Fact or Fiction: Researching Australian Identities


As the biracial child of a white Australian mother and South African father, Alyssa Scott grew up being made aware of race. A constant outside interest into Scott's cultural heritage and requests to touch her curly hair alerted Scott to the difference between her own family and others.

Now an adult, Scott proudly identifies as a biracial woman yet she is keenly aware of the cultural dissonance biracial children can experience in terms of culture and identity.

Scott came to realise there were very few public conversations about the biracial experience from an Australian perspective, which she attributes to a cautiousness in approach. Our history of invasion, the Stolen Generation, and the risk of reinforcing notions of racial purity by identifying as mixed are all good examples of why the topic needs to be approached with care.

Nevertheless these are important conversations to have and, with care, Scott has commenced a research thesis as part of her Masters of Social Work. Through her research, Scott hopes to give biracial people space to share their experiences and be able to identify in their own terms. For Scott, it's important 'just to acknowledge them' and 'make a really small contribution to this as the conversation begins to take off'

Alyssa is seeking participants for her research who are between the ages of 20 -26, have parents of different races and have finished high school in Australia. If you'd like to contribute your story get in touch with The Pin.

THINK with Alyssa Scott.

- Alyssa Scott

In recent years, substantial amounts of research have been generated about the experiences of people of biracial or multiple ‘racial’ heritages, in some contexts, referred to as people of mixed-race. This body of literature is diverse and explores many lines of inquiry; acknowledging the fiction of biologically distinct races whilst also examining the social realities of race and racism. Importantly, the recent interest in biracial experiences has been led by scholars of mixed descent, and has been instrumental in challenging discourses of otherness which have surrounded multiracial people. However, the research produced largely comes from the US and UK, and therefore reflects the specific racial understandings and histories of these contexts. While the research still has significance for global audiences, as there is very little Australian research on this topic it is unknown whether aspects of the international literature are applicable in the Australian setting, where ‘race’ is understood and spoken about differently.

While Australia shares many cultural similarities with the US and UK, a key difference in regard to biracial people is that both countries officially recognise biracial identities, whereas Australia does not. In the UK, the census provides an option to tick ‘Mixed/multiple ethnic groups’ and then further specify between White and Black Caribbean, White and Black African, White and Asian, or Any other mixed/multiple ethnic background. The US census asks; “What is this person’s race?” and acknowledges biracial individuals by allowing them to tick one or more boxes. In contrast, the Australian census collects information about birthplace and ancestry, but does not collect information about ‘race’. For example, one may identify South African birthplace or ancestry in the census, however the census does not distinguish between different ‘racial’ groups within this nationality.

Myself and my younger sister would be described as white passing, whereas my middle sister is often described as “ambiguous”. Despite this, we have all experienced racism and the “where are you from” question; although our experiences are mediated by different privileges.
— Alyssa Scott

In part, this is because the language of multiculturalism is used to understand diversity in Australia. Rather than using racialized terms, official discourse instead opts to speak about the culture of various communities using colour-blind terminology. While racialized language is still in use in Australia, their context and meaning vary from international understandings and may have significant consequences for racial identity.

These differences raise questions about whether people of multiple racial heritages have the same experience in Australia as they would overseas; or on the other hand, whether the Australian experience of having multiple racial heritages is similar to other contexts, albeit without being recognised accordingly. Although research and theory from other countries can provide insight and have relevance for Australians of multiple racial heritages, it is important that biracial Australians are afforded the opportunity to tell their stories and share their experiences firsthand. While the literature documenting Australian multiracial experiences is growing in quantity, there is still a dearth of academic writing on this topic; necessitating further inquiry. The research I am undertaking seeks to fill this gap and contribute knowledge to race studies in Australia. Ultimately, the research hopes to afford young Australians of multiple racial heritages the opportunity to define and describe their experiences and identities for themselves.

Photo credit: Alyssa Scott