Biracial Phenotypes as Ambivalent Signifiers
Racialisation is the process of imbuing a body with meaning (Ahmed). Rockquemore et al.’s study on American Black-White middle-class college youth emphasises the importance of phenotypes in interracial children because “physical appearance is the primary cue for racial group membership… and remains the greatest factor in how mixed-race children are classified by others” (114). Wilson’s work on British mixed race 6 to 9-year-olds argues that interracial children classify other children based on how “they locate themselves in the racial structure and how they feel about the various racial groups” (64).
However, interracial children often struggle with claiming a racial identity that does not correspond to their obvious physical appearance because society is more likely to classify or perceive the child based on their corporeal manifestations than their self-identified racial master status. In instances where they are unacknowledged or rejected by homoethinc groups, interracial persons may be deemed ‘illegitimate’ trespassers within social contexts. In response, interracial bodies may selectively hyper/under-visibilise one racial identity depending on personal connotations of the social group in particular settings (Choudhry 119).
Choudhry’s book on the ‘chameleon identities’ of mixed race Black-Asian and White-Asian British young people sets out four ‘interpretative repertoires’ that interracials cognitively adopt: ‘Identity in Transition’ where individuals are still coming to terms with their master status; ‘One Ethnic Identity’ where individuals always privilege one race over the other regardless of context; ‘Interethnic Identity’ where individuals consciously and equally express their dual race and parentage at all times; and ‘Situational/Chameleon-like Identity’ where individuals selectively emphasise one race over the other when it benefits them (112-116). This paper follows on a similar mode of enquiry among Malay-Chinese women in Singapore, whose racial master status is situationally-based.
In ethnically heterogeneous and culturally diverse Singapore, an individual’s racial phenotype is convenient shorthand that demarcates Others’ appropriate interactions with and expectations of them. Malbon describes these brief encounters in crowded urban settings as ‘mismeetings’, in which a body’s visual markers allow for a quick assessment and situation of a person’s identity and status. A visibly racialised body thus informs Others on how to negotiate cross-cultural sensitivities and understandings with them in a shared social space. For instance, this visibility may help inform the Other of an appropriate choice of mother tongue to be adopted in conversation with a stranger, or whether to extend non-halal food to a ‘Malay-looking’ – and by extension in most parts of South East Asia, Muslim – person.
Unlike previous studies, this paper is not focused on interracial individuals’ felt-race, cognitive development, or the ethnic influence in their upbringing. Instead, it concentrates on their praxis of enacting corporeal markers to enable homophilous interactions with homoethnic social groups. Some Malay-Chinese in Singapore have phenotypic features that may not distinctly reflect their ethnic diversity. Hence, they are not readily acknowledged or accepted into some homoethnic contexts and are deemed ‘illegitimate’ trespassers. It is important for Others to be able to situate them since this “brings with it privileges or deprivations that affect [their] relationships with others and [their] relation to the world” (Mohanty 109). Every day interactions that affirm or negate one’s biraciality then become micropolitics of legitimating one’s in-group status; in the words of one woman’s reactions to Malay classmates excluding her from conversations about Hari Raya, “I also Melayu ok”. These women thus find themselves under- or hyper-visibilising facets of their biracial corporeality to negotiate legitimacy and sense of belonging.
Through in-depth interviews with five young Malay-Chinese women who have had to renegotiate their biraciality in educational institutions each school year, this paper seeks to document the intentional under/hyper-performativity of biraciality through visible bodily signifiers. It argues that these biracial women who are perceived as illegitimate inhabitants of social settings have agentically adopted the ambivalence others display towards them as everyday micro-actions to exercise their autonomy, and strategically reposition themselves favourably.
The five women were contacted through snowball sampling among personal networks in polytechnics and universities, which are education settings where students have the liberty to dress themselves, and thus, visibilise facets of their identity. These settings were also places in which the women had to continually under/hyper-visibilise and remark their race and ethnicity in rotating tutorial and lecture groups every semester, therefore (re)constructing their identities through peer interactions (Wilson in Choudhry 112).
