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A podcast explores the complexities of mixed-race identities

DAVID GURA, HOST:

More than 30 million Americans identify as belonging to two or more races, and that number is on the rise. For some kids who grow up mixed race, big questions about their identity might not start to emerge until early adulthood, when they're already out in the world on their own. That was the case for Anita Rao, the host of North Carolina Public Radio WUNC's podcast Embodied. It's a show about sex, relationships and health. Anita takes it from here.

ANITA RAO, BYLINE: As a kid, the way I thought about my racial identity was uncomplicated. I'd look in the mirror and picture myself as exactly half and half.

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RAO: The right side of my body, Indian and brown. The left side, British and white. I grew up in a small city in the Midwest, and my family was active in our community. So I never felt like I had to explain my racial or ethnic identity to anyone. People just knew. Fast-forward to 2007. I graduated from high school in the same small city and moved almost 1,000 miles away to go to college. And in the months that followed, I had almost daily experiences in which I felt super aware of a dissonance between how I felt on the inside and how other folks perceived me.

While some people knew immediately that I was mixed or had Indian heritage, others thought I was white. And the more new encounters I had, the more confused I became. Should I have a short phrase I use to explain myself? Do I just assume that if it's an encounter that matters, identity will naturally come up? Looking back, I can see that the questions that emerged for me as an 18-year-old signified a shift into mixed race adulthood. It's a transition that a lot of our listeners had thoughts about too.

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UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: My dad is Black, and my mother is white. But if you were just a person passing me on the street, you would not think that I was biracial. When I tell people I'm biracial or when people find out, there's like this snap response where people will be like, no, you're not. I'm like, yes, I am. I'm biracial. My dad is Black. My mom is white. No, you're not. I get that so often, and I don't know why. I'm really proud of my identity. I'm proud of who I am.

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UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: I think when I was a kid, I cared a lot about being understood. You know, people just see me and see my face and don't see a picture of my family and don't know about my family history. And I feel like one of the things that I've gotten better at is kind of understanding what people are asking and why they're asking and just giving the information that people are looking for as opposed to, like, the whole version of the whole story.

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UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: So I was about either 19 or 20. And I had my first relationship at the time. And I remember I was set to meet her mother. We got to the dinner that night, and during the entire dinner, her mother didn't acknowledge me. She wouldn't look me in the eyes. Although I felt like my entire life I had been racialized as something other than white, this was my first time really experiencing anti-Blackness. I think that was a wake-up call for me. Sometimes having lighter skin has, I would say, advantages, but that was the first time really in my young developing ages that it really felt real in that type of way.

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RAO: Those are just a handful of the stories our listeners shared with us about growing up in mixed race families. What it's like to be mixed is highly specific to each person's context and also ever shifting. Some of the first big changes are brought on by the simple act of getting older.

ADIAH SILER: I think when I was growing up, there was definitely less of a conversation around being mixed. Like, I definitely was cognizant of the fact that I was mixed. But it was never something that really was, like, casting a sharp focus for me until I got to school, and I felt like I needed to be, like, categorized to a degree by my peers in order to fit in.

RAO: That's Adiah Siler. She's 21 and a rising senior at the University of the Arts in Philadelphia. Her dad is Black, and her mom is white. She grew up in a Pennsylvania suburb and has some distinct childhood memories of noting racial dissonance, like when she was little and her mom was struggling to figure out how to do her hair, or when she got together with her dad's side of the family at big gatherings and didn't quite feel like she belonged. As she transitioned to college, she started to reflect more on how all those small moments of her childhood fit together.

SILER: I go to school in Philadelphia, so it's obviously like a very, very Black city. There are a lot of ways in which I've been given more opportunities to explore my Blackness and my relationship to my Blackness within, like, a new context at my, like, my original high school or when I was coming up through elementary school at the very white institutions that I was attending, I didn't feel safe enough to explore those parts of me without, like, criticism. So I would kind of let myself be like the butt of jokes or let myself be like the only Black person in a given situation. And now I feel like there is so much Blackness around that I have, like, the option to kind of explore in ways that I wasn't afforded when I was living in my, like, small town growing up.

RAO: Another person in the midst of that transition to adulthood is Claire Gallagher. She grew up in LA as a mixed Chinese and white person. Although the city itself is racially diverse, her private high school wasn't, and she too experienced being the butt of some racist jokes.

CLAIRE GALLAGHER: People would make jokes about, like, me being, like, a bad driver or, like, having small eyes and stuff like that. But I think people were really interested in being politically correct. So I think that directing those jokes at me felt more comfortable to people. Like, almost, like, it was, like, more acceptable because I also am white. And that, like, proximity, I think, made the jokes feel like they weren't offensive. So I think it was kind of like taking advantage of that.

RAO: You do have a sister. I'm curious about that relationship and the conversations that you all had growing up about racial identity and physical appearance, because often siblings don't necessarily present exactly the same way. I know that's true for me and my siblings. I'm curious about your experience.

