Stop gatekeeping mixed people’s identities

Illustration of people of mixed ethnicities
Emily Bi/Senior Staff

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I am Persian and Polish. Both of these identities are important to me. I’ve been thinking about both of my racial identities individually for a long time but it was only when I came to UC Berkeley and met other mixed students that I started thinking about my mixed identity. Growing up mixed can leave you feeling extremely isolated because you are exposed to microaggressions that your parents can’t relate to. Mixed people share common experiences that are overlooked in other discussions about ethnic and racial identity. It was only when I began talking to other mixed people about our shared experiences that I could finally process these microaggressions. While mixed people are not a monolith and we all have different interactions with structures of privilege and oppression, the common ground I find with the mixed community is comforting.

“What are you?”

There is so much hurt wrapped up in this question. It’s dehumanizing and is often the first thing people ask me. To these people, solving the mystery of my identity is more important than knowing my name. People get uncomfortable when they cannot assign others to distinct racial categories, and this discomfort can be imposed upon the mixed person. This is a form of “othering.” It is benign curiosity to the person asking, but it makes me feel like an outsider. 

For me, my racial ambiguity can be a privilege. I am relatively white-passing, which gives me access to the benefits of white privilege. It’s important to not only acknowledge this but to also use this privilege to lift up other marginalized communities. I believe that intersections in identity are powerful tools to be cognizant of, and communicating to different groups and improving your allyship. For example, as a queer person I might insist that pronouns be listed on name tags at a not explicitly queer/trans event, or advocate for the Black Lives Matter movement to the Persian grocer at the market by using analogies that he specifically relates to.

“You’re Persian and Polish? I don’t believe it.”

Constantly trying to validate my cultural background to people can be exhausting.

Unfortunately, I have received many comments like this from my Persian community. The same goes for the Polish people I have met. No matter what evidence I provide, such as my name, my dad’s hometown, my first-generation American status, even the fact that half of my family is living in Iran, they refuse to believe that I am of Persian descent. They are blinded by the idea of one homogenous Persian identity. They don’t think about the fact that I’ve already been invalidated by many before them or of the harm they are causing by asking the same questions yet again. To them, being Persian entails a number of stereotypes. They ignore that people intermarry and that “Americanization” and whitewashing exist. They ignore that there is more than one way to be Persian. They deny me my family connection and my culture. The effect of their skepticism is an ensuing identity crisis. 

“No, but where is your family from?”

My parents, with their different skin tones, accents and mannerisms, have long been subjects of curiosity to my peers, teachers and community. 

“Oh wow! Where did they meet?” is usually the follow-up. This makes me feel like my family is an oddity and that it’s abnormal for people of different cultures to meet and start a family in the United States. But interracial relationships are normal — it’s the baked-in assumptions about who should be loving whom that make it weird. 

“But you don’t speak Polish or Farsi. …”

My parents were immigrants. They quickly learned that becoming “more American” made life easier. By blending in and assimilating, they were “othered” and excluded less often. For my father, being Iranian in the post-9/11 United States was hazardous. To avoid hate speech and blatant racism, he learned to deny being from Iran and insisted instead that he was from Kentucky to make people laugh and move on. 

My parents gave their kids American names, didn’t teach us Polish or Farsi and ignored their cultural backgrounds for the benefit of appearing more ethnically ambiguous. They taught us to be proud of our background but never to talk about it with others. It’s both a survival tactic and one of the reasons that I am subject to so much scrutiny now. 

Although I often mourn this loss of cultural connection, I understand that even if I had spoken Farsi or Polish or had a name that wasn’t Sahra, I would still get the same responses, just poking at different “holes” in my story. It doesn’t matter how involved I am in either culture; the fact that I am mixed invalidates my claim to either of my backgrounds. I am not the problem. The idea of culture and identity as static and gatekeeping cultural identity is. 

I am not half or not enough. I am Persian AND Polish. And the world needs to get over it.

Sahra Aalaei is a community development fellow with the Mixed @ Berkeley Recruitment and Retention Center and studies molecular and cellular biology and human rights at UC Berkeley.