They were aged between 18 and 23 at the time of the interview. Their state-documented ‘official’ race, self-identified religion, and state-assigned mother tongue are tabulated below. Pseudonyms are employed.
Semi-structured open-ended interviews were conducted to draw out personal nuances and interpretations of their bodies as read by Others. Our face-to-face interaction proved to be especially useful when informants physically referenced bodily markers or performed verbal cues to convey their under/hyper-visibility strategies.
The Body Being
Among primary phenotypic cues, the women acknowledged popular perceptions of Chinese as fair-skinned and Malay as darker-skinned. This shorthand has been ingrained into society through rampant media images, especially in annual national-wide initiatives based in educational institutes such as Racial Harmony Day, International Friendship Day, and National Day. These settings utilise a ‘racial colour code’ to represent the CMIO – Chinese, Malay, Indian, Others; the four racial categories all Singaporeans are officially categorised into by the state – multiracialism in Singapore. Media imagery employs four children of different skin tones clad in ethnic dress, holding hands as symbolic of unity across diversity. So normative was this image even at the level of Primary School (7-12 year-olds) that Sara found her legitimacy in Chinese lessons questioned: “I used to be quite tanned in Primary School, quite Malay-looking… during Chinese lessons, the teacher always explained [difficult things] to me in English, as if I don’t understand Mandarin. But I even took higher Chinese...”
The non-congruence of Sara’s apparently Malay phenotype and Mandarin mother tongue was perceived by her teacher as incompetence; Sara was an ‘illegitimate’ pupil in Mandarin class. Despite having been qualified enough to enrol in the higher Chinese stream that she says only takes in 10% of her cohort annually, Sara felt her high performance was negated because the visual marker of her Malayness took precedence during interactions with the teacher. Instead, English was adopted as a ‘neutral’ third language for conversing.
In other instances, the women reported that while their skin tone generally enabled an audience to assign them a race, closer observations of their facial features such as their eyes signposted their racial hybridity. Claire states: “People always ask if I’m mixed blood because my eyelashes are very long and thick.” Sara experienced similar questioning gazes from strangers: “… maybe it’s my big eyes, and thick eyebrows… and my double eyelids are also very ‘Malay’?"
Both Claire and Sara pointed out anatomic subtleties such as the folds of their eyelids, the size of their eyes, the volume of their eyebrows, and the length of their eyelashes as markers of their racial hybridity. There also emerged a consensus based on personal experience that Malays are more likely to have double eyelids, larger eyes, thicker eyebrows, and longer lashes, than to Chinese.
Visual emphases on subtle characteristics thus help audiences interpret the biraciality of these women despite the apparent ‘incongruence’ of their skin tone and facial features. However, since racial identity is “influenced by historical, cultural, and contextual factors” (Rockquemore et al. 121), corporeal indications only serve as a primary racial cue. The next segment places these women in the context of secondary cues where the body is actively engaged in performing biraciality.
The Body Speaking
The women code-switched with choice of language, mother tongue, and manner of accents and vocal inflexions to contest initial readings of their racial status. Atiqah shares: “People always think I’m Chinese, until I open my mouth and speak Malay to ‘shock’ them. After that, they just ‘get’ that I am Malay.”
Atiqah’s raised vocal inflexions and increasingly enthusiastic body language – she was clenching her fist as if to symbolically convey her victory at this point of the interview – seemed to imply that she relished in the ‘shock value’ of her big racial ‘reveal’. In a setting where her racial status was misidentified, she responded by asserting her racial legitimacy by displaying her competency of the Malay language.
However, this has not always had a lasting impact in her interactions. She adds that within familiar social groups where she has long asserted her racial identity, she does not always feel acknowledged. Atiqah then attempts to ‘fit in’ by quietly deciphering her peers’ verbal exchanges: “… sometimes my Chinese friends forget that I’m ‘different’ because I’m so fair. They always talk in Mandarin… and I’ll try to figure out what they are saying from facial expressions and gestures.”
