When our son was born, he looked like a tiny, blonde peanut. He had light skin and grey eyes. His twin, our daughter, was bigger, browner, with thick dark hair.
The nurses at our hospital in New York were thrilled. Look at these two mix n’ match cuties!
As we wheeled them around the city, the double takes were obvious. It followed a pattern. Oh, look – twins. Then, wow, how cute - boy/girl twins! And then, gosh, a fair twin and a brown twin. Cue what I call eyeball pinball: quick look at me, of Malaysian-Indian descent, then my white Aussie husband, then back to the twins as they tried to figure out the racial backstory.
And then: aha!
Even in one of the world’s most racially diverse cities, our twins were a fascinating anomaly.
Genetics can throw up all kinds of curious curveballs.
Biracial twins with different skin tones are right up there; National Geographic devoted a whole issue to them.
They’re seen as a biological rarity – except, they’re not that miraculous.
Fraternal twins, especially, can be as physically different as any other sibling pair. Scientists liken it to a card deck being shuffled: each hand produces a different result.
Case in point: my sister has biracial twins as well. One twin is “whiter-looking” than the other.
Science will tell you that race is a social, not a genetic construct; there is no DNA category for “race” because there’s no genetic marker for it. Racial classifications are fluid, shaped by geography, culture, even politics. Someone considered black in the US might be classified as white in South America.
Witness UK twins Lucy and Maria Aylmer: one identifies as black after their mother, the other white after their father.
However, race still matters – perhaps more than ever. It divides us politically, it drives the way we judge, classify and treat others. And how do we judge race? Through the highly unreliable filter of skin colour and facial features.
More than ever it seems, it’s all about optics when it comes to establishing identity.
It can be tricky for those of mixed ancestry, living outside the silos of race.
Witness the ugly racial politics surrounding Meghan Markle and Prince Harry’s union, the even uglier miscegenation rhetoric around their baby son. Closer to home, witness the hostile note left on a pregnant Asian-Australian author’s windshield. What does this all mean for mixed-race children like our twins?
A complicated world of confusion, well-meaning ignorance and struggles with self-identity.
“Am I Australian,” my twins ask ask? Yes.
“Are we white Australian?” Half white - from your dad.
“So that’s why we’re also brown?”
"Yes, because you’re also half of me and I’m Indian."
“Ok. But I thought you were from Malaysia.”
I am – I’m Indian Malaysian. Silence.
“So that makes us…. Half white Australian, half Indian-Malaysian?” Yup. “But does that mean you’re not Australian?” Cue silent shriek.
Another one from strangers: “why don’t you look like each other?” The twins shrug. What do they say to this? “We’re twins – not clones?”
“Why don’t you look like your mum and dad?” This one’s a harder one.
Both have internalised the cultural expectation that parents and children should be physically "matchy-matchy". It’s deeply ingrained. My husband showed a work colleague a photo of our daughter as a toddler, complete with big dark head of curls. “Oh, she doesn’t look like you!” was the shocked response (he added to me later with a grin: “she probably thought we adopted her”).
Another time, he was stopped by an old lady who cooed over my son before pursing her lips at my daughter. “Oh, she’s got a suntan!” was the comment, followed with a disapproving tut-tut.
Then there’s the situation of having one fairer twin.
Recently, my son’s school friend, a girl of black African ancestry, was talking to him about how much of a minority she was in a class of white kids; she included my son in her count of “white” kids. She was surprised when he told her he was biracial. No, you’re not, was the firm response. He added to me later: “even the other Asian kids don’t think I’m half-Asian.”
With his olive skin and hazel eyes, he could ‘pass’ for Italian or Greek. Does he experience white-passing privilege compared to my daughter? It’s hard to judge. He’s not aware of race because he’s not singled out as racially “different”.
Still, he’s well aware of skin colour politics. As he says, “there’s definitely more racism against the brown kids.”
In Malaysia, rojak is a slang term for mixed race, based on a tasty local dish made up of many ingredients. One thing’s for sure. In a world of increasing intermarriage – and multiple births – our kids will be joined by an army of rojak kids.
Our family’s view? Bring it on!