As the world becomes increasingly globalized, connections increase exponentially. Love connections, that is. Which has resulted in 2018, as much as 7% of the U.S. population now being considered “multiracial”, having genetics from two or more distinct racial groups.
This is referred to as mixed, mixed raced, multiracial, biracial, and many other cultural names such as mestizo in Latin America or Honhyeol in Korea. The connotation of being mixed race has historically been negative, and many translations refer to us as “half-caste” or “impure blood”.
- What is racial ambiguity?
- What is my ethnicity?
- The Negatives
- The Positives
Regardless, with mixed genetics comes a unique mixture of features, which leads to the next concept: racial ambiguity.
What is racial ambiguity?
I have tanned skin that is a few shades lighter in the winter months and darker during the summer. I have long, 3C curly hair that straightens silky smooth, orange/brown eyes, and a somewhat round but not flat nose. This lack of stereotypical, distinguishable features (“asian” eyes, or “Indian” nose) are what makes me racially/ethnically ambiguous. And while I understand that racial ambiguity and multiracial heritage are not mutually exclusive, they are in my case and they do usually correlate.
Racial ambiguity plays into every culture’s psyche and is something I have to keep in mind not only during my daily life but in my international travels.
For example: Even this early on I bet you’re already thinking, “Well… what are you?” Or perhaps you saw the pie chart and skipped here first. Your brain had an information gap—my ethnicity—and it suddenly became a priority to fill that gap. To scratch that itch. We’ll talk more about the psychology of that later on.
Rest your brain, I won’t keep you waiting:
What is my ethnicity?
My father’s ethnicity is “100% Jamaican”—which could include a mixture of West African heritage, an indigenous Jamaican population called Arawak, and who else knows what was happening over there during the Transatlantic Slave Trade. My mother’s ethnicity is a mixture of Italian and Finnish immigrants, Cherokee Native American, and “white American” which is a mixture of colonial Europeans.
Thus, this is, loosely, “me”.
If you’re a traveling in an area where people who look like you may not usually be seen—for example a blonde-haired, blue-eyed person in the Congo, or a black person in rural China—you’re bound to draw stares of interest. However, the stares that ethnically ambiguous people get adds another layer. We don’t just get stared at for being different, we also get stares of “what are they?” Being racially ambiguous means that my race is automatically a question, and virtually always a point of conversation. Click To Tweet So often they’re too busy analyzing our hair texture and skin color to register the glint in our eyes of our souls slowly dying as the dreaded yet inevitable questions falls from their lips:
Me: *eye roll* What do you mean? (knowing exactly what they mean)
Them: Like, where are you from?
Me: I was born in California.
Them: No, I mean, where are your parents from?
Me: My dad is from New York, my mom was born in California.”
Them: …*Tries to put me in one ethnic box but is struggling*
Me: Do you mean ‘what is my ethnicity?’
Them: Ahhh, I see. So exotic! *huge sigh of relief as they unclench their fists, and the smoke coming out of their ears subsides*
Me: *dies a bit more inside*
From England to Dubai to Richmond, I’ve gone through this conversation globally. Unfortunately, it’s often followed by a “Can I touch your hair?” or “I want to have mixed babies that look like you” comment, which is always wonderfully uncomfortable. Both fetishized and ostracized.
When abroad, I have to consider that some countries are not as globalized or socialized to multiracial people as the western world, so I take their reactions with a grain of salt. With social media and technology, people are becoming more used to seeing different variations of human. But we aren’t normalized yet.
I’d like to preface this by saying I have grown to love all the shades, styles, and sunkissability that my body affords me and would never change it. But like everything else in life, beautiful caramel skin and advanced genetic diversity does not come free.
Which flag should we wave?
Being of mixed race can mean that you get the best of both of your parents cultural worlds—or, in my case, in can mean you’re raised without strong emphasis on racial heritage. I think I turned out pretty great, but I’ve just always been jealous of the unwavering sense of identity that people with one distinct cultural background have.
They can visit their home country and have that culture, language, and society ingrained in their DNA. They don’t have to think about which country’s footie teams to root for or why they don’t look like the rest of their family. I see my some of my Ghanaian, Filipino, and Desi friends celebrate their culture in everything they do, from every family celebration to every simple meal, and wish I could root my social identity so strongly.
