“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.