Beauty IRL: Sorry, Being Multiracial Isn’t A Trend

At a wedding this past weekend, a woman came up to me as I greeted the groom, a friend from college that I had known for years. “You must be the bride!” she exclaimed. “How nice to meet you in person!” I paused, genuinely taken aback.

The bride is a Pakistani woman, 26 years old, considerably shorter than me. We share a few common traits — dark hair, dark eyes, darker skin. We are both female. As per the instructions on the invite to dress colorfully, I was wearing a long, bright maxi dress, a departure from my usual black smocks and shapeless shifts. Nothing about me read “Pakistani”. This was a new one.

When I told her that I was just a friend, she was visibly embarrassed. After meeting the bride, I told her about the incident. The confusion on her face matched mine. “I guess we look like each other!” she exclaimed. We paused and looked at each other’s face, and then laughed for a long time.

As a multi-racial woman, I spend a lot of time indulging other people’s guessing games about the special ethnic salad that is the way my face presents itself. To almost everyone’s credit, they are generally polite about it, not asking until I bring it up in conversation. I watch relief flood over people’s faces as the door opens for them to ask questions.

The questions are not the problem. Human beings are inordinately fond of categorization. Things that do not fit neatly into the box they came with are worried over in the mind, a disembodied hand flipping through a mental card catalog, trying to see what fits. Some are polite enough to hold their questions at least until after we’ve talked for a few minutes, maybe had a drink, or gotten to know each other. Others find it imperative to inquire within minutes of the handshake.

“Wait, what ARE you?” they’ll ask, scrunching their nose and cocking their head. “Asian…?”

If I did not have a bad commute on my way to wherever we are, and I am in a genial mood, I will let them run the gamut. Usually, they do pretty well, working their way around the Pacific Rim. No one has ever landed on the right answer, so after about five or six tries, I end the game.

“I knew it!” they crow. “I have a coworker/cousin/person I met this one time at a bar who’s from Taiwan, and they look like you, sort of,” they’ll tell me. They wait expectantly for my nod of assent, a tacit confirmation that it is okay for them to keep going. Sometimes they look as if they want a cookie. Sometimes they ask what the other half is, but I never have a good answer. My casual disregard for the second half of my heritage usually shuts them up.

For the record: My mother is Taiwanese, and my father is white. I don’t know what the white half is, because I’ve never given it much thought. If hard-pressed, I believe he is English and French-Canadian. I can’t confirm this, there are no records. I have a vague memory of leafing through a mimeographed family history at my dad’s house when I was little that corroborates these facts, but really, I never thought to ask.

I know everyone means well. I know it’s a harmless question, hardly a micro-aggression, just another person working to understand what they’re looking at. That’s not the point. It’s just that after years of having to explain what I am before everything else gets tiresome after a while.

I have lived with this face my whole life, so it is both disheartening and worrisome to see that being multiracial is the new normcore — a trend surfaced from the depths to justify behaviors and appearances that, for many, are the norm.

At Buzzfeed, Sharon Chang posits that perhaps, the sudden interest in multiracial people is an attempt at proving that we have indeed moved into a post-racial society. By pointing to concrete examples of multiracial beauty and praising the harmonious mixture of races, you’re wearing your progressiveness like a badge. Surely, this feels good for people who are privileged enough to see representations of themselves in the everyday, but for the rest of us, it serves as a gentle reminder that the way we present every single day is foreign.

While it’s nice to bask in the spotlight of recognition for a little while, it’s still important to remember that looking a certain way isn’t a trend, it’s a way of life. That is hard to keep in mind when there are women like Ashley Brokaw, in-demand model scout, who’s in charge of who walks down the runways. In a TMagazine piece, she talks about her preference for “ethnically ambiguous” models:

Speaking like a viticulturalist or someone tasked with sourcing rare coffee beans, she continues, “I’m always interested in those kind of hybrid girls that are ethnically ambiguous. I like mixtures. I like combinations. You know, that a girl has some Asian and some European and some American Indian.” For Brokaw, diversity isn’t a political goal so much as it is a matter of natural preferences that happen to be progressive.

Casual conversation with coworkers, friends, or people that I’ve just met are full of these “progressive” statements. I’ve seen many a listicle and slideshow on this great internet full of pictures of celebrities of different ethnic backgrounds, with chirpy copy informing us just how beautiful their children would be if they procreated.

Sure. Jared Leto and Lupita N’yongo might make a beautiful child, because they are both beautiful people, but there is something about the tone of these lists that gives me pause. Suggesting that two people should make a baby simply because of their race treats actual human beings as if they were ingredient options for a cocktail, or a particularly attractive breed of designer dog. It’s dehumanizing on a small scale, but prevalent enough that it feels necessary to note that it isn’t okay.

It’s a wonderful thing to be appreciative of difference, but acknowledging that difference doesn’t make you a champion of progressive values. It makes you a human being.