Given her fair skin tone, Atiqah finds herself hypervisiblising her Malayness by utilizing the Malay language among Malay friends, even though they often converse in English themselves. In contrast, among Chinese friends where she feels her phenotypic Chinese features are visually dominant, she appears to under-visibilise this same Malayness by not speaking up about her language barrier. Language’s potential to demarcate social boundaries thus becomes a negotiative tool for Malay-Chinese women, while they simultaneously “shift their involvement and alliances” (Choudhry 119) to exercise choice over their identity.
In another instance, Wahida is a fair skinned, tudung-clad, officially documented Chinese woman who identifies more as Malay. Her apparent ‘incongruence’ is of particular concern because Wahida had been attending a Madrasah up till the age of 18. Madrasahs are Islamic learning schools which also provide full-time education from Kindergarten to Junior College level, as an alternative to the mainstream track offered by the Ministry of Education in Singapore; a vast majority of Madrasah students self-identify as Malay Muslims. The desire for a sense of belonging encouraged Wahida to undervisibilise her Chineseness when she was younger:
There was once my father came to pick me up from Madrasah… I forgot why but he scolded me so loudly in Mandarin! Everybody stared at me… I was so embarrassed! I already tried so hard to hide my Chinese-ness, he ruined it.
Although Wahida never spoke Mandarin in school to underplay her Chineseness, ‘passing’ as a Malay necessitated intimate Others to sustain the racial construct. In this instance, her father had broken the ‘Malay’ persona she had deliberately crafted by conversing fluently in Malay in the Madrasah.
Butler’s work on ‘gender as performed’ may be applied here in that what she describes as the “sustained set of acts” or a “stylization of the body” (xv) is also necessary to enact a sustained visual signifier of one’s racial identity. Although portrayed as a natural, innate, or unquestioned heritage in CMIO media portrays for Singapore, race is in fact an intentional construction. It is the practice of a certain regime of actions that contributes to the establishment of one’s raced personality.
One is not naturally ‘Malay’ or ‘Chinese’ for these identities have to be carefully rehearsed and performed in order to translate one’s hereditary race into an outward expression of visible-race as practiced. As evidenced, this constant performance of Wahida’s racial self is fragile and dialectic, especially when other actors (such as her father) do not respond favourably to her intended presentation of self.
Within a supposedly neutral third language such as English, the women also demonstrated their manipulation of accents emphasising or underplaying what they deem to be Malay or Chinese intonations and syllabic stresses. Sara explains:
When I’m with my Malay friends, I speak with the mat [shortened from the local colloquial term matrep which loosely stands for the Malay version of a chav or a redneck] accent. Sometimes it’s subconscious… but sometimes it’s on purpose... they all speak like that… when I speak my ‘proper’ English, I feel out of place.
Sara then demonstrates that Malay-accented English nasally accentuates the ‘N’ consonant, where words such ‘morning’ and ‘action’ have weighted pronunciations as ‘mornang’ and ‘actione’. Words that begin with a ‘C’ consonant are also developed into a voiced plosive ‘K’ sound, where words such as ‘corner’ and ‘concept’ are articulated as ‘korner’ and ‘koncept’, similar to the Malay language. Claire, who demonstrated similar Malay-accented utterances, supported this.
Claire also noted that within Singlish – the colloquial spoken Singaporean English – Malay-accented English also tends towards end-sentence inflexions such as “seh”, “sia”, and “siol” in place of the more Mandarin-accented English that employs the end-sentence inflexions “ba”, and “ma”.
Racialising spoken English is a symbolic interaction that interracial bodies may utilise to gain recognition and acceptance into a racial group that has not yet acknowledged their ‘legitimate’ membership. This is a manifestation of Cooley’s ‘looking glass self’ where an individual’s presentation of the body is based how they think other actors’ perceive them. In doing so, biracial bodies are able to exaggerate or obscure some corporeal traits to convey their preferred racial master status.
