Zibung illo2

The hypocrisy of hybridity



  1. the offspring of two animals or plants
    of different breeds, varieties, species
    or genera.
  2. a half-breed; a mongrel.
  3. anything derived from heterogeneous sources, or composed of elements of
    different or incongruous kind.
  4. a word derived from elements of a
    different language.
  5. → hybrid car


  1. bred from two distinct breeds, varieties, species, or genera.
  2. composed of elements of different or incongruous kinds.
  3. (of a word) composed of different elements originally drawn from different languages.

[Latin hybrida, variant of hibrida, offspring of a tame sow and wild boar, a mongrel]


By the time I was a teenager, I had learnt that it was easier to embellish my cultural heritage, or simply pretend I was something else. It was only ever a matter of days/hours/minutes before someone wanted to play the guessing game of Where are you from? If I was wearing large earrings, I would say Latino. If wearing a loose-fitting hoodie, Pacific Islander. Sometimes I would play at being mixed-race American. No-one ever questioned my claim; they would merely nod and move on. Pretending was easier than dealing with the raised eyebrows and enthusiastic nods if I admitted my ethnic heritage: half-Indonesian, half-Swiss. Eventually I started giving people three guesses, knowing they would never get it right. On finding out the answer, the guesser would often compliment me on ‘getting the best of both worlds’, not realising that having allegiances to two races means never belonging to either.

The contradictions of my heritage would raise more questions than I felt comfortable discussing with a stranger. It’s considered bad manners to decline questions, yet apparently it’s reasonable for my identity to be an object of curiosity and scrutiny. These encounters were like a game of confessional dodgeball, with me trying to sidestep questions and steer the conversation away from my ‘exotic’ heritage. Racially, I define myself as a fifty-fifty mix of two polarised identities: the refined European and the subordinate native. Yet growing up in New Zealand with an American-sounding ‘aye’ tacked on the end of each sentence, there was an unshakable feeling of being a poor illusionist. A hybrid.

When applied to race, the term hybrid assumes a distortion of the pure. The word comes from the Latin hybrida, meaning offspring of a tame sow and a wild boar – in other words, a mongrel. The result of a union between the domesticated and the savage. Applying the term to mixed-race individuals upholds notions of racial purity by playing into an us-versus-them ideology.

Decisions regarding who can or should be classified in this way betrays a colonial logic. If we are to assume that hybrids are a mix of two or more ethnicities and/or races, we can safely assume that a large portion of the global population is hybrid. As an example, most white Australians and Americans have an ethnic heritage involving some mix of (at minimum) British, Irish, Scottish and other European and thus fall within this classification. Yet this isn’t the case. We simply identify white Australians as Australians. White Americans as Americans. The privilege of the colonising race is again sustained through notions of (false) racial purity. These are the same notions used to justify occupation, dispossession and colonial authority, regardless of when or how the colonisers came to be here. As Marilyn Frye writes in ‘On Being White’:

To be white is to be a member of an in-group, a kin group, which is self-defining. Just as with fraternities or sororities, the power to draw the membership line is jealously guarded. Though a variety of traits and histories are relevant to whether one will be defined into or out of that group, one essential thing is that the group is self-defining, that it exercises control of access to membership. Members can bend the rules of membership anytime, if that is necessary to assert the members’ sole and exclusive authority to decide who is a member; in fact, bending the rules is an ideal expression of that authority.

In our postcolonial world, the hypocrisy of hybridity means that being mixed-race is only problematic when the combination involves a white/Western race and an ‘inferior’ not-white/not-Western race. A binary logic still governs our understanding of and attitude towards hybridity; the one-drop rule still very much applies. A 2011 study in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology shows that biracial Asian/white and black/white individuals are seen (by white people) as belonging to their ‘lower status’ parent group and are almost never identified as white.

When applied to race, hybridity still draws on the occidental–oriental binary, described by Edward Said in Orientalism as a system of classification that is ‘a Western style for dominating, restructuring, and having authority over the Orient’. The classification of racial hybrids focuses the juxtaposition between white and not-white, but doesn’t consider the cultural differences between individual racial groups in the not-white side of the mixture.

Studies have shown that mixed-race individuals have differing views on their racial identity. These are largely shaped by the individual’s not-white racial group (as well as other factors), suggesting that we need to move beyond a singular definition of hybridity. As Evelina Lou and Richard N Lalonde argue, we need ‘to recognise the multidimensional nature of racial identity and the complexity it adds’. Mixed-race individuals might share experiences of confusion, invalidation and negotiation, but the similarities might end there. There are numerous factors influencing racial identity formation, including social validation, perceived discrimination, family structures, cross-cultural differences, levels of identification with white heritage, and historical and contemporary race relations. As a hybrid, I don’t possess any advantage to assume the experience of growing up as mixed-race black/white in America, or of being of Aboriginal descent in Australia, and to do so would be an invalidation that conforms to the assumption of the white aspect of my racial identity holding dominance.

