What Is Racial Ambiguity?

Father and daughter in park, having fun together

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Often it's easy to tell what someone's racial background is by looking at them. For example, a person may have the physical features we associate with being Black, White, Asian, or Native American. Some people, though, appear to have features that fit more than one racial group. When someone cannot be easily placed in a racial category, they might be considered racially ambiguous.

This article defines racial ambiguity, the advantages and disadvantages of being racially ambiguous, and discusses how those who are racially ambiguous can be allies to those who are of a discernible race.

What Is Racial Ambiguity?

Racial Ambiguity

Racial ambiguity is the term for when a person's racial background isn't easily identifiable. They don't appear to be what's commonly called "monoracial," or being of one race.

If a person appears to be racially ambiguous, you might think that they are mixed race, also known as multiracial, but not be able to tell which races are included in their background.

A racially ambiguous person may be perceived differently by different people. Depending on their skin coloring and other physical features, a racially ambiguous person might be perceived as White by one person but as a person of color (POC) by another.

Often, racial ambiguity can be the result of having parents of different races, but this isn't always the case; a person who comes from a monoracial background can occasionally appear racially ambiguous, too.

Racially ambiguous people occupy an in-between space in our culture. While they may be of any race or combination of races, by not being seen as of the race or races they are they tend to have a different lived experience than the people of those races who are not viewed as racially ambiguous.

Racially ambiguous people may love not being clearly identifiable, or it might cause them great emotional pain. It may be their favorite physical attribute, or they may take actions to appear more monoracial. There is no universal experience of racial ambiguity. There are, however, progressively more racially ambiguous people in our country, as we become a less segregated society open to finding love and partnership in any group.

Sometimes, racially ambiguous people are thought of as the future of humanity, representative of what all people will look like at some point in the potential future when so much global pairing has occurred that monoracial people are no longer the norm.

A 1980s era photo of a golden retriever and an eight year old girl
The author as a child. Ariane Resnick
A darker man and lighter woman feed one another a bit of wedding cake
The author's parents on their wedding day. Ariane Resnick
A girl and her grandmother seated side by side
The author and her grandmother. Ariane Resnick

Why Racial Ambiguity Is An Experience We Should Know

Racially ambiguous people may move through society in a wholly different manner than people of discernable races. There are both privileges and challenges associated with this, as we will address.

In a society contending with racism, it's important to be aware of the varied experiences of the population, and racially ambiguous people can teach people of identifiable races a lot about how nuanced and complex racial identity can be. While people who are monoracial may have a singular experience of race, racially ambiguous people often have many different experiences with it throughout their lives.

The Privileges Of Looking Racially Ambiguous

Racially ambiguous people may have a different experience with race than others who are of discernable races. The privileges of looking racially ambiguous can include:

  • Potentially being seen as White or mostly White, and therefore experiencing less racism
  • Not being targeted by hate crimes and racism that are directed only at specific races
  • Being perceived as part of someone's race that they actually aren't a part of, and in turn being treated like you are part of another community

The Challenges Racially Ambiguous People Face

Inasmuch as racially ambiguous people may experience some privileges that others do not, they also are faced with many challenges. Difficulties arising from racial ambiguity may include:

  • Not being viewed as a member of the race they are, both by people of that race and people of other races
  • An inner sense of not belonging to any community
  • Strife from family members who identify differently than the racially ambiguous person
  • Racism from White family members
  • Structural racism that prevents them from having the same opportunities as White people
  • Inappropriate questioning about their backgrounds by strangers

It's important to note that one of the biggest challenges of racial ambiguity is that the questioning and miscategorization of one's ethnicity may have a negative impact on mental and emotional well-being.

Racially Ambiguous People as Allies to POC Groups

Because racially ambiguous people are a minority themselves, it might be surprising to think that they would have any responsibilities to other people of color. However, because of the privileges associated with racial ambiguity, some members of racial minority groups who are not racially ambiguous feel that it is their job to help other POC. This is particularly the case in regards to racism and the targeting of specific races, such as African Americans and Asian Americans, by White people.

Since some ambiguous individuals are perceived as White, even if only by a fraction of people, that gives them a level of privilege and a platform when that occurs. For example, White people may be more receptive to learning about their own acts of racism if they think the person telling them is a fellow White person and not a person of color.

How much responsibility a racially ambiguous person feels towards more marginalized people of color is different from person to person.

When a racially ambiguous person embarks on an antiracism journey, they may be made aware of privileges they didn't realize before. This could lead to them taking more actions to combat racism when and where they encounter it.

A Unique Life Experience

Stories of all the different ways racial ambiguity leads to unique life experiences can be found on social media by monoracials and mixed race people alike.

It is a common occurrence for racially ambiguous people to be spoken to in languages that they are presumed to know but don't. This is because people of different ethnic groups in various countries might recognize them as one of their own.

A person may be spoken to in Spanish, Arabic, Hebrew, Hindu, and more. This is a complex situation because the racially ambiguous person may feel disappointment when sharing with the native speaker that they don't know the language, and aren't from their community.

Because racially ambiguous people are often asked the question, "What are you?" which is an inappropriate way to ask for information about someone's racial or ethnic background, they are forced to think more about their identities. This can lead to more self reflection than the average person might otherwise embark on or work through in life.

Sometimes, people are so convinced that an ambiguous person is of their race that they don't even believe the person when informed that they are not. Most people in life don't have to convince others that they are the race, or races, that they are, but this is a frequent occurrence for racially ambiguous people.

Due to occupying an in-between space in society, racially ambiguous people may not have a built-in community, or camaraderie with strangers of their race. Within their own families, they can look different than other members, and if they have two monoracial parents of different races, their own parents won't be able to resonate with their experience.

A Word From Verywell

Chances are, you've encountered racially ambiguous people before. You may have presumed them to be of one race, mixed race, or never given it any thought at all. With the information you now have, you can begin to have a deeper understanding of the experiences of racially ambiguous people. Racial ambiguity is becoming progressively more common and is an important experience to understand.

Working with mixed race individuals who may appear racially ambiguous is an important topic for further exploration. Verywell would like to thank Dr. Jennifer Noble for her significant contributions in reviewing this article. Dr. Noble is a licensed psychologist, parent coach, associate professor of psychology and speaker in Los Angeles, CA. She works with mixed race people, parents of mixed race kids, women of color, and other marginalized groups.

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