During the course of my childhood, I never felt quite whole. While my mother is Dominican and my father is black, I only grew up with the Dominican side of my family — that was the culture with which I was most familiar. I felt isolated from the other Hispanic students at my school, however, largely because I was a third-generation American in the English curriculum who had never visited the country that my mother and grandmother once called home. I spoke Spanish with my parents, but that was about it.
This feeling only intensified as I got older. Most of the people I went to elementary school with ended up also going to my high school. By that point, they had grown close through shared experiences like listening to Romeo Santos and perfecting their native languages through the Spanish curriculum. I, on the other hand, had less than perfect diction and opted for AP English rather than AP Spanish because I knew I’d perform better in the former. Consequently, I found it very hard to find people to whom I truly related.
I spent nights watching Spanish novelas with my grandma, struggling to keep up with the theatrical, quick pace at which the characters spoke. I came to feel as if I wasn’t a “real” Hispanic, feeling far too Americanized to claim that heritage as my own. I watched movies like “Love & Basketball” over and over, yet wasn’t able to catch the cultural references and niche jokes in the way I so desperately craved.
This is an issue that many biracial people suffer with, being unsure of which part of themselves to identify. Rather than deciding for themselves or embracing their mixed heritage, they decide who they are based on the assumptions and perceptions of others. It’s a terribly toxic mindset to believe that we can only be one thing at a time — but it’s almost inevitable to ignore when the longing for a definitive, concrete identity creeps in. In a culture that asks us to present ourselves in easily digestible sound bites, it’s hard not to have something to cling to.
This belief is perpetuated through countless tropes in pop culture; the “Angry Black Woman” trope, for instance, portrays black/African-American women as unreasonably obstructive and aggravated when, in reality, the reason these characters appear to be upset are quite understandable. Similarly, the “Magical Asian” trope. This takes place in movies with white protagonists where the only Asian in the film (who is typically East Asian at that) exists solely to aid the White character’s journey, imparting seemingly endless knowledge. There are a myriad of oversimplified, inaccurate characterizations of people of color. These popular portrayals seldom create multidimensional, lively characters of color. Rather, these caricatures only serve to either advance the white protagonist’s story or be some form of comedic relief.
This isn’t to say that there haven’t been advancements in pop culture to portray people of color as, well, just people. Individuals like Shonda Rhimes strive to create well-written, relatable characters that happen to be people of color as opposed to simply placing people of color in her work. But it simply isn’t enough.
Biracial individuals also face this problem, but on a unique scale. Even when we see people who look like us on screen, whether they’re tropes or not, we’re usually unable to relate to their experiences. Honest depictions of people of color choose to paint one type of picture; when that happens, it is inevitable to feel as if you’re doing something wrong. This should be the opposite of what popular culture does. While it is impossible to interpret the lives lived by people of color perfectly, especially since these experiences differ due to much more than simply ethnicity and race, those who attempt to provide representation must take it upon themselves to deeply and honestly research the cultures they wish to present. A crucial aspect of that is reminding their audience that people of color can vary in ways that may not be portrayed on screen.
There is so much more to a culture than what meets the eye; ridiculously inaccurate tropes and token characters do not even come close to this reality. Therefore, when the people who decide what is mass-produced and shared in the media only choose to present what they believe to be a summation of these experiences, they are only adding insult to injury.
Being able to identify with those we see on television and read about in books is incredibly important. The fact that my half-Filipina, half-Dominican baby sister is now able to see a character like “Moana” and find someone who has her same skin tone and hair texture is a beautiful thing that helps change how she sees herself. I, alongside many others, did not have that growing up. Even so, in a culture where advocacy and solidarity is so prevalent, a greater change needs to be made. No one should have to feel as if they have to choose a part of themselves, rather than embodying who they truly are — a sum of parts, each equally as valuable as the next.
Leila Jackson is a first year in Saybrook College. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org .