How to understand and support the multi-racial community at work
Little is known or shared about people who identify as multi-racial. In this blog, Kelly Philips, Inclusion Events and Projects Officer, uses her lived experience to explain what multi-racial means, the challenges people who identify as multi-racial face and how we can ally multi-racial people in the workplace.
Keep reading to learn more.
If that is the case, then why has there been so little conversation about multi-racial people and their experiences to date?
The multi-racial experience can be wide and varied, joyous and challenging, immersive and isolating, all at the same time, and I say this as someone who has lived experience.
I’m a multi-racial person who identifies as Asian and White and I have yet to see the conversation move forward in society, but also in workplaces, to gain awareness and understanding of what that experience is like and how to be an effective ally.
What does multi-racial mean?
The term multi-racial refers to people who are more than one race, or sometimes, ethnicity. This can encompass multiple identities, and no two multi-racial experiences are the same.
Language around the multi-racial identity has evolved over recent years and there are many terms individuals use to describe themselves.
You may have heard bi-racial, mixed race, mixed heritage, dual heritage, multi-ethnic and person of colour, among others.
These words are personal, not universal. What works for one person may not work for another, so is it best to take a person-centered approach to understand and respect how individuals describe themselves and want to be referred to.
The term ‘mixed-race’ has been hotly contested in recent years by people inside the community and outside, but for me, this is the language we used at home and how I’ve always identified, and to my knowledge, it has never been used against me.
Many other multi-racial people that I know find this to be the most comfortable term to describe themselves, but I would never assume that someone else is comfortable with this before knowing them and I would never expect someone else to label me in this way without knowing me.
Race vs ethnicity
Race and ethnicity are terms that are often used interchangeably, however, while closely related, they are two different concepts.
Both are social constructs used to categorise people and both are descriptors of our identities. Race refers to physical characteristics and how these are interpreted by society, e.g. facial features, hair colour and texture, skin colour, etc. while ethnicity refers to your lived experiences and culture, e.g. language, history, food, and more.
While it’s important to note this difference, it can be difficult to detangle these concepts as they can overlap, intertwine, and one can influence the other in an individual’s lived experiences.
I see my racial makeup as Asian and White, but I find much of my ethnicity to be firmly rooted in my Scottish identity, where I was born and raised.
However, my mother’s heritage was Irish on all sides of her family, which was strongly emphasised in our house, and my father’s family, while born and raised in Singapore, has roots from Myanmar. When we start to dig deeper, we uncover the nuance in people’s identities and their heritage and someone’s racial makeup may not do justice to explaining the breadth of their identity.
Understanding the challenges multi-racial people face
Mental health outcomes for multi-racial youth are worse than their monoracial peers, including increased anxiety and depression.
This may be surprising to hear, but to me, this rings true. There are many challenges that multi-racial people face that can cause impact to their mental health:
Identity for multi-racial people can be complex and confusing. How individuals identify can be dependent on their heritage, where they grew up, how they are racialised by society, their relationship with their different heritages and with their families, and so much more.
Bridging two or more communities can be difficult and exhausting. Dependent on your appearance, accent, where you live, and other characteristics, it can often feel as though society chooses your identity for you; categorises you in a certain way and treats you as such. This bias can leave people feeling isolated, erased and disconnected.
Belonging is such an important part of the human experience, and this is not always a given for multi-racial people, even within their own families.
Multi-racial people can often experience racism in the same way as monoracial people of colour. They can also often be on the fringes of conversations about racism as some may not consider them to be ‘enough’ of a particular race to take part in the discussion.
They themselves may feel ‘Imposter Syndrome’ if they have certain privileges beyond that of others from one of their communities, or feel that they do not suffer racism in the same ways.
For some multi-racial people, their identities can be erased in various ways. Their racial identity may not be visually obvious and therefore have to ‘come out’ all the time, be scrutinised by others or have to listen to others make racist comments unknowingly in the presence of someone from that group.
