Not everything is black and white. Too often, our conversations neglect those of mixed races.
Introduction by Justin Chan
Each person can have a different number. One, two, even as many as three. It’s rare that the conversation ever gets to the fourth guess though. Having multiple racial identities isn’t uncommon anymore—in 2013, for example, nine million Americans chose two or more racial categories when asked by the U.S. Census Bureau about their background. Although the Pew Research Center reports that there is now 10 times the number of multiracial babies than there were 40 years ago, men and women of mixed race usually walk around with an alien-like mask. People compute outrageous baseline opinions about each other within seconds of meeting, but multiracials skew the math.
In an era where racial identities are often discussed without a care for nuances and grey areas, people of mixed race see opportunity and a chance to expand not only our own but others’ perceptions of color, beauty, and body. Studies show that multiracial people are more likely to be welcoming of different heritages, and almost 20 percent say it’s been some kind of advantage in their lives.
Our era of identity politics has sparked a new kind of conversation. Ethnic identity is either celebrated or seen as a hindrance to “progress.” In reality, we’re all just getting to finally know each other. Multiracials continue to transcend our definition of what race is and serve as the bridge to a new social compact where the world must include them in conversations that have long been rooted in single-race, monocultural institutions. They’re spearheading the future. As our impression of race continues to evolve, UNDO asks several multiracial individuals to discuss where they fit in today’s society.
Bethany Noble – African American and Caucasian
African American. Caucasian. Asian. Hispanic. Pacific Islander. Unspecified. Those were the options my mother had when it came to answering questions about me before I took the Virginia Standards of Learning tests. I was listed as “Unspecified.” She refused to pick one or the other.
I am African American and Caucasian, better known to others as “What are you?” Or, if properly worded, “What race are you?” This often equates to “How should I treat you?” Sure, some people are genuinely interested in the amazement of naturally curly hair, but I am certain that, deep down, there lies alternative reasoning. I am biracial and somehow no one expected people like me to exist, especially those in the state of Virginia. When my parents got married in my fair state, the judge told them that, a few years prior, they would not have been able to do so.
It was the ‘80’s. Change takes time, I guess.
Beyond my home, I am classified as a race. I never thought I was any different than anyone else. My brothers are trusted engineers like my father, but I did not think of it as a “Black thing.” My taller, older sister graduated early, while the other played basketball. The former is White while the latter happens to be Black, but I didn’t associate either of their traits with the color of their skin. Within a small school, however, I learned quickly that I was somehow every popular stereotype because of my mixed background.
“You’re Black right?” “Tell us how to dance like a Black person.” “Why do you sound so White?” “Can you say the ‘n’ word?” “Why do Black men like White women?” As a constant ambassador for the Black race, I entertained questions at times, but some days, the interrogation came across as intolerable harassment. I was only a child then and didn’t have the answers to life’s questions.
I come from two beautiful people. My body shape is that of my mother, and my curls come from my father. My father’s family is Creole and from New Orleans, while my mother’s family settled in this country prior to the Revolutionary War. I will always be a bit of both cultures; I am not more of one than the other. But sometimes, I think life would be easier if I could just be of one race. I could just check one box and move on.
Still, I do not need the world to accept me. I get that I am different. We need to look beyond skin. Do not be afraid if I enter the room and I may not be what you expect. The curls should not frighten you, and my glasses are harmless. We are treated differently because you put us in a box that we can never seem to get out of.
Regina Nalini Hardatt – Chinese and Indo-Guayanese
Understanding, openness, and flexibility are just a few words that describe most of my experiences as a biracial person. On any given family get-together at home, the smiles are shared but the skin tones are not all the same. There is a common thread of love of family, food, and celebration. The “Chinese side” and “Guyanese side” have truly become just “my side”—one family. Both sides rally together at gatherings. We were all at a goodbye party, for instance, to send off my young Guyanese cousin to medical school and came together again for my Chinese niece’s first birthday party. Some of my cousins stay together even when they see each other in school. My Chinese cousin and Guyanese cousin once ran to each other so excitedly because they were in the same high school, shocking everyone around them when they yelled, “Hi cousin!” We are proud of the connectivity and happy it exists, and, while it didn’t happen overnight, we are all happily part of its development.
My parents decided to get married in the early ‘80s when it was still uncommon to see a biracial couple. They dealt with what most biracial couples dealt with: stares, comments, and disbelief. It wasn’t easy. My parents actively tried to understand one another’s culture. They may have driven each other a little crazy and fought a bit, but they always made up and found the best in each other and their families. My mother always tells me how loving my father’s siblings and mother was. My father always appreciated the straightforward nature of her Chinese family. Growing up in this open and understanding environment has shaped me in ways I’m unsure that I would have ever been exposed to had I just been of one race. I have a deep understanding and appreciation of ritual and tradition. I’ve felt moderately uncomfortable when people laugh at me if I speak a bit of Chinese, but I’ve also felt proud to wear my Chinese grandmother’s jade bracelet every day or blast soca music in my car.
