about “what it means to be British,” that melting pot is what comes to my mind. However, I also remember older people publicly telling black and brown folks to “go home.” They scared me, because I didn’t know where I really belonged. I was both white and creole, English and Mauritian, and looked like I could belong to any number of places or groups. However, I was too light-skinned for one group and too exotic for another. Therefore, I have always identified as “mixed.” I belong to a group of “Others.”
In later years, I moved to Belgium and France, two more former colonial powers that were dealing with their own struggles about national identity and belonging. As I grew older, my experiences became sharper. For example, I remember the airport security guard running me through a metal detector several times, asking me if I was “a little terrorist from Beirut.” I was sometimes bullied in school, but managed to make friends and thrive despite my differences. Still, I was harassed and questioned by the police so many times that I had to have an identity card created for me, despite the fact that I was too young. As a teenager, the police would often stop me, because I matched the description of someone they were looking for. Once, I was stopped, thrown against the wall and searched twice on the same street. It’s hard to feel like you belong somewhere, when the official structure of that society tells you otherwise. It’s a lonely and depressing experience, but I was lucky. I saw and heard about far worse.
In retrospect, as an adult, I have the perspective to understand some of the reactions I generated in others: fear and misunderstanding in a rapidly changing world. I can forgive, but not forget. I am profoundly saddened by the way we still treat some of our children, making them feel unwanted when they are at their most vulnerable. It’s not restricted to any one race either. I’ve seen hatred between different groups whenever someone feels threatened by an “Other,” when they’re afraid they will take their jobs, change their culture or marry their children. It’s based on race, religion, sexuality, political beliefs and even sporting affiliations.
Today, these tribal divisions continue to serve political purposes. America is a case in point: a beacon of hope for those of us who seek a better, more tolerant home, as well as the worst of human nature, when we pull the ladder up after us, denying others access to the same opportunities. To me, America is not just a nation. It is an ideal. It promises freedom, equality and opportunity for all those who pledge allegiance and work hard. Alas, this promise often holds true only for those who look like us, speak like us and act like us. For much of America’s history, this was certainly true of slavery, our original sin. It benefited slave owners, while slaves were perceived as “Others” and therefore denied equal rights. The races were kept strictly separate and mixing or, to use a term I detest, “miscegenation,” was a punishable offense.
Throughout my life, I’ve had to listen to people longing for the past, a time when everything seemed simple and better. They often don’t understand that it came at a cost. Their privilege was built on the backs of other people who didn’t have the same opportunities. People like me didn’t exist or had a difficult life. We were evidence of mixed blood lines between the tribes, a physical manifestation of an uncertain future. During my childhood, I was often the only mixed child, or one of the few at school, but I was fortunate to be born at a time when society was changing and becoming more tolerant.
Now, living in California many years later, I look around and see children of mixed races everywhere. It’s a beautiful thing to behold. No one asks me where I come from and no one really cares, because I am one of many. I feel at home here and never take for granted the fact that I am privileged thanks to my citizenship. Many other people want to feel the same sense of security and belonging. When I took my citizenship test, I saw people break down in tears because they had failed to pass the exam or interview. It broke my heart and convinced me that we have to do better as a society to integrate immigrants.
For many of us, immigrating to the U.S. is a matter of life and death. The vast majority of people who make it to our shores want to build a life and contribute to society—the same desires that drove all the previous waves of immigrants; our ancestors. It will take time to convince much of the country that immigration is in our best interest, but it is well worth the investment. Right now, I would be satisfied if we could start with a national dialogue rather than maintaining our ongoing arguments, shouting across the divide. We need leaders who can break the stalemate and move the conversation forward, who understand and have experienced different perspectives, like Kamala Harris, who was born in the U.S. to Tamil Indian and Jamaican parents.
While Barack Obama is often described as our first African-American president, he was actually our first mixed-race American president, with a white mother and a black father, who grew up in Hawaii, Indonesia and the U.S. This was a momentous event, because it signalled a new era in America, a potentially “post-racial” society, but subsequent events have also shown us how far we have to go before we can move beyond racial identifiers. In the contest for the next presidential election, Donald Trump is using openly racist language that appeals to his base to score political points, while dividing our country. As a child, I imagined we would have flying cars and space travel by 2020. Instead, we’re having the same tired, old playground fights about who belongs to the “in” group and who should be excluded. I never imagined that an American president would be telling people—citizens—to “go home.”
On a personal level, while I still wrestle with these social issues and am committed to making a difference, I no longer struggle to fit in. I am comfortable with my mixed-race identity, because I understand that my roots make me strong. I don’t fit any mold and neither do most of the people I know—the Gen Xers, the Millennials and the newly minted GenYs. We are all trying to figure out what our world will look like and make it a better place for our children. Society seems to be catching up: while I used to hate filling out census forms, with their check boxes delineating separate races, having to pick one race or another, we are now given more flexibility to check multiple boxes or options beyond “Other.” Maybe, one day, we will no longer need or be required to provide this kind of data at all. Maybe, we will move beyond the narrow concept of diversity that is currently being championed and become a society that is tolerant of everyone, by default.
Recently, I was pleasantly surprised when I came across the first mainstream article I’ve ever seen about mixed races (Psychology Today: The Biracial Advantage). I was astonished to read some of the research—that our experiences may present advantages in bridging divides and adapting to new realities. For the first time, I feel like mainstream culture has acknowledged that we might have a positive role to play. We are the ultimate outsiders, looking different from our peers, often not fully identifying with one community or the other, forced to develop a third way, but this makes us resilient, adaptable and capable of switching codes and interpreting meaning when speaking with diverse groups. Far from representing an existential threat to society, we may in fact be the best hope for the future, because we are hybrids who understand that our differences are largely down to perceptions, not facts. We know, at a genetic level, that we are all truly greater than the sum of our parts.