When I first read Patricia Edmonds’ cover story on Millie and Marcia Biggs—half-black, half-white fraternal twins—for National Geographic’s April 2018 Race Issue, I felt conflicted. As a person of mixed race, with a father from Hong Kong and a mother of largely Scottish descent, I was happy for this family’s opportunity to share their experiences. Although national media are increasingly latching onto stories about race, people of mixed race don’t often get the spotlight.
National Geographic’s cover is undoubtedly an attempt to normalize multiraciality and destabilize false notions of ‘race’ as a natural category. Yet, by focusing on the visual differences between the twins, the article misses more meaningful and nuanced questions of culture and identity that people such as myself often grapple with. Instead, it places mixed race children on a pedestal that risks exoticizing them.
Edmonds claims that people are more accepting of racial differences now than they once were: While the twins understand what racism is, their parents apparently have not witnessed racist behaviour towards their daughters. However, even if based on interviews with the family itself, the picture painted by National Geographic overlooks the complexity of the varied manifestations of racism, or at least racial categorization. If the author is (rightly) asserting that race is an invented category with no scientific basis, it’s odd, then, to title the issue “Black and White.” Paradoxically, the article critiques the way we think about race, while at the same time fixating on the twins’ stunningly contrasting appearances.
As Doreen St. Félix points out in the New Yorker, society latches onto mixed race people with a sort of removed fascination: Liberals vaunt them as “diviners of social progress,” while simultaneously ignoring that multiracial individuals are by no means new, particularly among colonized populations. Yet, our collective trouble with understanding multiraciality is not surprising, given that systems of racial classification have been ingrained in us for so long. Questionnaires ask us to choose from options like “white,” “Black,” “Hispanic,” “Asian,” and the the catch-all “mixed race” because, for statistical purposes, this is all that matters.
The end result is that mixed race people in their day-to-day lives generate a lot of intrigue and confusion. A stranger got mad at me once because he couldn’t guess what race I was, and thought that I was lying to him. Friends—mid-winter—ask me incredulously how I’m so “tanned,” leaving me at a loss for words, as if my skin doesn’t belong on my body. Like any person who doesn’t fit into a box, the twins intuitively know the awkwardness of responding to this disconnect, too, as they often have to clarify that they are in fact sisters.
To suggest that half-white children embody the possibility of a post-racial future betrays the fact that we haven’t yet figured out how to understand them. Because skin colour and visual appearance are readily noticeable, in my own experience, the same weight is not attached to cultural background or identity. Yet, the things that matter—that I want to share with my friends, or pass onto my children—are not my brown skin and dark hair, but my childhood of Chinese martial arts and large family dinners and my dad’s love of Hong Kong.
National Geographic’s cover is unsettling because at the same time that it affirms the falsity of race as a concept, it focuses entirely on contrasting visual appearances. In this way, it reminds me far too much of my own lifetime of uneasy interactions, during which I’ve lost track of the number of times that perfect strangers have asked me, “What are you?”. It’s not that I mind the question, per se—there is a part of me that likes the thrill of being different and unique, and the weird sense of satisfaction I get when I surprise people with my ethnicity. What bothers me is that my skin colour and facial features are dwelled upon at the expense of my cultural background. Because I don’t look Chinese, any real, meaningful connection to my Chinese heritage is assumed to be nonexistent or irrelevant, or worse—a racist joke punchline. Any claims of attachment I might have to that part of myself are somehow less legitimate because I don’t look the part.
The crux of being mixed race—particularly, half-caucasian—is that one is at once neither and both, occupying a weird in-between space that society hasn’t yet figured out how to make sense of. My fundamental discomfort with the National Geographic story—as honest as it is in its intentions—is that it still uses racial appearance as a reference point. Further, it implies that half-white children have overcome racism, when their realities are far more complicated. The more interesting questions are how it feels to be Millie or Marcia—how they navigate between the varying influences in their lives, where they find common ground between them all, and how all of this informs their identity, values, and experiences.