The consequences of curiosity: Denying the information gap.
Our brains are constantly attempting to make sense of things that we don’t understand—a lovely psychological phenomenon called an information gap.
“It comes when we feel a gap ‘between what we know and what we want to know. This gap has emotional consequences: it feels like a mental itch, a mosquito bite on the brain. We seek out new knowledge because we that’s how we scratch the itch.”
This is why racial ambiguity can peak the curiosity of all humans regardless of nationality or culture—it’s in our nature. It always seems to frazzle brains because, frankly, we could “be” a lot of things, and its an itch that’s impossible to scratch until you ask. However, sometimes I just don’t want to play through the What Are You? conversation.
More often than not, the investigation turns into a tasteless game of, “Oh, don’t tell me, let me guess!” and a slew of nationalities are thrown at me. At the end of the day, I don’t owe anyone an explanation of my personal background, so sometimes I’ll respond with a quip of “What am I? Human”.
Unfortunately, the emotional responses to that denial of information gap closure can range from slight to extreme.
I’ve been called “too sensitive” or just a plain old a b***h for not sharing my ethnic mixture. Some people think I’m dodging their question because I’m stuck up, and associate that presumption with my skin tone. In Italy, I have been catcalled and harassed to say “what I am” like they’re entitled to know. Like someone was simply asking what type of dog they passed on the street. But I’m not a dog.
In 2015 I was going through immigration control to get into Sweden when the immigration agent did a double take from my passport to my face. He asked me the standard questions of what I was doing there, where I was staying, when was I leaving. I have a baby face and usually travel solo so I’m used to some extra questions.
But when he called a second immigration agent over and started whispering to him, I started sweating. Did I need a visa?? Did I have some special stamp in my passport that said I was dangerous?
Little did I know the problem wasn’t my documentation, it was my face. My hair was straightened in my passport photo (that I got when I was 15, with overplucked eyebrows and a 6am stare), but huge and curly at that moment and I was much tanner as it was summer. They asked me for 2 other forms of ID to validate how I looked with different hairstyles and skin tones , and after 20 minutes on pulled to the side with my heart beating in my throat, they let me through. Who new my biggest hiccup wouldn’t be losing my passport, it would be proving that it’s mine.
“You’re light-skinned, so you don’t count.”
But the stigma most defeating is placed on me by my own Black travel community, an isolation Adrienne has similarly felt.
As an international traveler with a platform, I’ve been asked if a country is “black friendly” in a public forum like my Facebook group or Instagram. On each occasion there has been at least one person who has said, “Well, you’re light-skinned, so you wouldn’t really know.”
You could chalk that up everyone having haters or simple internet trolls, but I’d like to unpack that statement.
What is “the black travel experience”? What shade of black defines true blackness, and what percentage of black do I need to be to have credibility as a black traveler? Is it the one drop rule? Should I do the paper bag test?
On one hand I understand this perspective. At least in the United States, dating back to slave times lighter skin has been considered preferential over darker skin, and colorism was used as a way to further divide and disestablish the black community. Of course my lighter skin and racial ambiguity affords me certain privileges almost globally, which undoubtedly affects my international experiences. I’ll address this in more detail later on.
But at what point does my lighter skin erase my blackness? When does my racial ambiguity discredit my experiences, travel or otherwise? My experiences abroad may not represent the entire black population, but when can any one person represent an entire people? The black diaspora is composed of infinite shades of black, brown, tan, curly hair, straight hair, no hair, etc. And while I am absolutely afforded certain privileges because of what society deems desirable, I’ve still been followed around in stores and told to “go back to Africa.”
As Logic, a biracial yet white-passing rapper, has said:
“I’m just as white as that Mona Lisa/I’m just as Black as my cousin Keisha”
Having other ethnicities in us does not mean that one cancels the other out, or that they all disappear!
As with many things in this world, I believe a higher level of understanding that two seemingly disparate concept can coexist. You can love someone and still hate them, you can hate peanuts and still like peanut butter, and I can represent blackness without being all black. Period.
For all of the annoying, embarrassing, and isolating feelings that may come with traveling while ethnically ambiguous, there are equally as many benefits.
When I lived in Dubai I was often mistaken as Moroccan, Ethiopian/Eritrean, Brazilian, Egyptian, and South African. In the Washington D.C. where I’m from, people tend to think I’m Puerto Rican, Dominican, African-American/white, and every other variation of Caribbean.
