More than the Other: Why We Need More Multiracial Role Models | Josh Rutherford

I spent a portion of my childhood confused . . .

Was I an American? A Mexican? A Filipino? I had relatives from more than one culture, from different parts of the country as well as different parts of the world. They looked different than I did. A few had my complexion. Or my hair. Or my frame. But no one looked quite like me.

My only sibling passed as white since she is a brunette with fair skin and straight hair. I, on the other hand, was often mistaken for being full-blooded Mexican, not only due to my looks but because we lived only forty miles from the border. That assumption by many – the effects of colorism – lead to many questions (what today we call microaggressions) from my classmates, teachers, teammates, and yes, even my own family. 

I spent a portion of my adolescence apologizing . . .

Those questions increased in frequency as I entered my teen years:

            “Why don’t you speak Spanish?”

            “Have you ever been back home?”

            “Where are you from?”

            “Where are you really from?”

My dad is white, my mom is Mexican-Filipino. Yes, my mom spoke Spanish. As did her siblings. However, they grew up on this side of the border, so English is their first language, not second.

My dad had no grasp of the language having been raised back east, so English was the only language frequently spoken in the household. Growing up, I caught bits and pieces of Spanish when my mom spoke to my grandma; my exposure was never frequent enough to develop any conversational grasp of the language, let alone full fluency.

When prompted with the above-listed questions, sometimes the scrutiny subsided long enough for me to try to explain that Spanish wasn’t spoken of in my household that often. Follow-up questions would ensue, and I would answer that I was mixed or multiracial, which led to other questions on whether I knew Tagalog or not.

Nope. I was never exposed to that language either. My Filipino grandfather met my Mexican grandfather later in life – in what was their second marriage for both of them – and had two children from that union, one of whom survived to adulthood (my mother). Their children from their previous marriages were raised in Spanish-speaking Mexican households – my mother’s upbringing followed suit, in part because my grandfather was the only Tagalog-speaking member of his two families. Since she never developed fluency in Tagalog, I never did either.

Despite the straightforward logistics of my English-only upbringing, it seemed no one I knew, not even my own family, accepted the rationale of me not knowing at least one other language or upholding traditions from a foreign land. It was as though my heritage – or more specifically, my looks – forever bound me to the responsibility of inherently knowing my ancestral cultures.

So, I developed a complex. An apologetic one. With so many people questioning my lack of aptitude in language and knowledge of Mexican and Filipino culture, how could I not? So I became . . . sorry.

As my teen years progressed, I found myself skirting the mentions or questions about my heritage or racial background. I fell into the uneasy, oft-ambiguous, and painful label of “The Other.”

I spent a portion of my early adult years reflecting . . .

In college and my early years in the professional world, I was exposed to many more far-ranging environments, more diverse and inclusive than those of my upbringing. I moved around a bit. I met second and third-generation Americans whose only language was English too. I also came to know people who were also mixed or multiracial, who shared the same experiences of guilt and confusion that I encountered. Like me, they knew bits and pieces about their heritage though never enough to identify with any home other than the U.S.

And that is the right of it.

Because they, like me, were born here, were raised here. This is the primary home we know, and while we are proud of where our families have come from, none of us who are mixed should ever feel guilty for being the products of our upbringing and environments.

I spend my present time in acceptance . . .

I have to admit, I felt a lot of anger and resentment towards those who challenged my identity. What right did they have to question my language? My culture? My life?

I spent much time reflecting and working through those emotions. Those efforts have given way to acceptance, to a lessening of my judgment and a deepened sense of understanding. Of those takeaways, I came to realize that labels such as “mixed” and “multiracial” weren’t understood with the depth and breadth they deserve. Even today, I see many struggle with the terms. And I get it. Having an identity that isn’t singular, one that is layered and varied, is a difficult concept to comprehend let alone embrace. It involves a degree of empathy not inherent in most, though, with patience, I believe it is available to us all.

I’ve accepted those who look at me and make snap judgments. I’ve accepted what they assume, thoughts I have no control or influence over. Their beliefs do not reflect my reality, nor my self-worth.

And I am committed.

Growing up, I never knew anyone who identified as mixed. Whether my family or friends, acquaintances or strangers, it seems those I met had one, singular sense of self in terms of race and culture. Now, it appears society has come a long way in accepting those with varied backgrounds – identity has become more personal, less subject to the opinions of an audience.

However, role models in this area remain low. From chambers of commerce to online support groups, few organizations and resources are devoted to the issues and causes of mixed people. Diversity as we know it, or as we want it, remains elusive. That is why people such as myself need to step up and be the voice we never had growing up. We need to shed the “otherness” we’ve carried for so long and become keepers of our own stories, advocates of our shared narratives, and proponents of change that include building a more inclusive, empathetic community.

Those efforts, I know, start with me.

I am mixed. I now have children. They are diverse. Not only are they multiracial – one is neurodiverse while the other is undergoing testing and support to pinpoint his own needs. So in another sense, their diversity is apart from mine. Had it not been for my upbringing, my challenges and struggles with understanding my heritage, I would be approaching this chapter of my life with more resistance and less empathy. And even though raising two boys with their own diverse needs is not without day-to-day anxiety, I remain committed toward their journey, to helping them recognize their uniqueness and growing into their identity.

They never need to apologize for who they are. None of us do. They don’t need to doubt themselves, nor ruminate and overanalyze about their identities. They should avoid all the critical voices in their heads, the ones that mirror all the self-judgments I experienced.

They only need to focus on finding themselves in this world. And I want to be there for them when they do. To them and all the others like us, that is my commitment.

Are there any takeaways that you can apply to your own life and journey as an individual? I’d love to hear from you. And remember, it’s never too late to embrace your identity – whatever that may be.

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