Hold Up! Who called the Mixed Identity Police?
As if People of Color (POC) in the U.S. don’t have enough to worry about trying to avoid and survive rampant police brutality, we Multiracial folks often face another type of policing: that of our identities. And it can come from all directions—from strangers on the street to people with whom we share DNA.
While Identity Policing is far less threatening and terrifying than the risk of physical harm, arrest or death at the hands of actual cops, it is still deeply problematic and it needs to stop.
What Does it Mean to Identity Police?
WHAT: Identity Policing is the act of questioning, challenging, assuming, presuming, denying, decrying, debating and/or berating any other human’s racial/ethnic/national or related identity. It commonly takes the form of people saying:
- You can’t be…
- You must be…
- You have to be…
- You don’t look like…
- But you look more like you’re…
- Are you sure you’re not…
- I don’t believe you…
- No, let me TELL you what you are…
- (Feel free to add your own…)_________________________________________________________
Who Identity Polices us?
- Other Relatives
Those who are Ethnically Ambiguous Looking tend to be Identity Policed more often (particularly by strangers or new acquaintances) and more rigorously than others. For some of us, it is a constant in life. Speaking for myself, I understand why some people stare and wonder and assume, and I don’t usually mind when they ask. I prefer that to when they prejudge and create a whole story about who they think I am that has nothing to do with reality.
Who Calls the Identify Police and Why Does Identity Policing Happen?
Humans are an inherently tribal species. Unfortunately, that too often involves various forms of domination, oppression, exploitation, etc. But generally, categorizing other people is something that some of us do naturally and others learn to do, usually at an early age. We do it with gender, with race/ethnicity/nationality/religion and other identity markers relevant to our tribe(s) and environments. I have been guilty of Identity Policing people in the past, though now that I’m aware of it, I try harder to avoid it. But it’s easy to see why it’s so commonplace.
Think about gender. A few years ago, before we were introduced to the concept of gender non-conforming identity options beyond the traditional Male/Female binary. When we saw an androgynous person, we sometimes stared at them in an attempt to shove them into our mental binary where only two options existed, wondering “are they this or are they that?” Our society is gradually expanding those options and now we have new language and the beginnings of wider and more diverse categories with which to consider people, including “gender non-conforming” to replace androgynous.
When it comes to race and ethnicity, people tend to do the same thing. And while it’s not fair to other groups of people, the dominant racial binary in the USA remains Black and White at the core, with Native American on the side, and other groups such as Asian/Pacific Islander and Latinx rounding out the most common categories.
Those are the designations that most folks have in their minds when considering someone whose appearance (and perhaps mannerisms) doesn’t give immediate clues as to how they should be considered or labeled.
The identity policing starts when they ask some variation of “What are you?” They might volunteer their guess or assumption even before we answer; sometimes even in the initial question. “Are you _____?” “You’re________, right?”
When we tell them what we are, they often jump into being the Identity Police, claiming expertise over our truths and our lives. We’re not the only ones who experience this, but it’s common to many of us, especially those whose looks automatically prompt the questions. We can be Identity Policed by many different groups—those with whom we share ancestry as well as others.
Multiracial people recognize that our mere presence causes some people to feel uncomfortable. It’s not always personal and it doesn’t necessarily mean that the uncomfortable person is racist. Our existence often challenges the Black vs. White foundation upon which this nation was built. Even with the rapid rise in interracial coupling and the fact that Mixed kids are the second largest group being born in the U.S. today, swirling (particularly Black/White) is still considered juicy forbidden fruit—edgy, taboo and vaguely dangerous. Add other groups and racial/ethnic combos to the mix, and Multi folks function as natural disrupters of the status quo simply because we are here.
There’s also a power dynamic to Identity Policing. When someone questions or challenges your truth, they have appointed themselves your superior, and assumed that they are qualified to judge you. You can feel the dynamic when it’s happening to you—that push-pull of someone vying for the alpha position in your interaction.
That’s what bothers me most about people who Identity Police—those presuming superiority over who we are and how we choose to move through the world. History shows us why they feel this way: as if we are a problem to be solved; a looming disaster needing to be contained and constrained in those narrow categories that have no room for the glorious variations that we represent. In a society built and run upon the premise of closely-controlled racial and ethnic identity, we threaten the status quo. And this isn’t limited to any particular group—all kinds of folks want to control us rather than understand us and the gorgeously complex and messy truths that we represent.
Now, for the first time in U.S. history, we Multiracial people are staking our claim as a stand-alone category. This is a natural result of the presidency of the very Biracial President Barack Obama, finally getting a semblance of a Census category, and news that Mixed babies are the second-largest group born today. Add to this the ability that social media has given us to congregate and speak up against the popular stereotypes and Identity Policing, and you can see the complex dynamics at play.
But even as Multiracial folks are beginning to come together, some of us still Identity Police each other. I’ve seen it on social media, including some Mixed Facebook groups. At times, it takes the form of criticizing folks whose cultural affiliations might not be the same as ours. Some folks whose mixes include Black are very vocal against those who are (or aren’t) Black-identified. I’ve seen groups of Mixed folks drawing lines and referring to the more Black-identified people as “One Droppers.”
This kind of divisiveness disturbs me even more than when we’re Identity Policed by others. If being Multiracial means nothing else, it is an expression of human diversity worthy of our support and celebration. How can expect others to respect us if we don’t respect ourselves? The last thing we need to do is appoint ourselves judges of how other Mixed people choose to self-identify and culturally affiliate. We can show the world what embracing diversity looks like—and give them a glimpse of the beauty of life beyond the blinders of the common binary. We represent the spectrum of possibility. Let’s not limit ourselves or each other in our quest to be recognized for our entire realities.
What can we do about Identity Policing?
- Call it out. Challenge people (taking into account the appropriateness of the situation) and ask that they respect the truth of your identity as you choose to describe and define it.
- Reject it. Let folks know that you and you alone are in charge of your identity, your category and your descriptors. They don’t have to like them, agree with them or approve of them. They just need to stop trying to dominate you with their opinion.
- Make it a teachable moment. If you have the time and stamina, and determine that this person is worth the investment, you might want to do the deep dive and discuss the various aspects of why you are in charge of your identity and they’re not. Warning: No matter how great a job you do at this and despite your best intentions—and sometimes theirs—don’t expect them to suddenly “get it” and magically agree with you. As they say in Disney movies, “it could happen.” But don’t bank on it. If you choose this option, manage your own expectations so you don’t drown in frustration.
- Ignore it. Yes, you read that correctly. I’ve had to learn to pick my battles. We are living in perilous political times on top of the everyday racism and other isms that we navigate every day. You do NOT need to explain or defend who you are, your ancestry, your life choices, or any aspects of your identity. Even. To. Those. Closest. To. You. And if they push, feel free to disengage.
We can’t fight all forms of isms and inequality at one time. But this is one area where we can and must push for change. We can benefit by coming together to challenge and fight Identity Policing in all its forms. We can claim agency over who we are and how we demand to be considered—as fully human and deserving of respect at all times.
Then and only then can those who Identity Police be arrested and put on lockdown, where it deserves to be.