Arts & Culture The Diversity Issue

Does a dual heritage background affect our well-being?

This idea of being described as half x and half y, or mixed, potentially impacts our self-concept.
This idea of being described as half x and half y, or mixed, potentially impacts our self-concept. Shutterstock.

Mixed race, half-caste, half-breed: these are just a few of the terms that have been used to describe people who happen to have parents of different ethnic or even national backgrounds. These phrases can seem derogatory and in some contexts may offend. The word ‘mixed’, for example, could be taken as synonymous with impure, and ‘half’ could suggest less than a whole.  If we must have a term – a box to put people in – then I prefer the term ‘dual heritage’. Why is it mixed or half – why not both?

This idea of being described as half x and half y, or mixed, potentially impacts our self-concept (the view we have of ourselves) and our sense of belonging to a social group (social identity). In turn, one’s self-concept and social identity have significant consequences for one’s psychological well-being.  Alexander Haslam, a professor of psychology who is renowned for his work on social identity, writes: ‘…social identities – and the notions of ‘us-ness’ that they embody and help create—are central to health and well-being’.

Scores of studies support this idea. The deeper the sense of belonging to a valued social group (national, ethnic, religious, etc.) the better the outcomes are for depression, heart disease, stroke, etc. The evidence of this ‘belonging effect’ is now so strong that people are beginning to talk about a ‘social cure’: the idea that strengthening social identity can accelerate recovery, promote resilience and reduce relapse in the context of some health problems.

In short, having a sense that we truly belong to one or more valued social groups promotes health. Conversely, feeling rejected or only half accepted (on the fringes) can lead to problems. A UK study titled ‘Mixed experiences – growing up mixed race: mental health and wellbeing’ concluded that mixed-race (dual-heritage) children were at higher risk of mental health problems, rooted in their struggle to develop an identity. Most of the children in this study were of African and European heritage, and they described their shared experience as being ‘too white to be black, too black to be white’.

In Arabic, for example, some people might use the derogatory word muhajin (half-breed/hybrid/mongrel) to describe people of dual heritage (e.g. Emirati father, English mother). Such insensitive and intolerant attitudes and language might easily diminish a person’s sense of belonging. We have looked at this sense in our own research here in the UAE.

In a series of studies published in the Journal of Behavior Therapy and Experimental Psychiatry, we examined the degree to which the participants, all of them UAE citizens, felt a sense of belonging to the national group (Emiratis) and also how positively they felt about their nationality. No surprises – a sense of national belonging and positivity predicted higher self-esteem, higher levels of subjective well-being, lower levels of eating disorder symptoms and also lower levels of paranoia. The take-home message here is that if people are made to feel like they don’t belong or that they don’t fit in, it will have a detrimental impact on their psychological well-being.

As children, we instinctively know that being somehow different often attracts bullies; it can draw admirers too. All things being equal, dual-heritage children might experience both admirers and haters with higher frequency than their mono-heritage counterparts. The impact of bullying on mental health is well documented: bullying in childhood is to mental health as smoking is to lung cancer.

There are, of course, many individuals of dual heritage who fully embrace their identity. They celebrate their own diversity, holding their admirers dear and feeling a sense of compassion towards their ‘haters’ – the tiny misguided minority.  Such individuals can be the embodiment of the oft-cited Quranic verse: ‘O mankind! We created you from a single (pair) of a male and a female, and made you into nations and tribes, that ye may know each other, not that ye may despise (each other)’.

Unfortunately, not everyone is built like that, and some people can be – and are – damaged by the narrow-minded notions of others. This being the case, it is essential to educate and enlighten by shining a light on hidden bias and ignorance wherever it may be. Any society committed to wellbeing and tolerance would do well to vigorously dismiss any notions of ‘half’, ‘mixed’ and ‘not quite us’.

Prof. Dr. Justin Thomas is a British professor of psychology at Abu Dhabi’s Zayed University.