How far have we come in our acceptance of mixed race people?

Actress Halle Berry, actor Keanu Reeves, British 'it' girl Alexa Chung and Australian model Jessica Gomes all have a mixed race background. (AAP)

What was once a shameful taboo with a deep, dark racist history is now the face of the modern world. But how far have we really come in our acceptance of mixed race people?

Estelle Griepink is not a celebrity.

But more often than not, the 22-year-old will get stopped on the streets of Indonesia and Malaysia, with passers-by eager to take her photo.

“I lived in Indonesia for a couple of months and I was stopped by people who wanted to take photos of me – and with me – quite frequently,” she said. “It's happened in Malaysia, where my family lives, too.”

Her appeal? The fact that she is half Malaysian and half Dutch.

“I know this happens to people who are white too - blonde hair, blue eyes - but I felt there was something kind of creepy doing it to me as they would go on about how amazing it was that I was half Asian, half white.

“At the end of the day my ethnicity is completely out of my control, so I hardly think it is something to be congratulated on or celebrated for… like you're a collector’s item.”

But with their mysterious, racially ambiguous ‘look’ and exotic heritage, it’s not hard to see why mixed race people like Ms Griepink are so in demand.

Mixed race: the face of the modern world

Flick through most fashion magazines and you would notice a surge in multiracial models and celebrities prominently positioned alongside their blonde-haired blue eyed counterparts.

Even retail giant David Jones has cottoned on, bringing in half Singaporean-Chinese, half Portuguese model Jessica Gomes to replace supermodels Miranda Kerr and Megan Gale as the new face of its brand.

Last year, Gomes joined half Aboriginal, half German-Scandinavian model Samantha Harris and Shanina Shaik, who is half Pakistani-Saudi, half Australian-Lithuanian, to front the cover of Fairfax Media’s now defunct The (Sydney) Magazine.


For Marina Go, a long-time publisher and General Manager of Hearst-Bauer Media, the magazine cover was a small victory.

“Providing multi-cultural faces as physical role models for young women is not about swapping one kind of beauty with another,” wrote Ms Go, who has an Italian mother and a Chinese father.

“The reason it's important is that it demonstrates that there isn't a single Australian look. Our multi-cultural country now contains many different faces, all of which are beautiful.”

From actress Halle Berry, Labor senator Penny Wong, pop star Rihanna, golfer Tiger Woods, to US President Barack Obama, mixed race people have become the face of the modern world.

Editor-in-Chief of RUSSH magazine Jess Blanch said the increased use of multiracial talent was a “sign of the times”.

“If you look at top models at the moment, by looking at them, you wouldn’t know what background they were. It is a representation of how much the world has changed and how mixed we all are these days,” she told SBS. ”If anything, the trend at the moment with fashion is to celebrate authenticity.

“When you see Aboriginal girls on magazine covers, I think that that really shows how far we’ve come. I think it’s saying that our beauty is so many things now. I think we’ll see more of that.”

Fastest growing ethnic group

Though mixed race individuals are hardly a rare sight these days, it’s still unclear how many Australians identify as multiracial. 

SBS was told that, unlike in the UK and US, the Australian Bureau of Statistics does not specifically collect information on race, and Australians are only given the option to tick up to two ancestries in the census questionnaire.


Do you identify as mixed race? Tell us in the comments below. 

In the UK and US however, governments actively collect data on multiracial people, providing multiple race options on their census surveys.

The 2011 census in Britain showed that people identifying as mixed race almost doubled to around 1.2 million – the fastest growing ethnic group in the United Kingdom. Furthermore, around six per cent of British children under the age of five have a mixed background.

These figures have matched what is happening in the US. The 2010 US census revealed that the percentage of those who identified as multiracial was much greater than those who had a single ethnicity. (For the very first time in US history, Americans were able to check more than one box and identify as more than one race in the 2000 census survey.)

According to the 2010 US census, nine million people identified as being mixed race, a jump of 32 per cent from 2000 to 2010. In comparison, Americans who had a monoracial background only grew by 9.2 per cent.

‘Fetishised and sexualised’

Apart from being one of the fastest growing racial groups in the UK and US, according to a US study published this year, mixed race individuals are also the most desirable when it comes to online dating.

Researchers studied 6.7 million introduction messages sent between 2003 to 2010 from one of the largest US dating websites, and found that online daters were most attracted to people with a mixed heritage – even beating Caucasian men and women to come out on top.

These results were in stark contrast to previous literature which normally saw Caucasian males and females on top of the online dating hierarchy.

“The most interesting and surprising finding from our study is that some white-minority multiracial daters are, in fact, preferred over white and non-white daters,” said Celeste Vaughan Curington, lead author of the study and a sociologist at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst.

“We call this the multiracial 'bonus effect,' and this is truly unheard of in the existing sociological literature."

“I don’t know why there’s almost like a fetish over people who are mixed. We don’t have any control over the way were born or anything. So I don’t know why there’s such a big deal over it."

The three main multiracial groups that received the ‘bonus effect’ included Asian-white women, Asian-white men, and Hispanic-white men.

