What Are You?
I think the parts of our identities that are most apparent to us are the ones that we feel set us apart from those around us. An imperfect mirror that highlights not necessarily what is unusual but also that which others can form opinions and ideas about us that is different to what they hold. Some of these characteristics enter and leave the spotlight as quickly as one can walk between rooms, other labels follow us as the spaces where they may pass unnoticed are rarer, and maybe impossible to find.
I didn’t realise I was mixed race until my first few days of high school. Having a African mother with brown eyes and black skin and European descended father with blue eyes and white skin never struck me as unusual or that I was unusual. I think everyone around me knew, my parents certainly knew. I didn’t though, I had no idea. When they started seeing each other in the early ‘80s it was illegal by South African law. When I was born in 1990 it wasn’t illegal for two people of different skin to be human together. My parents, never did talk about their past and racial identities and I didn’t connect dots. When I felt different growing up, it was because I didn’t speak my mother’s native language like my cousins, or that I wasn’t as good at sport as other kids, or at one stage that I was overweight, never race. Lessons about Apartheid at primary school weren’t light bulb moments and if the other kids were aware of me I was oblivious. When I look back I wasn’t entirely alone.
Amongst my contemporaries at preschool there was a girl with a European dad, East Asian mom and a boy South Asian/European. In primary school another girl with a European dad and south Asian mom. There was also a family of three girls, older and younger than me with an African dad and European mom who were the same “mix” as me and within my social circle. Add in two more older boys African/European, and a pair older twins European/East Asian and one younger European/South Asian and those were all the mixed people in my world. I’ve never asked them about their experiences but at least back then, it didn’t feature at all even for a moment. And the other children who might’ve known and observed us oddities with their own eyes or their parents’ didn’t say a thing to me.
I remember the moment of realisation. I remember where I was and I remember feeling distraught. Break time, and deciding which group of people to follow to lunch and noticing for the very first time that people had colour coded themselves and my colour wasn’t on the spectrum. It happened I high school and not before I think because before I’d been at the same school for seven years and so I wasn’t skin colour, high school was a new setting where my then 13 year old appearance was yanked to the surface of all my new interactions. At first I didn’t understand what was going on. A house of cards upon which I’d built my identity was blown over in an instant. Why was I different, who had done this to me? I didn’t even have the words to describe myself. What was I?
Biracial. Seeing this word on my computer screen was the satisfaction a thief feels as they turn the combination lock on a safe full of valuables and the first pin unlocks. Seeing the ocean of the first time, feeling the wind, listening to the sound of waves and breathing dense sea level air. I excitedly tell my parents and they immediately liked the term. My friends though, they’d scoff at it at the next day. They said I was obviously Coloured.
The Coloured people of South Africa, I think might be the most ethnically diverse people on earth. The Coloured label doesn’t seem to exist outside of Southern Africa, and in America it’s an offensive term for African Americans. To my friends I was Coloured because Coloured people are a multiracial ethnic group and so being mixed I must be one them. The problem with the label for me is that I had no experience being Coloured. The Coloured people I knew had Coloured parents, they spoke or at least had a very good command of the Afrikaans language. Coloured people have their own dialect of English with an accent and most importantly they had their culture. They are also more present in the south-west of South Africa where as I’m north-east, perhaps if I’d grown up around more Coloured people I’d be more Coloured. I’d wish I was Coloured, I really wanted to be part of a group but the one set of people of who would never call me Coloured were of course Coloured themselves. Identity labels are double edged swords, you can give yourself any label you like but others who hold that label as well as others who don’t need to accept your use of it. It is particularly hard if your label works in a global sense but not locally. Around you people give you a label which isn’t one that you give yourself. Sometimes we are in denial, sometimes they’re wrong.
If I care to be specific, if I think of myself as being born to a Shangaan black African woman and Irish Scottish descended white European man, then along with my brother we are, so far as we know, distinctly alone. Nowhere is this more evident that with our names. My name is Tiisetso Murray. Tiisetso is a unisex Sotho/Tswana name that my mother chose because she was thinking of the future. She didn’t know how the world would receive me but north of the border in Botswana their first president, president Khama, married a white British woman and she thought maybe I’d go their one day and be able to fit in. Shangaan people as I’ve come to understand are also chameleons, they all seem to be multilingual as a result of adapting to their surrounding social environments to survive.
