The mixed-race experience: the search for belonging

By July 9, 2019 Blog
The mixed race experience: the search for belonging
July 9, 2019 Blog

A lack of belonging

Belonging – the word itself carries so much in it, yet it’s a space I didn’t allow myself for a long time.

From an early age I was taught to not take up space: be quiet, be good, be nice. Don’t upset people. Keep everyone happy. It was something I was so naturally good at. You see, I spent a big chunk of my life trying to keep the peace and fit in.

I’m mixed race. Hāfu is what they call me in Japan (literally meaning half). Een halfbloedje (half blood) in Dutch. Too white, too Western and too tall to be seen as Japanese. My eyes a defining feature of my non-whiteness. My tendency to hide my feelings, to not speak up and conform – hallmarks of a culture that emphasises the importance of the group.

By definition, I was never meant to fit in. One leg in, one leg out. Where did I belong?

It wasn’t until relatively recently that I realised how deeply this has affected me. I have often felt a deep loneliness. The loneliness that looked for belonging and recognition in and from others. The loneliness that longed to hear these words: I belong to you.

I’m Japanese.

I’m Belgian.

I’m Dutch.

I’m British.

(and yes, all of these apply to me in some way or other)

As an only child, I didn’t have siblings to share my journey with and my parents didn’t fully understand what my experience as a mixed-race child, growing up in a predominantly white environment, felt like. How could they?

At the time, there were few people around me that shared the same experience. To some degree, I think I was even unaware how this feeling of separation impacted me until fairly recently. The lack of belonging meant that I felt different from others – and different to me felt like less than.

While I believe the world has changed vastly from when I was born, and there is so much more diversity around us (hallelujah!), I’ve come to realise that this feeling of separation, of being different, is something that so many of us experience for different reasons. I’m writing about this now in the hope that my experience of it can serve others in some way.

So what does a sense of belonging really mean?

“Belonging is the innate human desire to be part of something larger than us. Because this yearning is so primal, we often try to acquire it by fitting in and by seeking approval, which are not only hollow substitutes for belonging, but often barriers to it. Because true belonging only happens when we present our authentic, imperfect selves to the world, our sense of belonging can never be greater than our level of self-acceptance.”

– Brené Brown

One of the ways that we often define ourselves is through our nationality, race or family of origin.

But what happens when you don’t neatly fit into one of the boxes? When you’re the in-between space? The “other”?

My lack of belonging wasn’t simply by being mixed race. In many ways, I have often felt I didn’t belong as a woman or as a sensitive soul in this world dominated by a preference for the masculine and rational. In fact, so many of us feel like we don’t belong, often for many different reasons. This feeling different can result in the feeling of not being good enough.

In what ways do you feel like you’re “not good enough” or perhaps even “too much” of something?

My lack of belonging resulted in an ongoing search for belonging outside of myself. I kept looking for ways that I could “DO” my way into belonging – that place that unconditionally says: you are good enough to be part of that mythical place of US. A long list of “shoulds” that said: if you do, be or have enough of this, then you will be loved.

The problem with that?

I got further and further removed from who I truly was. Adapting and molding myself to whoever I thought I needed to be for others and in the process I lost myself. I developed an underlying feeling that said: you are not good enough as you are. To be different from others felt like less than. And perhaps most importantly, I never deeply experienced true love and acceptance for who I was.

And this is the key risk:

When you don’t dare to show who you truly are, you will also never experience what it’s like to be loved for who you are – and you mistakenly believe that you need to project some external image in order to be loved.

Tell me, what’s the image that you are portraying to the outside world?

What are the signs of not belonging?

I have spoken to a number of people who shared their experience of being mixed race. What follows below are some of the common characteristics that I saw in myself and have heard come up for others:

  • You’re so good at adapting, you don’t actually feel connected to yourself anymore and you start feeling inauthentic. This disconnection can lead to an unawareness of your own needs, feelings and desires. My past tendency would have been to always ask the others first, what do you want? Then I’d fit in.
  • You disown the parts of yourself that you don’t deem good enough or worthy. For me, this actually meant that I disowned most of my Japanese heritage. As a child that meant that at some stage I refused to speak Japanese or go to Japanese school (interestingly, I did however decide to study Japanese at university as part of my search for my “roots”.)
  • You walk the tightrope between being good enough to belong, but also not too good so you don’t stand out. You see, they are two sides of the same coin: you’re trying to fit in so you don’t want to risk standing out by being worse or better than anyone else. It’s like a constant heightened awareness of how others perceive you. Sound familiar anyone?
  • You focus on maintaining the relationship between people. This can be a beautiful thing, but can be risky if you don’t speak up for what you need, think or feel to safeguard the relationship. I became a master of focusing on the other person, whilst not taking up my own space. There’s a questioning inside that says: is it ok for me to be here and who do I need to be in order for me to belong?

Focusing on the other person was a fail-proof way of getting the other person’s approval: yes, I like you, you belong here. Typical behaviour that can show up as part of this:

  • Being overly diplomatic
  • Not advocating for yourself
  • Not voicing your opinion
  • Not setting boundaries
  • People pleasing
  • Or interestingly, the opposite: you stay away from people and building more intimate connections. The idea that other people won’t “get” you anyway or couldn’t truly  understand you. There’s a real risk of even losing yourself more when entering into intimate relationships, so one strategy could be to stay away! Real intimacy requires you to show up authentically and vulnerably – and to do that requires self-acceptance, one of the key things that you may miss.
  • You focus on helping others feel at home or part of the group. You may project your own pain of exclusion on others and don’t want anyone else to experience the same.

All of these traits are on a continuum, and as with most things, these traits are not necessarily bad at all. In fact, there are many positive sides to these. My experience has really cultivated a deep sense of empathy and awareness of other people, I’m great at cultivating harmony in groups and fostering teamwork as well as building relationships of any type.

But to own these, we must also see when they become “risky”. For me the biggest risk was losing myself in a quest for belonging and when you do that, you risk “true belonging” as you can only ever experience that when you are really fully yourself.

So how do we make the journey toward belonging?

Please stay tuned for part 2 of this series! In the meantime, I’d love to hear what this blogpost brought up for you. Please feel free to email me at info@naomisaelens.com or leave a comment below!

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