GALLAGHER: Yeah. We don't really talk to our dad's side of the family, and it was kind of something that we would almost use against each other growing up. I think people have always said that she looks a lot more like our mom. And people would tell us that she looks more Chinese and that I look whiter. And we would, in a snarky way, like, tell each other, like, you're being so white right now, or, like, your Chinese, like, your accent's so bad, your accent so white, saying those things to each other to hurt each other because we really wanted to be like our mom.

But now, I mean, we've, like, matured and moved past that. But I think I always kind of, like, a little bit resented her for looking more Chinese in a lot of family situations growing up. Like, if we'd be with our family eating at a restaurant and the waiter would speak to everyone in Chinese and then speak to me in English, I felt really hurt. And I felt like, OK, like, am I not seen as being part of my family? So I think I resented her for that for, like, a long time. But, you know, obviously, it's like siblings are really important in, like, support systems. So obviously, I'm trying to not still feel that way.

RAO: As y'all are talking about this, I'm thinking that I really haven't talked with my parents much about my reflections on feeling different from my siblings. I'm curious about if you all have. Adiah, I'll start with you. Like, is this something that you talked to your parents about, or does it really stay among siblings?

SILER: I talked to my parents about it a bit, but I always feel as though their own relationships with their race are so different than mine that I do find it difficult to fully get them to understand. And to a degree, like, I completely get it. Like, my father is a dark-skinned Black man, and my mom is white. So I feel like it's hard for either of them to fully get it. And I don't pass judgment on either of them for that because I think that makes a lot of sense. I mean, they're completely different identities.

But I do think that it's something that I don't know if they thought too much about it before they had us. So I've tried to talk to them about it, but I find that maybe it's because of how they grew up or when they had us, like early 2000s, that they find it, I think, more effective to talk about race, but talk, like, a little bit less about, like, what it means to be, like, a mixed, like, interracial family, I guess.

GALLAGHER: I feel like I really agree about, like, I don't really think it was something that my parents thought about when they had me and my sister. I really haven't had that many conversations about being mixed with my mom. But it's kind of interesting because I think that me and my roommate have had a lot of conversations about our anxiety about having kids...

RAO: Yes. Talk to me more about that (laughter).

GALLAGHER: Like, we have like a lot of anxieties around, like, who we have kids with and then what our kids would look like and what that means for how we go about different cultural practices. I mean, my mom makes a lot of jokes about, like, if me and my sister have kids with a white guy that everyone will think she's, like, the nanny and then no one will think she's related to us.

RAO: No, that is so, so real. My sister met her husband when she was in college, and he is Indian American. And they have kids who definitely look Indian. And I'm in a partnership with a white person. And I feel so much longing for what I know that her kids will experience that my kids wouldn't of just not being perceived as Indian in a certain way or being perceived as very white, and that that grief is very real and very confusing. Adiah, I'm curious about how you're thinking about that. And does that shape how you date and who you date at all?

SILER: Absolutely. I feel like very, like, seen by like what you said, Claire, that I feel like I do have like a lot of anxieties around it. And it does shape the way in which that I go about dating. For me, I know a big part of my Black identity comes from having my Black family. Like, I have my dad. And I have my brothers. And my home base feels, like, Black. So even if I'm at a PWI, even if the friends that I'm making lean white or my partner is white, I know that my core, like at my core, I have that connection.

So I think when you are dating white people, there is like this fear that if you are going to create this new sense of family, that there is going to be that missing. That has always been, like, a big anxiety of mine and something that I'm, like, very curious about. I am dating somebody that's white right now, and I find that that's a big discussion.

I'm also in, like, a queer relationship, so that's like an interesting dynamic when it comes to like, if we do have kids, like, how would we - you know what I mean? Like, how do you go about that? Like, do you adopt? I'm, like, very against, like, adopting outside of, like, a race that either of us identify with. So it's like a very interesting sort of conversation around, like, who do you end up with, and how do you center your Blackness while also honoring, like, the fact that you are with a white person? It's like a very interesting thing.

And I think, like, anxiety is a good word for it, like what Claire said, because I think there can be a lot of shame around the idea of not leaning into the part of your identity that is marginalized in order to propagate this, like, new world. But it's a complicated thing for sure.

GURA: That was Anita Rao, host of the podcast Embodied from North Carolina Public Radio WUNC, a show about sex, relationships and health. You can hear the full version of that story anywhere you find your podcasts. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Anita Rao
Anita Rao is the host and creator of "Embodied," a live, weekly radio show and seasonal podcast about sex, relationships & health. She's also the managing editor of WUNC's on-demand content. She has traveled the country recording interviews for the Peabody Award-winning StoryCorps production department, founded and launched a podcast about millennial feminism in the South, and served as the managing editor and regular host of "The State of Things," North Carolina Public Radio's flagship daily, live talk show. Anita was born in a small coal-mining town in Northeast England but spent most of her life growing up in Iowa and has a fond affection for the Midwest.