Tiisetso means patience which is my mother’s name, as well as being a fitting meaning to the conditions surrounding my birth. Murray is a Irish and Scottish surname that my paternal family traces back to northern Ireland for at about 200 years and Scotland before that. Both Tiisetso and Murray are common, but together I never have trouble finding a username. Aside from looking different, my name is borderline disruptive. Black South Africans who see it in are quick to question how I obtained such a first name. With good intentions they will offer to explain its meaning to me, because I can only imagine either my surname or my less than black skin implies that I have no idea. Tiisetso is also normally pronounced with a short “t” almost a “d” sound which is not how I say it with my neutral English accent preferring a long and clear “t” sound. No one has dared to tell me how to pronounce my name, but my younger brother has been told repeatedly how to say his.
What are you? Is the question I’ve been confronted with endlessly. For the benefit of other mixed race people who I know find this offensive I really recommend if you feel the need ask this question, do so in the form of, may I ask about your ethnicity? I don’t mind the question in it’s common curt form. I enjoy a small amount pleasure in confusing people by deliberately answering obtusely or indirectly, making them uncomfortable as they try to satisfy their curiosity. I’ve been known to reply that I’m grey, a vertebrate mammal, or from a galaxy far far away. What I like about “What are you?” is that it is pure in it’s childlike expression. It is a chance to first confirm that I am from the same species and speak a common tongue. Asked in the simple way I know I have the opportunity to teach and that for a rare moment, I exist in a person’s history where I get to be their first mixed race person. I also like that I know, mostly, how to answer now.
In the beginning I didn’t know, what I knew is that I wasn’t enough. In South Africa, I’m neither black enough nor white enough, and, for completeness sake, I’m not coloured enough either. In the beginning I was shy to say what I knew was true because I felt my experience needed validation. Who was I to claim my identity? Whenever it was challenged I felt I didn’t have enough information to assert my position. The existence and fame of Halle Berry, Lewis Hamilton, and Barack Obama, helped because no I know would call them Coloured or another label and although they too have different identities, of course their contexts are different, they do help give some weight to the biracial identity so that it may no be so easily dismissed. I like that in the South African context my existence is also permission in a way for people to explore romantic relationships outside of their race.
It feels bizarre to write that most people in South Africa date within their race. It is an unspoken thing that shouldn’t be true but really is. I’d be almost 23 before any of my friends would have a mixed race relationship and even then I felt I had to offer some strong prods to encourage the union and to date, I can one hand the mixed race couples I know in South Africa. I on the other hand have felt that every single one of my relationships has been mixed race. Only knowing a handful of similarly biracial people would have made sticking to my lane close to impossible. I’ve found people are quick to argue with me about this but their perspectives are inherently different. No one raises eyebrows at two Zulus or two Afrikaners dating. Even a white couple comprised half Afrikaans and half English people may be asked about how it all works out. If anyone reading this knows another British descent and Shangaan biracial person please do let me know.
In being biracial I’ve always felt on the outside. As if I’m a new kind of instrument and haven’t a seat in any orchestra. Being an outsider, being very clearly an outsider, has also been beneficial. It has meant people haven’t known what I stand for or represent. Their years of lived experience and learnings just haven’t prepared them for me and people like me, and so they don’t know I’ve been accepted into all sorts of spaces. When I decided I would fast for Ramadan with my Muslim friends I was invited to break the fast at dinner and even watch the prayers. And on the flipside I have also been given the assumed role as spokesperson for all black or white people depending on who I’m with. I’ve had black people ask me how to get a white boyfriend or girlfriend, I’ve been asked by white people why black people do certain things. I’ve been asked about my preferences or to the list the races of people I’ve dated or had crushes on. I’ve been amongst groups where inappropriate jokes have been told and then suddenly someone remembers I had a black mom and apologises, or when white people are being insulted and someone remembers I have a white dad and they should save their rhetoric for later. I’ve been told by people trying to be “inclusive” that actually I’m basically white, or that if I have a black mom I’m black enough. But I’ve also been told that I need to have a black dad to be black, and that maybe if I stayed out of the sun for a year and kept my hair short I could pass as white. Both sides are equally ineffective because they just don’t resonate with me. The colour of my skin does change drastically with sun exposure and when I don’t have annoying t-shirt tans I find this effect rather fun. At my lightest I have a skin tone that is undoubtedly Central European, and at my darkest I could be South Asia. It’s hard to exclude someone already on the outside, and it’s hard to include someone who can’t internalise the reasons for inclusion.