Blending in everywhere can have its advantages, as @nadionsafari has noticed too.
As a generic “short, medium-tan skin, curly hair, indistinguishable features” woman, I can disappear into almost any crowd in any country because I can be perceived as a local of many places. Usually the assumptions of our ethnic heritage are based off of the people who look most like us that are common to that region.
If we can manage not to open my mouth—which is impossible for me, honestly—we tend to blend in so well that we’re usually left alone we I travel, even when solo. And while we should always take extra caution to not stand out or draw attention to ourselves as travelers, I truly believe that my indistinct race I what really helps me travel without much trouble.
For me, this was most noticeable when I visited Puerto Rico and looked around during a crowded street festival, and for once saw that my usually ambiguous features were now the majority. I thought, “Is this how white Americans feel on a daily basis?”
When you look local, you have a chance of not being targeted by scammers or salesmen like tourists are. Local vendors may look you up and down, but if you can keep your chin up and spit out some of the basic local language with confidence, they may believe you’re local too and give you a fair price (or at least respect your hustle enough to give you a discount.)
It can make connecting with people almost effortless.
Having things in common is always an easy way to make friends when you travel, and having similar physical features secret sauce to getting people to warm up to you despite any language or cultural barriers.
For example, I climbing in an Uber one day when I noticed my driver was Habesha (Ethiopian/Eritrean), so I decided to flex a lil’ bit. When I sat down and said “ሰላም/selam!” with the correct inflection? My guy went nuts! I laughed and quickly told him that I wasn’t actually habesha, but he was so excited continued to call me ‘sister’ for the rest of the ride and even insisted I not pay because I was the first person he’d met who looked habesha or knew anything about the culture in a long while. (Of course, I paid and tipped him well)
Racial ambiguity can be the spark of interest, and the path of least resistance with connecting with people all over the world.
Jack of all trades, master of none. But better than a master of one?
The very best part of traveling while multiracial is the feeling of “home”, everywhere. You remember that little pie graph at the beginning? I have a bit of home in each place. When I was in Italy eating my favorite foods and basking in the Tuscan sun, I felt a bit of pride knowing somewhere deep in my ancestry, someone was from this very land. During my trip to Finland in 2015, I felt the same way.
Even if you don’t have blood ties to a location, looking so similar to other people—like when I’m around Puerto Ricans or Moroccans—can make you feel at home.
Earlier I mentioned I was jealous that some people can be so deeply ingrained in a singular cultural background. But though I may not be able to dive as deeply into cultural appreciation as those can, I can do at least a little digging in a lot of places. I truly feel like a global citizen.Being 'everyone' and 'no one' in different situations abroad can present a slew of challenges. And blessings. Click To Tweet
Being “other” can be isolating. But it can also be sparing.
The negative of having my experiences erased from certain communities because of my skin tone don’t negate the privilege afforded to me because of them.
Lighter skin has been considered preferential in virtually all cultures, and though society is slowly changing to become less Eurocentric, it is far from equal. This is not something I’ve asked for or purposefully exploit, but it’s a benefit afforded to me regardless. I’ve traveled and had darker skinned friends experience racism while I was standing right next to them. I’ve had women abroad call me beautiful because of my “beautiful light skin” and “exotic features”.
I’m exotic enough to be interesting, but not threatening. – Mia Lupo
And though I still experience some, racial ambiguity affords me a level of privilege against the worst of the racial stereotypes. By being geographically inexplicable, I’m able to escape targeted harassment based on religion or rage because they don’t where I’m from, or even what language I speak. (Though usually bigots aren’t concerned with accuracy.)
My privilege as a fairer skinned, racially ambiguous traveler means that it’s my duty to help elevate and advocate for strong black traveling women like my friends Gloria Atanmo, Jessica Nabongo, and Ciara Johnson who likely have extremely different travel stories to tell than I do.
Some outside of this small population may not give our travel experiences a second thought, others may only perceive the benefits. Again, I wouldn’t change my ethnic background or looks for the world. These are just some of the realities of international travel while ethnically ambiguous.
In an increasingly globalized world, it is a voice whose presence will only increase in the travel community in the years to come. Thus, the need for these stories to be shared will increase, too.