Multiracial Teens Talk About Their Identity Rip Tides

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Lexi Brock is co-president of Project RACE's teen initiative.

Credit: Courtesy of Lexi Brock

Lexi Brock is co-president of Project RACE’s teen initiative.

WOODSIDE, N.Y. (WOMENSENEWS)–In middle school, Allyson Gonzalez thought befriending white girls would stop the other Brooklyn public school students from teasing her about her thick eyebrows and hairy arms.

However, her new friends acted outright, “horribly” racist to certain students. Gonzalez went along with them, but would be nice to the other students in private. After witnessing this behavior, she then decided “if anything was bad, it was being white.”

Now a college freshman at Hunter College, Gonzalez, who is German, Irish and Puerto Rican, identifies as a “multiracial white-Hispanic woman.” She blames “social pressure” for the delayed acceptance of her mixed background, she said in an email interview.

Young people who are multiracial are four times more likely to switch their racial identity than to consistently report one identity, sociologists Steven Hitlin, J.Scott Brown and Glen H. Elder found in their 2006 research, cited by sociologists Kerry Ann Rockquemore, David Brunsma and Daniel J. Delgado in their 2009 piece published in the Journal of Social Issues.

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This is part of the multiracial “journey,” according to freelance writer Hannah Gomez, who also works with the advocacy organization We Need Diverse Books. In her 2013 paper “This, That, Both, Neither: The Badging Of Biracial Identity In Young Adult Realism,” she combined evidence from modern fiction and scientific research to identify a three-step process in multiracial identity development. First, individuals are confronted with a situation causing them to reject one side of their race. They then seek a community that does not pressure them to disconnect with one of their sides. Finally, they achieve a sense of empowerment that successfully leads to identifying with a mixed label.

“Structural, systemic racism says that people must be easily defined and sorted into groups, and race is an easy way to do that,” said Gomez in an email interview.

While she added that no one needs to embrace all of her background, individuals are often told to embrace just one, resulting in “a lot of undue stress.”

Peer Pressures

Not fitting into one easy category led Lexi Brock, who is white and African American, to Project RACE, where she is co-president of its teen initiative. The 16-year-old Georgia native grew up in the predominantly white suburb of Toccoa and did not realize she had a blended background until middle school. The adversity she faced there toward multiracial people lowered her self-esteem and increased her need to “blend in,” she said in a phone interview.

Every morning for three years, Brock would spend two hours straightening her thick curly hair to conform to the sleek thinner hairstyles of her white peers.

“I did not want to bring to light my African American features,” Brock said. “I would look in the mirror and think ‘I don’t look like the other girls.’ I tried losing weight to make my hips not be so protruding.”

“I remember people saying ‘oh you can’t date her, she’s mixed’ as if having tanned skin affected my character,” Brock said in a speech this spring at an event celebrating people in Toccoa who overcame personal obstacles. “No matter how hard I tried I was always too white for the black kids and too black for the white kids.”

Like Brock, 18-year-old Raina Salvatore from Queens, N.Y, faced peer pressure that made it feel hard to embrace her Italian, Portuguese and Indian heritages.

“When I was younger, I’d have peers who’d tell me, ‘you’re not Indian’ or ‘you’re not Portuguese,'” she said in an online interview. “I have friends who make jokes about it, but truth be told, it’s really rude.”

She was often told she was “too white” to be Indian or couldn’t be a certain race because she wasn’t “culturally proficient in any.” Thus, until seventh grade, she identified more with her Italian heritage.

While teenage sisters Angela and Julie Lavarello never rejected their background, some members of their cultural community did make them feel self-conscious about being mixed at weekly Polish classes in Queens and Brooklyn. The girls, who have a part-Polish mother and Peruvian father, recalled students asking them why they were there.

“Nobody [at Polish school] really takes you seriously,” said Angela Lavarello during an interview in the Bronx, N.Y. “I feel like every time you come upon somebody who thinks you’re an oddity . . . you have to explain why you’re there.”

Family Pressures

Still other multiracial teens have felt uncomfortable with their identity due to familial rather than peer pressures.

Sarah DeFilippo, 16, felt more pressure from her family than her friends when it came to her mixed heritage. DeFilippo, who is from Queens, N.Y, has a Trinidadian mother and Italian-German father.

She said in an online interview that her mother’s side of the family treats her differently.

“They assume we can’t handle pepper in our food, that we don’t know what anything is, and that’s hurtful because it’s like ‘here’s my family,’ but I don’t think we’re much alike,” she said.

Her Italian-German aunt “acts really confused” whenever DeFilippo plays soca music, a highly rhythmic genre of Caribbean music originating in the 1970s from a subculture in Trinidad and Tobago. She remarked, “I think it’s harder for her because that whole side of the family was pretty racist against people of color, so there was a lot of culture shock for her.”

Others have experienced more explicit familial pressure.

Stephanie Surjeet, 22, who is Punjabi and Haitian, said being multiracial was “kind of like a curse” because her family wanted her to follow differing cultures.

“I could never really relate to my father’s side because I just felt ostracized. They would talk about my hair being too curly,” she said in a phone interview from her home in Brooklyn, N.Y. “They would say we would act too African American.”

Thus, she felt more at home with her Haitian family, who accepted her race.

Surjeet’s predicament is an issue that Gomez touches on in her paper. People, she writes, tend to perceive certain mixes “as a sort of betrayal” on the part of the individual for identifying, or appearing to identify, with just one race and rejecting the other.

Despite these struggles, Surjeet acknowledges that being multiracial also leads to more open-mindedness. “Sometimes it’s hard to fit in, especially as a kid,” she said, “so you have to start kind of figuring out your identity early on.”

Tatyana Bellamy-Walker provided additional reporting for this story.

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