“What are you?” If I had a penny for every time I’ve heard that question, I could pay off my student loans. What I am is mixed race, multi-ethnic, a hapa, whatever you want to call it ““ equal parts Japanese, Italian, Norwegian, and English. Some of my family members came to America seventeen generations ago; some came only two. The trouble with being mixed is that you’re neither one thing nor the other ““ I’m too dark to be White but too light to be a person of color. At least, that’s what members of those two groups have been telling me for as long as I can remember.
My hometown is 91% White, 4.2% Hispanic or Latino, 2.6% multi-ethnic, 2.2% Asian, 1.9% Black, 1.7% Native American, and 0.2% Hawaiian or other Native Pacific Islander. Even though it’s obvious that I’m not 100% Asian, it was also obvious that I was not a member of the 91% White majority. I grew up thinking of myself as different; non-White, a person of color, the Other ““ even though my White mother would mark me down as White on school demographic surveys to “break stereotypes.”
Coming to college was a different story. I live in Seattle, a city with a 13.1% Asian population, and go to the University of Washington, where 21% of the student body is Asian. It became quite clear to me after living in a more multi-cultural city that while I might not be White, I’m not considered Asian either. I remember walking up the steps to campus my freshman year, passing girls handing out fliers for an Asian sorority and expecting every day for them to single me out and hand me one. But they never did. I don’t look Asian enough to count.
I have had to justify my ethnic identification more over the past four years than I ever did living in my hometown ““ mostly to other minorities, surprisingly. When I went to a Diversity Career Fair at my school, my significant other, an Indian immigrant, commented “But you’re white!!” on the Facebook status I wrote about it. My queer Jewish roommate once drunkenly demanded I tell her what being mixed was like, as if I was a representative for all multi-ethnic people. The denial of my ethnic identification by marginalized people who should understand the impact of their denial angers me more than an ignorant White person asking what I am ever will.
I understand that as a lighter skinned person in a multi-cultural city, I have a lot of White privilege because I can pass. But my skin color is not the totality of my ethnicity. It doesn’t change the fact that my great-grandfather was shot on his doorstep by American soldiers during WWII because he didn’t want to go to an internment camp; it doesn’t change the fact that my father turned his back on his Japanese heritage because of my grandfather’s reaction to America’s racism towards the Japanese; it doesn’t change the fact that I grew up thinking of myself as Other. If we ever want to eradicate racism, we must move past the idea that people’s ethnicity is immediately apparent, and move forward to understanding that ethnicity is not indelibly marked on one’s skin and accept others’ self-identified ethnicity. The White/non-White ethnic dichotomy is false; I, like many others, am both.
Author’s note: All demographic data comes from the U.S. Census Bureau and the University of Washington’s demographics page.
16 replies on “On Being Mixed: The Other’s Other”
Thanks, Kearstyn, for sharing your perspective. Being mixed myself, racial identity is one of my favorite things to talk about, and I was so happy to see it discussed on Persephone!
I’ve definitely thought a lot about the “What are you?” question and how I react to it. For a long time I would answer that question in terms of my parents: “My dad is white and my mom is Japanese,” without any mention of what that meant for me. I was only recently able to articulate why this question was so frustrating for me (although I know some people who love to be asked this) is because it takes all the agency away from the mixed person in terms of being able to chose their own identity; it’s as if your entire existence is reduced to your genetic heritage. Although I understand the curiosity from which the question arises, I thought maybe a better alternative might be “How do you identify?” – it might be a little contrived, but I know it’d mean so much to me to be asked the question in that way.
Nice piece, thanks for this. But how do you respond to that question normally?
Depending on my mood, when people ask what I am I like to mess with them, looking confused and asking, “What do you mean?” And then with the follow up question I’ll offer a bewildered “Why do you want to know?” and then maybe a “What, you’ve never seen a brown person before?”
One or two follow-ups generally leaves them embarrassed and they go away.
It still grinds on me though.
I’ve only recently started messing with people when they ask me that question, and usually only if they’re being dicks about it. Most people where I live now assume I’m White and don’t bother to ask unless I self-identify as mixed, but growing up I was inundated with that question because the town was so ethnically homogeneous that my non-Whiteness stood out. I got so used to answering it that it didn’t occur to me until a couple years ago that the question was rude, and most of the time I still automatically answer with “I’m Japanese, Italian, Norwegian, and English/Generic White.”
Thanks for this article. I always appreciate hearing people’s thoughts on race and ethnicity.
Im not mixed race- as far as I know. I look like my dad, who is adopted and has no knowledge of his background. I’ve spent my entire life answering “I don’t know” when people ask me what I am, and then listening them guess. I’ve heard dozens of ethnicities offered as potential options. I’ve also had people call me “ethnically ambiguous”. I identify as white, because my mom is of English ad German descent, but I never specify on forms that want to know “European” or “Middle Eastern”. I could be either, both, or neither.
It’s not the same issue that a multiethnic person who knows their heritage faces, but it still causes me to think about my identity pretty regularly. Thanks for sharing your story and experiences.
