“What are you?”: Carbonell grapples with questions about multiracial identity


Audrey Carbonell

Even with an understanding that race is a social construct, we may still implicitly determine a person’s race due to preconceived ideas about the physical and behavioral traits that are associated with a certain racial group. So what happens if a person, whether from internal or external perception, does not fit the traits to qualify as part of “one race”?

A person’s multiracial background cannot be broken up into quantitative parts, and an individual should not be regarded as “half’ one race or “a quarter” another. Using this language diminishes the interconnections between one’s racial heritage. However, in my experience, it is sometimes easier to talk about racial heritage in these terms. This simplification of multiracial identity often makes uncomfortable conversations easier, especially those that revolve around the consistent and constant question: “what are you?”

I can easily pinpoint the countries of origin of my ancestors, yet I cannot answer what impact these ethnic cultures have on my current identity. With the results of a quick DNA test, I can list the racial composition of my ancestry, but the percentage of my genetic makeup that indicates a certain race does not necessarily reflect my level of affinity to that race. Being genetically “more” of something does not equate to an automatic personal association. Even now, I continue to struggle to answer the question about what my “race” means to me.

With my inability to define my race for myself, I find it even more difficult to explain my racial background to others. I resort to explaining the ethnic backgrounds of my mother, my paternal grandmother, and my paternal grandfather (which in itself is already complicated) to distance myself from this question of “what am I?” Instead, I answer the seemingly more simple prompt: “what is my family?” I consider this answer to be sufficient; the typical person who asks this question is most likely looking to validate their speculations about my racial identity, rather than expressing genuine interest in how I identify myself. Still, these conversations remind me that I lack the language to identify who I am for myself. 

Even if people agree that I am multiracial, there is no consensus about how race dictates my physical appearance. I have often heard opinions about the singular race I look the most like or can “pass” as. People have even gone so far as to dissect my physical features and assign them to various racial groups. I do not know what to make of this “breaking apart” of myself, but it makes me feel as if my identity is not whole.

What affects me the most is when a particular race becomes associated with my behavior. In the past, people have said that I am “practically” a singular race because I supposedly “act” in ways generally associated with that particular race. In hearing these comments, I was unsure whether or not I should have been hurt. Nothing explicitly offensive was said, but I was still left with a feeling of emptiness.

Others have even used my multiracial identity to justify racist remarks they have made to my face; they deemed that those comments do not pertain “fully” to me. In these instances, I stayed quiet and was hesitant to speak out either because they were my friends or because I was too scared to discover what their reactions would be if I told them I had taken offense to the comment.

The bigger question lies in why these questions about my racial background are asked in the first place. What about my physical appearance indicates that I am not fully part of one racial category? Why does this variation need to be explained? I can answer with the response that is truest to myself — I identify as multiracial — but that often fails to be enough for others. Being “multiracial” in itself is not a sufficient racial indicator, as it must instead be followed up by the “set” races we have already defined as a  society. Wasn’t this identifier the cause for the question in the first place?

The complexity of multiracial identity needs to be addressed within the school community. After speaking with Director of the Office for Identity, Culture, and Institutional Equity (ICIE) Christine Moloney (who, like me, identifies as multiracial), we acknowledged that our school lacks a space for those who identify as multiracial. Consequently, the ICIE established the school’s first Multiracial Affinity Group this year. I am truly excited for this new space; students of multiracial backgrounds can feel a sense of belonging without having to identify by the same races. I hope that people will recognize the steps HM is taking to become more inclusive and give a voice to perspectives that have been overlooked in the past.

Yet, I still have doubts. I find that other students who identify as multiracial will benefit from this affinity group, but I am scared that they will not see the same importance in the space that I do. I have talked to other students who identify as multiracial, and while they are glad that there is a newly formed affinity space, they do not feel the need to be a part of it. I can relate to their views — in the past I have overlooked the influence of race in my life, and I have realized the implications of doing so. I did not understand or try to understand what being a part of a “mixed” family meant. It took me a long time to see the value and the beauty of my multiracial background, and I still have a multitude of unanswered questions.

Perhaps I will never hear concrete answers to these questions regarding my multiracial identity. Perhaps as I grow, I will be filled with more and more questions, never reaching a concluding point in my racial analysis. Nevertheless, Ms. Moloney has done incredible work to provide the opportunity for people of multiracial backgrounds to share their experiences grappling with their identity, and this year, I know I will have a space where I belong and where I can continue to change the direction of conversation alongside my peers. The topic of multiracial identity has been lost in the larger discussion of race for far too long. Thus, I hope other members in our community who identify as multiracial will take pride in their “ambiguous” racial identification, just as I am learning to do.