The attempt to homogenise racial hybridity as white mixed with not-white is an attempt to understand the other through a Western lens, using racial categories that have been created, defined and refined from an imperial outlook. The concept of the righteous and benevolent European has permeated Commonwealth literature from Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness to Rudyard Kipling’s Kim, and continues to find its way into mainstream culture, such as Netflix’s Iron Fist and Matt Damon’s starring role in The Great Wall. The field of postcolonial studies has shown how literature and cinema have been used to justify colonisation and re-enforce racial hierarchies. Racial hybridity is, as Said suggests, the inevitable consequence of Europe’s holding ‘a grand total of roughly 85 per cent of the earth as colonies, protectorates, dependencies, dominions, and commonwealths’ by 1914. Yet, despite the decriminalisation of inter-racial unions in the twentieth century, many racial hybrids in former colonial territories still endure the legacy of discriminatory policies. The pervasiveness of not-quite-one-of-us ideologies reflects Western attempts to maintain cultural and racial superiority. The persistence of binary thinking is evident in current literary trends, with numerous titles continuing the tradition of exploring race by juxtaposing ‘them’ with ‘us’. Recent examples include the novels The Hate U Give (Angie Thomas), nonfiction book Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People About Race (Reni Eddo-Lodge) and the memoir The Hate Race (Maxine Beneba Clarke). Yet, in Australia, there is a striking silence in literature on the marginalisation of racial hybrids. Very few titles challenge assumptions about the legitimacy of racial hybridity as a fixed position.

Hybridity poses a threat to established racial hierarchies, and the disruptive presence of hybrids is regularly accompanied by calls to defend racial purity. Historically, racial hybrids were often seen as a diseased mutation representing impurity and moral decline. We can see these attitudes in both the eugenics and Social Darwinism movements that laid the groundwork for the various brutal laws governing mixed-race children in the late 1800s to the mid 1900s in settler nations such as Australia, Canada and the United States. The terminology created to classify mixed-race children – mulatto, kutcha butcha, metis, half-caste – emphasised their neither/nor status and gave rise to harmful stereotypes, some of which continue today with the fetishisation of mixed-race individuals.

Identity, when embroiled in racial politics, ‘becomes a question of power and authority when a group seeks to realise itself in political form’, as Paul Gilroy writes in Between Camps: Nations, Culture and the Allure of Race. The racial hybrid feels this acutely. Not born into a static racial category, the hybrid’s identity is permission-seeking rather than entitled. Hybrids can experience exclusionary behaviour from both racial groups to which they belong. Variations in appearance, such as skin colour, hair texture, and eye and nose shape, are used as physical ‘evidence’ of biological ‘difference’, with the racial hybrid often pushed into the exclusionary zone. The racial hybrid’s body is not simply a bastardisation, but a threat to the ideals of purity and continuity. At the same time, the hybrid’s body represents the disintegration of the Western imperialist hierarchy and our momentum towards a ‘post-race’ world in which physical characteristics can no longer serve a marker of belonging or difference.

The problem with using physical features to determine racial allegiance is that the ‘exotic’ features often erode any sense of commonality with one or both groups. In my case, my Indonesian peers think I look Western, yet my white friends in Australia are shocked to hear this: ‘But you look so Asian!’ My Indonesian family will often shift into a formality reserved for a Western bule when they are reminded that – despite my language fluency – I am not really one of them. Growing up in a sea of white faces in Auckland’s Swiss club, I remember distasteful whispers when my father dressed me and my sister in traditional Swiss costumes. It’s not a stretch to say that humans pay most attention to what is out of place; it’s recognisable variations that often determine the extent to which a mixed-race individual can claim belonging to their racial groups. There is ongoing debate over whether my eyes are Asian or not. To clarify, I inherited my eye shape from my father, but the combination of my smallish eyes on brown skin and a square face is enough for white people to consider it my defining Asian feature. To Indonesians, however, it’s my defining Western feature. My race is often defined for me by the media, my family and the general public, based solely on biased perceptions of appearance and attributes.

If we accept that race is a social construct, one that reveals more about history, economics and politics than biology, then we get closer to understanding the discomfort that racial hybridity produces. People like me are caught in between the guarded boundaries of static racial identities; our presence threatens not just essentialised identity categories, but also foundational narratives on which whole social, cultural and political histories are based.