What I find really interesting about America is that a lot of people don’t really know the full story behind their ethnic background, because if you throw one person of color in a long line of White people, that color is going to get washed out pretty quickly. The same goes for any ethnicity. For example, I say that I’m a quarter English because that part of my family came from England – but they came from England 17 generations ago and most certainly aren’t fully “English” anymore. Not to mention the fact that there is a branch of my family that is Black because some of my ancestors on that side were slaveholders, so I’m probably part Black too but you can’t tell at all by looking at me.
I think that your predicament is the same as most Americans, because no one can REALLY know what their ethnic background is unless they have a genealogy of their entire family tree, and really illuminates how stupid this insistence of categorizing people by their ethnicity is.
As an Indo-Canadian, I get the ethnic interrogation from two fronts as well. I get mildly questioned by non-Indian’s, but I get the absolute worst third degree from other brown immigrants. I use brown because I’ve gotten questioned by South Americans, Hispanic Americans, an Italian, various people from different African countries, various people from different Asian countries all of whom though that I was their nationality. It is very annoying.
Although, I will never get tired of watching Muslim mens faces when they ask if I’m Muslim. The change in expressions when I mention that I’m Hindu is always hilarious.
Interestingly enough, people most often mistake me as Hispanic. I think it’s because my non-White physical features definitely mark me as Other, but because I don’t have single-fold eyes people don’t automatically think “Asian” when they look at me.
However, when I visited Hawai’i awhile back everyone knew what I was because there are so many part-Asian people there. I’ve never seen so many people who looked like me before.
Good to hear a Hapa voice. Thank you for sharing, Kearstyn. Our country, the U.S. is full of mixed people. We’ve got to get beyond the strict race categories. “Other” should be the first box on forms asking for “demographic purposes”, not the last.
I would just be happy with having “other” as a box on all demographic surveys. Even when I was applying to college a few years ago there was no box for “other” on some of the applications, and some wouldn’t allow you to choose multiple ethnicities. The “please select only one box” message that invariably pops up after attempting to select multiple ethnicities on online demographic surveys really underscores the idea that people must be one thing or another, as if people of different ethnicities can’t reproduce or that their children are only allowed to identify with part of their heritage. I realize that mixed race marriages have not been legal for very long in the U.S. and thus the possibility of mixed race people existing does not occur to many Americans, but it’s been long enough that forcing people to choose one ethnicity shouldn’t be the norm (not to mention the fact that not all children are produced in wedlock and not all marriages occur in the U.S.).
I think what I find most laughable about the White/non-White ethnic dichotomy in the U.S. is that most White people aren’t fully White either. As Miz Jenkins pointed out earlier this week on her tumblr, most “White” Americans are part black – they just don’t know it. If even the “White” people in America are mixed, then it’s truly ridiculous to deny the existence of mixed people and force us to pick a race.
In my experience, I tend to feel more welcome with the group that has fewer members. I’m Asian/white and grew up in a town that was mostly white. Many of my friends were Asian, and I felt very included.
Fast forward a few years, and I was going to 9th grade in an Asian country. I was at a bilingual school, so the experience doesn’t map 100%, but I did find it easier to make friends with the white and mixed kids. Living in Asia made me feel very white, because to Asians I was very obviously not Asian.
And now my boyfriend is white, and he sees me as Asian. Which I’m not, as I remind him.
Thinking about this makes me sad, because it seems like people often tend to see differences and not similarities.
I’ve definitely noticed that I’m considered Asian when there aren’t many Asians around but not when there are a lot of “real” Asians. It’s difficult to straddle the line while acknowledging that you belong to both worlds, not neither.
Also, I don’t know how close you are to your Asian cultural heritage, but the question of how “Asian” I am has always been difficult for me to answer because my cultural heritage was destroyed during America’s cultural genocide of the Japanese during and after WWII, so I feel very little connection with Japanese culture. However, I don’t think that makes me any less “Asian” per se – it just delineates me more clearly as Japanese American (or a Yonsei, to be even more specific), as that is the group whose ethnic experiences I share.
Thank you for writing this. I feel as though I’m in a similar situation, especially during discussion of whiteness or white privilege. I’m white, culturally, socially, but I’m a hyphen-American with immigrant/ESL grandparents on one side and I live in city that’s not particularly diverse. I get a lot of “what are you?” too. (Short version: Acadian/Cajun, German, and Neapolitan) My stock answer is “Human. What are you?”
I write this with some trepidation, because I feel like I’m veering dangerously close to privilege denying, but I think whiteness is sometimes treated as a monolith, and when I look at my own history, I never felt I was quite white “enough.”
I think too that there are different levels of White privilege, especially when you add immigration into the mix. For example, the place I grew up has the 2nd largest population of Eastern European immigrants on the West Coast, and although those immigrants are White they certainly have less privilege than the White people whose families weren’t recent immigrants.
(a) Is “hoppa” a regional spelling of “hapa,” the Hawaiian locals term for someone who is half-Asian and half-something else (usually white)>
(b) Your great-grandfather was shot for refusing to go to an internment camp?! Holy cow! You need to write a book about that or something–that’s amazing. Did he survive?
Whoops! “Hoppa” was a misspelling. Thanks for pointing that out!
And yes, he was. I’m not really sure what happened next – some family members of mine say that he died on his doorstep while others say he died in the internment camp. Unfortunately I don’t know that much about that period of my family’s history, and very little of it was passed on by my grandfather.