I think only being aware of my race at 13, which is late when I’ve compared my notes to anyone else’s, that I don’t find any of the questions immediately offensive. I just don’t have the gut reaction created by a string of life negative experiences I’ve never had and so they don’t have power. I think many mixed race people will say I’m lucky even if in that way it also separates me from the group at times. What being biracial has given me though is in a sense a meta identity.
I moved to Beijing in 2016. Amongst all the things I never could’ve anticipated I didn’t expect for people to think I was Chinese. There is a region in the north west called Xinjiang, and perhaps I can at times have more than a passing resemblance to the people who originate from that part of China. More often I’m simply labelled as a foreigner, or directly translated from the Chinese “外国人” I’m an outside country person. The label is simple, clear and cleanly applied to everyone who isn’t Chinese. And with that label I felt accepted. Of course in Chinese there is also a word for mixed race people “混血” which means mix blood, which may be a better term than biracial. In my experience it’s much easier to be a foreigner in China than a biracial person in South Africa. But at this point it might also be impossible for me to know how much is due to my appearance and as opposed to how I am. My South African experience has made me more aware of picking up on cultural cues or at least knowing that there are cues, and to act cautiously. Perhaps my most important skill has been to recognise what’s important to people and early on learn to like it. I have a good friend who loves to tell people about how I ate seven or eight salty duck eggs in a row without missing a beat as his grandmother kept offering me more because I appeared to be enjoying them and he saved me by realising not even a starved person eats that many consecutively. Being biracial has then been a gift because I’ve learned to be at my most comfortable being the only odd one in a group. I’ve, in countless settings, been the clear outsider in appearance, culture and language and found only joy. The difficulty if any has been in discovering that others usually don’t feel the same.
What I have found is that I belong to a meta tribe. I think in the same way that way the LBGTQ+ communities are connected across the world, transcending every traditional life of nationality, ethnicity, language, and so on all in the name of loving who they love and being who they are outside of old norms. At first I found my meta tribe in other biracial people. The mix is totally unimportant but it does matter a little if their features have made them standout apart or not in their communities. But with further interaction I’ve found the tribe is more complex than that. I met a young lady at a get together one night. Shortly into the start of the conversation exchanging the standard questions, I asked where she was from. She said she was Chinese or Japanese. “Or?” I thought, what do you mean “or”? She explained that her parents are Chinese, but moved to Japan for work and that is where she was born and grew up her whole life, also speaking Japanese as a first language and later English as a second. It’s hard to explain and it’s hard for me to capture in words, but I think there is a sort of radar one has in identifying people who resonate on the same frequency as yourself. We have many frequencies that combine to make us us, and perhaps it takes a real unexpected moment with someone else to be able to single out some of them or just one of them. I asked her then, which she considers herself more of, Chinese or Japanese? This I must admit was my sort of litmus test question. I’ve been asked this many times too, am I more black or am I more white? I haven’t had an answer, disregarding whatever society may think, I know that when I look into myself I know that I am not two halves together, equal parts of either, I’m neither nor. And so I ask this question to see if the inner conflict exists. My question was a test. I could the see and feel the hint of frustration that she too has spent her whole life wrestling with this identity issue but then she relaxed, and replied, in Mandarin, “自己是自己.” And I understood something I hadn’t been able to express in English. Attempting to translate, she said “I am myself.” That’s exactly it, the answer to what are you. The feeling brought out when hive minds around you don’t accept you just quit and when you’re made aware of yourself.
It’s not so much being biracial, but it is about race and the plethora of experiences mostly out of one’s control that come with it. The contrasting juxtaposition of identity with oneself and one’s lived society. Very multi-racial people aren’t othered in the same ways. I haven’t spoken with enough Albino people to understand their experience but having seen groups connect and meet at university, I think they might have their own separate and unique collective experience. But people born into delta new cultures, however the new difference in culture might be created, people with out of place in the place that is their home, I believe belong to the same tribe. I’ve met many biracial people from all other world and find that indeed we resonate similarly. But also people born to families from other than, or simply distinct and separate to where they are living. A kind of unity with people who have not been in union with people.