Hybridity doesn’t just apply to race – it’s a major concept in linguistics, literary theory and cultural studies, but carries distinct meanings in each field. It’s critical to distinguishing between race and culture when considering the theory’s various applications. Although the concepts of race and culture are interrelated, they are not interchangeable – race does not determine culture, although there is a common belief that race privileges culture.

The term hybridity is used by many postcolonial and cultural theorists (for example, Homi K Bhabha, Paul Gilroy, Stuart Hall and Gayatri Spivak) to describe the after-effects of colonialism, and the transformation of cultures from the mixing of races. Indeed, the term was made famous by Bhabha in The Location of Culture, where he used it to describe the opening up of a ‘third space’ in which negotiations between cultures remake cultural boundaries and in doing so expose the limits of binary constructions of difference. A space ‘where the difference is neither One nor the Other but something else besides, in-between’. This third space is used in critical theory and creative works to explore conditions of displacement, identity and (un)belonging and to resist puritan constructions of race and culture (constructions that make less and less sense in our increasingly globalised world). It’s been taken up by writers, artists and theorists to give voice to diasporic communities and celebrate the meeting point of different cultures, experiences and identities. Novels such as Home Fire (Kamila Shamsie), The Life to Come (Michelle de Krester), The Other Side of the World (Stephanie Bishop) and White Teeth (Zadie Smith) are just a few examples where we hear voices from the third space.

While the third space represents a protest against dominant racial categories, it doesn’t magically escape the politics that create and sustain these binaries. Hybridity as a third space affirms itself as an oppositional force by first admitting the existence of ‘pure’ forms and then creating a one-size-fits-all space somewhere on their boundaries. Inevitably, one of these pure forms will be white culture. The binaries of essentialist groupings such as white and not-white, brown and not-brown, or black and not-black are still embodied in the concept of the third space, because the hybrid third space is viewed as the singular collective term to embody all the nots.

However, when we define the third space by what individuals are not, the identity proposed by this space is a not-identity. Those inhabiting this space are defined by their distance from purity, rather than their unique mix of heritages, cultures and identities. Thus it becomes a reactionary space, rather than a revolutionary one, even though it sits on the margins of racial and cultural purity. Indeed, hybridity as third space has the potential to fall into the same trap as other racial categories by reaffirming their centrality of these very categories, thus becoming part of the problem and not the solution. Recent theoretical developments, particularly within postmodernism, have opened up space to play with, disrupt and reimagine identity categories, but there remains a need to translate these conceptual shifts into actual social change – something easier said than done in a world still reeling from the brutality of colonialism. The hybrid third space offers a way of doing this: by positioning itself as a lack of fixed identity, hybridity can offer unity under a generalised definition of difference.

Despite relating to those who don’t have a homogenous racial or cultural identification, I don’t wish to be defined simply by an otherness, one that is built solely on a resistance to hegemonic racial categories. My culture and shifting notions of home are not indeterminate, but constantly evolving. Although my racial identity created a social identity and method of self-understanding, my cultural identification with the New Zealand I grew up in and the Australia I have spent the latter half of my life and call home continues to influence my sense of self and values. My cultural schema sets me further apart from my race. I don’t occupy an ambiguous third space: I occupy my own space, constructed within the overlapping boundaries of race and culture. Identity is a constant negotiation with myself and the world I inhabit, and if I allow myself to be constantly defined by what I am not, then how will I give myself an opportunity to define what I am? Although my own complex hybridity pushes me outside of any homogeneity, I refuse to be reduced to an identity that negates the diversity of my experience, because if we are all other doesn’t that make us all same? I’m not simply mixed-race or hybrid, nor am I simply South-East Asian mixed with white. I’m half-Indonesian. I’m as much half-Indonesian as I’m half-Swiss. I don’t exist in the abstract. The hyphen in my identity joins, rather than divides. I’m Indonesian; I’m Swiss. I’m other and one, but not same.

The dilemma of hybridity is that it offers no simple solution. To celebrate hybridity can be seen as negating the violence of colonisation. To fixate on the violence of colonisation is to remain stagnant in the colonial past. To give attention to hybridity as a singular collective term is to blanket cultural difference and homogenise the experiences between and among racial hybrids – people who experience racial identification and racism in very different ways. To remain silent about hybridity is to ignore shared issues for racial and cultural hybrids. As we face a continued increase in globalisation, and as racial and cultural hybridity increasingly blurs social categories, expectations and relations, the question becomes: how will we take a step forward without taking one step back?




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Jessica Zibung is a Melbourne-based editor, writer and the program coordinator and content producer for CAE Book Groups and the Centre for Adult Education. She is currently in her honours year in Media and Communication at RMIT, and has written for and edited various literary and educational publications.

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