In first grade, my teacher asked the class to make a heritage box. My mom and I found a shoe box and glued the Japanese, German, and American flags to the outside; we filled it with dolls, a tape recording of a folk tune, photographs. “This is my heritage,” I told my classmates on presentation day. But I didn’t really understand what these things symbolized, these things that were supposedly mine.
Even at age six, I knew that my identity could not fit into a box.
“To each side that disowns us, we represent everything the other does not have.” — Alexander Chee, How to Write an Autobiographical Novel
I am Japanese and German American. I use the terms biracial, multiracial, mixed, and hapa. Some people detect my mixedness right away; others don’t.
The perceptibility of race plays a key role in the multiracial experience. I appear white enough to “pass” in many situations, which comes with immense privilege. I benefit from the same systems that oppress people of color. No one tells me to go back to where I came from or harasses me with racist slurs. I can shop in a store without being followed. I can drive by a cop and not fear for my life. In most situations, I don’t carry the weighty responsibility of being the first, the only, the spokesperson. People assume I am educated, economically stable, and trustworthy. And so much more.
There is one aspect of white privilege that I do not have, and that is the freedom from having to examine, explain, and legitimize my racial identity on the regular. Multiracial people like me threaten the boundaries of racial categorization and hierarchy, and we’re made acutely aware of the ways in which people police these boundaries in our day to day interactions. These interactions are so common, so subtle, so normalized that they’re easily dismissible by those who don’t experience them.
Yet, each encounter forces me to ask myself: where do I belong?
“Biracial people are largely invisible as a group; we get tossed into whatever category we resemble most.” The biracial experience is “the feeling that you belong nowhere, and not knowing what to do about that, and not knowing who to ask.” — Stephanie Georgopulos, “Coming Out as Biracial”
“What are you?” You can see their mental calculations in the way they look at you, their brains trying to place you somewhere along the spectrum of us and them. Your head of brown curls makes some people ask, “Jewish?” — but your eyes, there’s something about your eyes. You already know that “mixed” isn’t a satisfying answer: your ambiguity frustrates as much as it fascinates. When they guess correctly (and they love to guess), they’re proud of themselves, as if they’ve cracked the code to your identity. But they’ve only scratched the surface.
Am I supposed to choose a side? Erase the other(ed) half to become whole?
When people discover you don’t speak Japanese and you haven’t visited the motherland, they call you “fake.” An imposter. So white. You’re not the bilingual, bicultural hapa that they hoped for. “Tsk, tsk,” they say. “What a shame.” You take it as a joke, as you’re expected to. All the while, you wonder, am I supposed to choose a side? Erase the other(ed) half to become whole?
Wherever you go, you’re a little off the mark. You try to be a chameleon, to fit in, until you become ambiguous to yourself.
Your physical ambiguity makes you “exotic,” according to random men at the shopping mall, your coworker, your optometrist, and even your therapist. You don’t see many women who look like you in the media, though you hear, “mixed people are so beautiful.” They don’t say you are beautiful. It’s the idea of you. You are the future, the mixed kid many fantasize about having someday.
But are they ready for you, here and now?
“What’s interesting is ambiguity. What’s interesting is the haziness, the blurrings, the undefinables, the space and tension between people, the area between the margins that pushes us to stop, to question.” — Kip Fulbeck, Part Asian, 100% Hapa
Being biracial has shaped so much of who I am — my open mindedness, my adaptability, and especially my inquisitiveness. I question categories; I question assumptions; I question absolutes. I don’t know what it’s like to be fully Asian. I don’t know what it’s like to be fully white, either. Rather, I’m intimately familiar with nuance.
“What are you?” people ask. I’m tempted to say, “It’s complicated.”
It’s complicated, because my answer provokes more questions. Do you speak Japanese? Was your mom born here? Have you been to Japan? Why haven’t you been to Japan? Why don’t you speak Japanese? (Note: People rarely ask about my German heritage, aside from likening my last name to a certain Spielberg movie. They take my whiteness at face value.)
I have a love/hate relationship with this questioning. I appreciate the curiosity, and I believe it comes with good intentions. Not to mention, there’s a ton of privilege in being asked to self-define. The judgement I often receive in response, however, reminds me that we still don’t know how to talk about mixed people.
It’s complicated, because my answer provokes more questions.
I have a lot of questions of my own, too. How much of my identity is…
- inherent, determined by DNA?
- inherited in the food I eat, the language I speak, the holidays I celebrate, the family I keep in contact with?
- physical, in my skin, my hair, my eyes?
- influenced by the way people treat me?
- up to me, to define for myself?
How do I prove or justify my belonging to a community? What is our criteria for authenticity? Why do people see themselves as the gatekeepers of my identity?
“I have the right…to create a vocabulary to communicate about being multiracial or multiethnic [and] to change my identity over my lifetime — and more than once.” — Maria P. P. Root, PhD, “Bill of Rights for People of Mixed Heritage”
Growing up, my family took a colorblind approach to our collective identity. My inquiries about race and culture were met with confusion and evasion. I don’t blame them. My generation says connect to your roots; my parents’ and grandparents’ generations said assimilate.
But when I’d go outside of the house, I didn’t know where I truly fit in. When people continuously demand justification for why you are the way you are, you start to wonder: is there a right way to be me, and I’m just doing it all wrong?
I don’t have to simplify or modify my identity to make other people comfortable.
In college, I finally found a community that wanted to engage in open, unflinching dialogues about race and identity, which challenged and enriched my perspective. I also turned to books, podcasts, essays, sociological studies, and scholarly articles. Turns out a lot of people can relate. (Within that similarity, there’s still variation that we can’t ignore. Each combination — part-Asian, part-Latinx, part-Black — comes with its own set of expectations and experiences.)
I am still figuring out how to talk about my race, my ethnicity, and my culture. It’s one thing to proudly assert, “I’m 100% mixed.” It’s another thing to understand and articulate what that means to me, and what that means in the larger context of the world we live in. This research and conversation helped me put words to my experience, and it affirmed: I don’t have to simplify or modify my identity to make other people comfortable.
And if I do make people uncomfortable? That can be a good thing. Discomfort signals disruption. Disruption invites awareness, creativity, and change.