"A preference for multiraciality is closely akin to a preference for lightness or whiteness," Ms Curington said. "Daters may be influenced by the popular media's representation of mixed-race people as 'exotic' and sexually appealing.”

But the ‘mixed race beauty’ stereotype, while seemingly complimentary, can have a dehumanising effect, sociologist Lyn Dickens from the University of Sydney told SBS.

“In popular culture, you’ll often hear about how there are a lot of mixed race models, and mixed race people are naturally more beautiful and it’s quite a common stereotype,” said Ms Dickens, 27, who is part Singaporean-Chinese and part Anglo-Australian.

“It’s easy to think about this as quite a complimentary and positive thing – and it some ways it can be. But I think that it still remains a stereotype and it’s still an incomplete story about someone that categorises them based on one aspect… and it can be quite restrictive."

Have you ever felt sexualised and fetishised as a mixed race person? Tell us your story in the comments below.

“Some studies have shown that these stereotypes about mixed race beauty can have quite a negative and dehumanising effect on some mixed race women,” Ms Dickens added.

Griepink said she often felt fetishised for being half-Asian and half-European, a racial group often referred to as ‘Eurasian’.

“I don’t know why there’s almost like a fetish over people who are mixed. We don’t have any control over the way were born or anything. So I don’t know why there’s such a big deal over it,” she said.

“Maybe it’s something about having someone who is a bit exotic - but not too exotic.”

Racial hierarchy, racism and the ‘one-drop rule’

Dr Julie Matthews, an educator and sociologist at the University of Adelaide, believes the sexualisation and preference for mixed race people is inherently racist.

"We’ve sexualised or pornographied mixed race. It’s a very narrow line between exoticisation and sexualisation, fetishisms - where you turn all non-white people into people who exist simply into your own pleasure."

She said that a person who is half white is more “palatable” and acceptable in society – an idea, she believes, is steeped in racism and prevalent since colonisation.

“Colonialism has circulated the idea that white is best. White is at the top of a kind of hierarchy of humanity… If you believe there is a hierarchy of races, which is what racism is about, a little bit of white is more palatable,” said Dr Matthews, 58, who is half Japanese and half English.

“You can get rid of the fear, and horror and the anger of race by adding a bit of whiteness.”

A pertinent example of this was the treatment of half-Aboriginal children and the Stolen Generation. Between the late 1800s and the 1970s, the Australian government forcibly removed Aboriginal children with a white parent from their community, placing them in non-Indigenous foster homes or state-run institutions. It was hoped that mixed race children would 'assimiliate' into white Australian society and cut ties with their black ancestry.

Sociologist Professor Reginald Daniel from the University of California added that across all racial groups, blackness is the one identity that is the most complicated. 

“When it comes to blackness, there is one frontier that is the most complicated,” he told SBS. “There is no ambiguity about who’s black no matter what you look like, no matter what your ancestry because of the ‘one drop rule’ way back to, at least informally, in slavery, and then formally in law.”

A term mainly used in the US, the one-drop rule is the idea that even ‘one drop’ of blackness in your ancestry precludes you from being truly white, and therefore ‘lower’ on the racial hierarchy (with whiteness being at the top of the scale).

“There was a time when [an interracial] couple would have been – in parts of the United States – lynched by the [Ku Klux] Klan. Those kinds of attitudes had very serious consequences in terms of physical harm. And that does still happen. There are numerous hate crimes directed at interracial couples and mixed race people. And that pattern has not gone. It’s a reflection of that deep long racist history,” said Professor Daniel, whose own multiracial identity includes African, European, Asian, Arab, and Native American origins.

Q&A: Professor Reginald Daniel on mixed race identity and race relations

As a result of such entrenched racism, Professor Daniel said identifying as a multiracial person was often “fraught with conflict”, especially if the individual had a black ancestor.

“There was not a lot of mixed race people in the past in terms of identity – even if they existed they didn’t embrace that identity. So it was an identity that was fraught with a lot of conflict, in a sense that, well, how do you form an identity that’s so totally different from everything and everyone around you?”

It’s a sentiment that Tony Ryder, 25, knows all too well.

With an Italian father and an Aboriginal mother, Mr Ryder told SBS he grew up hiding his Noongar and Yamatji ancestry because of the racism he endured in his hometown of Perth.

“Everyone’s experience is different I suppose, but for me, you know, you get called b**ng, c**n, every name under the sun... Where I went to high school, being Aboriginal isn’t celebrated – you just get made fun of.”

But when Mr Ryder did start embracing his Aboriginal heritage, he said he struggled to find acceptance within the community because of his lighter skin.

“People need to start realising that Indigenous people don’t all look the same…We are a diverse people just like any other race. Years and years of genocide and forced assimilation does not mean that we are all going to be black-skinned and living in the desert.”

Sasha Sarago, 34, is part African-American, Spanish, Aboriginal, Mauritian and Malay, and lived in California, US with her family until she was a teenager. Interestingly, when she migrated to Australia in high school, Ms Sarago noticed that locals would focus on her African-American ancestry rather than her Aboriginal background.