The Body Doing
Physical gestures that constitute a ‘racial code’ are mirrored and socialised among children during their upbringing, since these designate one’s bodily boundaries and limits of exchange. Thus, while unseen by outsiders, insiders of the racial group may appropriate subtle gesticulations to demarcate and legitimate each other’s membership. Atiqah contends: “We [the Malays] always salaam each other when we first meet, it’s like a signal to show that we are ‘the same’ you know, so as long as I ‘act’ Malay, then my [colour] doesn’t really matter.”
The salaam is a salutation of Islamic origin, signifying ‘peace to you’. It usually involves taking the back of the hand of a senior and bringing it to one’s forehead, heart, or lips. It is commonly practiced among Malays and Muslims. However, when a body’s phenotypic markers do not adequately signify racial identity, insiders may not extend such affective body language to them. As Nadia laments:
When I first came to uni, the Malay kampong [literally translates into ‘village’, but figuratively stands for a social group in which reciprocal Malay cultural relationality is attached] couldn’t tell I was one of them… when I tried to salaam one of [the boys], he asked me why I was shaking his hand!
Butler illuminated the notion of bodily signifiers (skin tone) marking access and limitations of corporeal exchange (salaam). Visual signifiers on biracial bodies must thus be significant enough to signpost one’s racial master status, in order to be positively assessed, acknowledged, and legitimated by Others.
Among the women, only Wahida had committed to wearing a tudung at the time of the interview. Although a religious Islamic practice (as opposed to a culturally Malay one), such ethnic dress as ethnic signifier takes precedence over one’s ambivalent bodily markers. Wahida expressed that dressing in her jubah hyper-visualised her Malayness, especially when she was schooling in a Madrasah where fellow students dressed similarly.
Omar’s concept of Masuk Melayu – literally ‘to enter Malayness’ – describes non-ethnic Malays who ‘become’ Malay through converting into Islam and practising the religion. Despite Wahida’s ambivalent fair skin tone, donning a tudung publically signifies her religious inclination and signals to Other Malays her racial master status. This thus earns her legitimacy in the social group more so than other ambivalent Malay-Chinese women without such religious symbolism.
In negotiating their biraciality within the setting of educational institutions, these five Malay-Chinese women expressed the body ‘being’, ‘speaking’, and ‘doing’ strategies in which selected traits more commonly associated with Malayness or Chineseness were hyper-visibilised or under-visibilised, depending on the setting in which they find themselves (Wilson), and social group in which they want to gain membership and favour.
Sara recalls having to choose an ethnic dress to wear to her Primary School’s Racial Harmony Day. Her father suggested “a mix” such as “a red baju kurung” or a “green cheong sum” (in Singapore, red is associated with the festivities of Chinese New Year and green with Hari Raya) where she could express her biraciality. Owing to this childhood memory, she says she still attempts to convey her racial hybridity by dressing strategically at festive family gatherings. Atiqah similarly peppers conversations with Chinese friends with the few Mandarin phrases she knows, partly to solicit an affective response when they tease her for “trying”, and also to subtly remind them of her desire for acknowledgement and inclusivity.
Despite expressing similar frustrations over their exclusion and ‘illegitimate’ status in homoethnic settings, the women reacted agentically by continuously asserting emic readings of their corporeal ambivalence, and entering into spaces that give them the opportunity to reframe Others’ readings of their visual markers through microactions. However, enacting this agentic ethnic repertoire necessitates an intimate understanding of both Malay and Chinese social markers (Choudhry 120).
None of the women suggested completely dissociating themselves from either Malayness or Chineseness, although they may selectively hyper-visibilise one over the other to legitimate their group membership. Instead, they engage in a continuously dialectic repositioning that requires reflexivity, self-awareness, and an attentiveness to how they are perceived from the etic.
By inculcating Malay and Chinese social cues into their repertoire, these biracial women can strategically enact their desired racial master status fluently, treating ethnic identity as fluid and in flux (Choudhry 120). In transgressing popular perceptions of CMIO imagery, Malay-Chinese women use their bodies as a sustained site for contesting visual racial stereotypes and reframe their everyday ‘illegitimacy’ into agentic ambivalence, albeit only selectively in spaces where their racial membership would be favourable.
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