I wrestled with my “fractions” for a very long time before I realised the problem was the fractions.
As a mixed race person, my initial understanding of myself was shaped by the idea of fractions. I am a combination of distinct separate parts. The idea that I was a set of “parts” that needed to somehow fit together became a barrier to my own understanding of myself, requiring a long journey of identity exploration.
Both my parents have complex ethnic identities of their own – including being third culture kids, multiethnic, immigrants – and that was inherited (to varying degrees) by me.
What does it feel like, to be the product of many wide-ranging and disparate histories that cover different countries and cultures, but then be told: you are half something and half something else? Not good. You are just two bits. Everyone else is a whole.
I have always felt like my ancestors are connected to me not in some weird half-baked style, diminished by the presence of ancestors from other cultures, but wholly, internally and immutably. Yet the language of fractions does not encourage an understanding of a mixed race person as an actualised and integrated whole. Instead, it splits you, somehow relegates you to always being lesser, as though you are less xyz than a 100% xyz person. Less authentic. Less relevant.
This affected the way I connected to others – looking for people who were the same set of fractions as me proved impossible, but I understood I couldn’t connect to mixed people in general, because fractionally, we were not the same. It stopped me from understanding myself as belonging – like I could not claim myself as part of a South Asian community or as belonging amongst other people of colour.
“This fraction-based line of thinking encourages non-mixed people to think of mixed people in this skewed way”
As an adult, I have discovered I share huge amounts in common with people who are mixed as one white parent, one immigrated-as-an-adult-from-a-formerly-colonised-island-nation parent (such as friends who are European-Filipinx, English-Sri Lankan, White-Jamaican) though on paper we are different, categorised as “white-SEA”, “British Asian”, “mixed-Black” or some other terminology that doesn’t allow us to easily identify ourselves, making it hard to find others with shared traits.
In my book, I offered PIACIN (ie “Parent Identified as an Adult from a Colonised Island Nation”) as a hypothetical option for people mixed in this way. An identity marker that moves beyond our supposed fractions and instead centres experiences, allowing us to find each other.
This fraction-based line of thinking encourages non-mixed people to think of mixed people in this skewed way. As the dominant way of understanding categorising, mixed people, it allows non-mixed people to avoid finding ways to understand mixed people in any other way, such as our experiences, or own understanding of ourselves.
It actively encourages prejudice against us, easily dismissed as only “half” or a “quarter”. It’s practically a mixed rite of passage to hear comments like you’re not fully in the community or you aren’t proper xyz. Comments that gatekeep the ways you can acknowledge yourself. This has a devastating effect on a person already feeling ostracised. The effects of being systemically unclaimed to a person potentially already in crisis could be devastating.
I know this, because it is what happened to me. I wrestled with my “fractions” for a very long time before I realised the problem was the fractions. On paper, I am one eighth Welsh and three sixteenths Scottish. “More” Scottish than Welsh. However, I grew up in Wales, part of the community, learning the language, history, and culture. I still retain a slight Welsh twinge to my accent.
There’s zero hesitation to claiming my Welshness. In contrast, I first visited Scotland aged 20. Practically my entire relationship with Scotland has been performing at Edinburgh Fringe. Though I am proud of my Scottish heritage and would never deny my ancestry – do I feel more Scottish than Welsh? No. Yet, as the fraction-based understanding would have it, I ought to, because understood as fractions, I am more Scottish than I am Welsh.
During slavery, white people employed terms like “quadroon”, “octoroon”, “hexadecaroon” referring to people with a quarter/eighth/sixteenth Black heritage, and the term “half breed” was first officially recorded in 1830. Strange, that whilst we (rightly!) now see these terms as hugely racist, instead of disavowing them completely we have kept the idea that people can be organised as fractional beings and simply changed the wording. Terms like “biethnic”, “multiracial”, and “dual heritage” only encourage and uphold an understanding of people as race-based maths problems.
Aside from the eugenicist legacy hidden in these terms, they make absolutely no sense. How can you be multiracial? We have just one skin. Taken literally, it conjures up an idea of somebody with skin that flickers through different races like a disco ball flashing wildly between colours. And dual heritage? Aside from being heteronormative, on a biological level, most living organisms are combinations of two sets of DNA – two separate heritages. Unless you are a spider plant you are more than likely also “dual heritage”.
“Terms like “biethnic”, “multiracial”, and “dual heritage” only encourage and uphold an understanding of people as race-based maths problems”
If you look beyond the semantics, those terms still aren’t useful. They imply a “non-mixed” majority – usually whiteness – which means “mixed” requires further classification of “non-white mixed individual”, instead of centering what a thing (group or culture) may be on it’s own merit.
Despite the harmful issues with the fraction idea, it is so prevalent it has transferred to other cultures (like hāfu and hapa). Though racism is demonstrably real, “race” is a concept, not an accepted scientific truth with any provable metrics. Trying to quantify it as such means the problems are built in from the get-go; like trying to measure time in centimetres.
Objectively, it is a bizarre way to look at a person – any categorisation of a person’s identity takes away from the nuanced, possibility-laden spectrum of life. Humans are collections of experiences, emotions, needs and desires, which fractions can’t acknowledge.
For me, it’s impossible to see fractions as anything other than a racist tool for further oppression: limiting the way mixed people can understand themselves, the spaces they are allowed to access, and the ways we connect with others. It will take time to find better ways of understanding each other, and knowing how problematic the existing vocab is, if a mixed person finds a term that helps them to understand themselves in the here and now, then I’m all for it.
Mixed people didn’t create this framework: it’s not on us to dismantle it. But we can collectively (mixed or otherwise) at least move away from language that is provably violent. Using such outdated terminology says either I’m ignorant to the issues with this language or I know these are problematic terms, but I don’t care. The damage is simply not worth the ease of accepted shorthand – so we must do everything we can to stop referring to people as fractions.