“To me, it was saying, ‘oh you’re Aboriginal but we don’t want to acknowledge that because it’s cooler to be African American – that’s the cooler black.’”

Like Ryder, Ms Sarago said didn’t feel comfortable acknowledging her Aboriginality in her younger years.

“Growing up – and still to this day – there is that negativity towards being an Aboriginal person… So I wouldn’t downplay it, but I wouldn’t speak up about my Aboriginality.”

Have you ever experienced discrimination or felt embarrassed because of your mixed heritage? Tell us your story in the comments below.

Stuck in the middle

A British study published earlier this year found that mixed race children were more at risk of developing mental health issues as they struggle to develop a sense of identity, while dealing with discrimination and racism.

“Whilst adolescent experiences were often particularly difficult, with the mixed race young person frequently being the 'out-grouper',” said co-author of the study, Dinah Morely.

Professor Daniel added that for most people, race was often viewed as in "binary" terms.

"We have always thought in very binary, monoracial terms. You’re either one thing or the other, and that was the end of the discussion. Any thought of anything in between - that was sort of both/neither identity - was unheard of."

This experience rang true for Ms Sarago. Though she has African-American and Aboriginal ancestry, Ms Sarago said she never felt like she belonged to either communities.

“I was always in the middle. I never belonged fully to the black community. But then I’d always be called racial slurs from the white community,” she said. “Then when I returned to Australia, it was hard because I had a strong American accent... So I stood out like a sore thumb. I didn’t feel like I was Aboriginal enough.”

For Ms Griepink, she never felt truly white or truly Asian. 

“At the end of the day, I’m not really Asian and I’m not really Dutch, so I don’t really fit either way. But I guess you’ll never really identify with one culture.”

Sydney University sociologist Lyn Dickens, who is Singaporean-Chinese and Anglo-Australian, said she also found it hard to choose a ‘side’ when it comes to her cultural identity.

“Often people with multiple ethnicities or mixed heritage don’t feel that they need to choose one particular group that they identify with the most. I wouldn’t say that I identify with one side of my heritage more than another,” she said.

“Mixed race people can feel excluded by both their parents' racial or ethnic groups. I guess that’s relates to the challenges in terms of identity because it’s often a conflict between how some mixed race people might choose to define their own identity versus how society expects them to define it.”

How far have we come?

While being mixed race is no longer a taboo, it wasn't always this way. 

During Vietnam War, for example, children who had an American father (usually servicemen) and a Vietnamese mother were shunned from Vietnamese society. Many 'Amerasian' children were abandoned by both their parents, lived in dire poverty, unskilled, uneducated, and faced immense discrimination. 

But for Jacqueline, 25, who preferred not to reveal her last name, her mixed ancestry itself isn’t the problem, but the way she looks.

Although her father is Spanish, Filipino, Chinese, Portuguese, Greek and her mother is Irish, German, French, English, Jacqueline has often been mistaken for being Middle Eastern.

She said it was never a problem until after the Cronulla riots in 2005 and September 11.

“The biggest issue for me isn’t being part-Asian. But because of my mixed ethnicity, I’m constantly mistaken for being Middle-Eastern.”

Jacqueline said the worst incident she had experienced was in 2006 when, while still wearing her school uniform, a group of young Caucasian men threw a drink at her as she crossed the street.

“When I was a teenager I was crossing a zebra crossing in Cronulla after school and was hit in the back with a McDonald’s coke. A group of young males called out "terrorist c**t" from their car and sped off.

“I find it really unfortunate, the attitude and stigma that comes with being Middle Eastern or having a Middle Eastern appearance,” she told SBS.

“I know what my ethnicity is – and being mistaken for another shouldn’t be an issue, but it is.”

Jacqueline said while Australia has come a long way in terms of racial tolerance, she is not convinced we’ve come far enough, given the discrimination she has experienced in recent years.

“I do feel that overall, people are more tolerant and more open to learning about different cultures compared to when I was younger,” she said. “But I’m a bit on the fence. I’m not sold that it’s come as far as I’d like to think.”

The backlash against the Cheerios ad featuring an interracial American family that aired during the Superbowl, said Professor Daniel, was further proof that progress wouldn’t happen overnight.

“While there has been progress and while there has been openness, when people have been confronted with that reality in three-dimensional space and time, old attitudes kick in,” he said.

“Any kind of change of this magnitude is going to be very incremental. It’s just not going to happen overnight. It takes time for people to get accustomed to it.”

Still, Professor Daniel, who has been researching multiracial identity since the 1960s, remains optimistic.

“I think our society is moving more and more in that direction, so it’s not so much an anomaly to think of somebody identifying as mixed race, as in the past.”

He added that the old “monoracial” world that was rooted in racism was slowly dying out with each new generation.

“Young people – millennials – have grown up in a world that is far more diverse than anything that any generation before them has ever seen. They’re not nearly as fazed as their parents and their grandparents by some of these things.

”And anyone that is going to be functioning in the world that is unfolding is going to have to learn to come to terms with many different kinds of people – including mixed race.”

How far do you think society has come in its acceptance of mixed race people? Tell us in the comments below.


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