Race has always been a defining issue of this country: an undercurrent, bubbling up to tension points, changing and pushing the country in different directions. In 2019, race is at the forefront of nearly every social issue in our country. We are demanding equity and justice and we are pushing our government, systems, society to be more inclusive.
Yet, the frame that we are working in is often oversimplified and set from the incomplete place of black versus white. So where does this leave people who are more than one race, or, who don’t know which race they are?
I am biracial and, in many ways, I feel like water slipping in and out of racial demographics, finding the cracks in the pavement and seeping into different roles. When white people talk about whiteness (in the rare moments when they do), I am invited in. When people of color talk about race, I am offered a turn to speak.
According to my racial heritage, I am half Japanese, a quarter Irish, and a quarter Scottish. My mother is Japanese American, my father is Irish/Scottish American. I wear my green socks on St. Patrick’s Day and I call chopsticks by their Japanese name of “hashi.”
I don’t feel like I have a solid shape or identity on my own. Like water, I bend to the shape of my environment. If my environment sees me as Asian, I act Asian. If my surroundings label me as white, I will talk about my Irish/Scottish heritage and the privilege that it rides in on, confidently. Like water, I take the path of least resistance: I rarely correct people who incorrectly guess (solicited or otherwise) my race or ethnicity; I will be the person my environment expects. I’ll usually go with the flow, whether or not it hurts. And if I try to tease apart the pieces of who I am, it feels like pulling apart water’s molecules of hydrogen and oxygen–I feel unstable and prone to explode.
I was in middle school when I finally began to understand that being biracial was going to be a lasting part of my identity. I wince, remembering that it wasn’t until I was studying Japanese American Internment Camps in a majority-white classroom when I began to realize what being biracial meant.
It meant having my peers turn to look at me when we discussed the racism wielded against Japanese Americans in the 1940s. It meant being afraid to explain why half of my family tree was interned in the Japanese American Internment Camps while the other half was not. It meant having an ethnic ambiguity that was not quite strong enough for me to pass as white.
In the years that followed, I clung to my whiteness. I used to stay away from winged-tip eyeliner because I thought it accentuated the curve at the edge of my eyes. Like many of my peers, I wore brands that touted themselves as the ones white people wore. Once, when I dyed my hair, a friend told me, “Don’t take this the wrong way, but you look more Asian now.” Should I take it the wrong way?, I asked myself.
In response, I dyed my hair back to its shade of brown. A few weeks later, I dyed it blonde.
As an adult, I no longer hide from my race—but I am still trying to understand it. My whiteness has paved privilege after privilege ahead of me. I have never experienced the wrath of racism that my Japanese American grandparents experienced during World War II. Yet at the same time, I always perk up when I am the only non-white person in the room; not out of malice or judgment; just out of instinct.
Everyone’s approach to their own racial identity is different: for me, it means learning that I’m not as white as I thought. It also means realizing that I have a hard time teasing apart my hydrogen and oxygen because, like in my own DNA, they are twisted and wrapped and melded with each other in nearly every aspect of my life.
My solution is to claim my ambiguity as a clear and strong part of my identity. Sometimes water takes the path of least resistance, and other times it rises in waves and crashes through. Water is amorphous, it is also terrifying, it is strong.
As the number of bi/multiracial Americans continues to grow, and as race continues to stay at the forefront of national conversations, the way that we identify and interpret our race matters. It will shape our own lives and lifestyles, and it will also shape the way that America engages with a personal identity factor that our country has never been able to understand.
In Mixed Feelings, I try to scrape at the surface of what belonging to more than one race looks like in the United States today, and how those identities have the potential to shape our national politics.
This is the first article in Mixed Feelings, a ChangeWire series on bi/multiracial residents of America, how we engage with our own identity, how we use our identity, and what it means within the changing landscape of our country.