Just as any person does not have control over any of their physical characteristics, a multi-racial person is not responsible for how light or dark their skin tone is, but due to this characteristic, can be treated very differently in society, as a result of colourism.
However, those who have ‘White passing’ privilege or ‘light skinned’ privilege should acknowledge this and continue to support their community by elevating the voices of those who face additional barriers.
The term ‘White passing’ means that you are socialised as White, categorised by society and treated as such.
Some multi-racial people may use the term ‘White passing’ to acknowledge the privilege they have, but White passing is not an identity and it is not recommended for others to describe an individual in this way.
There are so few multi-racial/multi-ethnic stories and multi-racial people visible in media, and while it is improving, I want to see and hear more stories that reflect my experience and how I identify.
Often times when people hear the term multiracial or mixed race, they think of someone who is Black and White, and this is where we see most multi-racial representation, but more representation across other races and ethnic identities is much needed.
Some of the microaggressions that the multi-racial community can experience are when people:
- Comment on their features
- Comment on the colour of their skin or how well they can tan
- Ask intrusive questions about their identity
- Make racist remarks in their presence
- Ask for proof – e.g. photos
- Make racial ‘jokes and banter’
- Are shocked when someone introduces their multi-racial identity
- On both sides of their family ask them to choose or align with one specific identity
- Police multi-racial people’s identities and claims to a particular race or ethnicity
- Fetishise individuals based on their racial identity and appearance
- Compare their skin tones
These are all microaggressions that I, and my multiracial peers, have experienced many times, and these are all problematic behaviours which should be addressed.
Things not to say
Here are some things you should avoid saying to multi-racial people:
- You don’t look like…
- What are you?
- Where are you really from?
- How well do you tan?
- What are you mixed with?
- Referring to someone by quantities
- Is that your real Mum/Dad/parent?
- You’re only half…
- You’re not really…
- I don’t believe you
- Wow, you’re so exotic!
- I couldn’t tell/you can’t tell
- You are/look so unique
- Can I touch your hair?
- Do you speak the language?
- Your opinion doesn’t count because you’re not fully…
Always bear in mind, that multi-racial people do not owe you a justification or explanation of why they identify with certain parts of their racial make-up and do not need to ‘prove’ anything or take responsibility for your discomfort about their racial identity.
Ways you can ally multi-racial people in the workplace and beyond
There are many ways to ally multi-racial people in the workplace and in your life. Some very simple ways can be:
- Listening when a person shares their own unique story of their life and family with you
- Challenging your own unconscious bias, don’t assume that you understand someone’s identity
- Taking steps to be an active anti-racist
- Making sure safe spaces are available for people to be seen and heard
- Taking a zero-tolerance approach to harmful and hurtful terms and language
Community can be a difficult thing to come by as a multi-racial person. While there are many multi-racial people with a growing population, this group encompasses a wide range of races and ethnicities who can have very different lived experiences and feelings on their identity.
Keeping this in mind when speaking with a multi-racial person and being sensitive to it can be helpful when listening to their story.
Why this is an important conversation to have and why the community needs to be supported
How we view and treat multi-racial people is a reflection of how we view race and racism in society.
It lends itself to a broader conversation about the restrictive nature of our society and how we consciously, or unconsciously, categorise and contain people, but multi-racial people exist, and have always existed, beyond the social constructs of race and identity.
Multi-racial groups should not have to face racism, erasure, restrictions on their identities and poor mental health just because of who they are. In society and workplaces, we should be allying the multi-racial community to be able to live as their free and authentic selves.
If you’re an Inclusive Employers member, speak to your account manager or learn more through our multiracial experiences resource. If you’re not yet a member, get in touch today to see how we can help.
If you are curious to hear more on this topic, we will be running a panel discussion in August, where myself and two Inclusive Employers colleagues will be sharing our lived experiences as multiracial people.