The start of Trump’s Presidency was filled with news of executive orders—the most heartbreaking of which led to the detainment of several people at airports. I can’t help but reflect on what would it would be like if that had happened to my parents. Would I even be here? I think about what I can do, and I always come to the same conclusion. My actions and where I can make the most difference is with my students. As a non-White teacher to a class of mostly White students, I’ve tried to show them that a person of color can teach them all the things a White person can teach them. To the few multiracial students I have, I try to lead by example and show them that they can do anything they want. And to the rest who are minorities, I try to show them inclusivity and understanding.
Jason Valerio – Filipino and African American
Whenever the topic of ethnic diversity is attempted in the United States, it’s like we have to recount the country’s entire 241-year existence before we can move the conversation forward. As a student in public primary school, you’re trained to internalize the highlight reel of American history. The short of it is this: with peace, there’s genocide; with freedom, there’s slavery; with Whites, there’s Blacks. The biracial conversation in this country is one with the contrast bar set to 100, where the only colors seen are black and white.
The neighborhood I grew up in was predominantly White and what San Francisco comedian Ali Wong colorfully referred to as “fancy” Asians: Chinese, Japanese, and Korean. There were a few Filipino families, but aside from the three or four visits to my grandma’s house every year to eat lumpia, adobo, and pancit, my understanding of a Filipino identity wasn’t strong. My father, a Filipino American, was born in Oakland but doesn’t speak the language. My aunts and uncles pretty much married and dated every other race. Over half of my first cousins are biracial. Anytime I would talk to someone from a “real,” culturally Filipino family about traditions and customs, I felt like I was looking through a window and recognizing the people but not knowing what they were saying and why.
This also reigns true of my black side. Skin color has played an interesting role in the formation of my personal ethnic identity. In my immediate family, I am the darkest. I am darker than my mother, who is fully black. On top of that, my brothers and I look different, making our experiences with the outside world slightly varied. With most people looking at my darker skin tone and referring to me as black, coupled with not knowing how to express my “Filipino-ness,” I was pushed to explore my blackness. With my mom’s half of the family living in the District of Columbia, Maryland, and Virginia, I had no concrete idea of what a typical familial black life was like. The closest thing I could grab on to was hip-hop. This is why I have a career in music to this day.
My experience has always been an in-between one. I’ve never felt like I fit culturally with either side—and I love it. Every date I’ve been on is an interracial or intercultural one. There’s no one with my exact experience. Being mixed, whether culturally or ethnically, I’ve gotten to see how both sides live firsthand. I’ve realized that, in truth, there are no sides and that race is truly a construct. This kind of multi-consciousness informs everything I do. It almost feels like being a translator or a bridge. I thrive in the in-between spaces and try to connect them.
In this new America, especially under the new Trump administration, everyone MUST let his or her story be known. Divisiveness is old and stale. It prevents progress. The only way to combat it is to fully coalesce with everyone as you are. Hate is fear. Most fear comes from the unknown. Make yourself known. All sides of yourself. Authenticity is the only real hood pass.
Jason Duaine Hahn – Mexican and Caucasian
When I was a child, I noticed early on that my skin wasn’t as tan as my father’s nor was it as white as my mother’s. I’d look in the mirror to study my face and body, and I couldn’t pinpoint a single feature—a nose, a chin, an eyeball—that seemingly came from my White mother or my Mexican father. For a while, I legitimately wondered if I had been switched at birth.
Back then, I hadn’t entirely grasped the concept of race, let alone what it meant to be biracial. I had only seen my father sporadically throughout the years until he gained custody of me from my maternal grandmother when I was nine. A combination of being forced from the only home I had known to live with a father I hardly knew—and eventually being subjected to his alcoholism and abuse—led me to reject my father and the Mexican culture that was so important to him. I refused to say the Spanish words he taught me, I vomited the Mexican food he fed me, and on the standardized tests at school, I’d check “White” when they asked for my race.
As the years went by, the reactions I received from others eventually led me to accept and identify with being Hispanic. Even though I couldn’t look in the mirror and recognize who or what I looked like, people decided for themselves. I’d have a Hispanic person ask me for help in Spanish and have to look into their trusting eyes and say, “No hablo español.” I’d hold a door open for a White person and get a “Gracias” in reply or park in a valet area and get asked by someone looking for his or her car, “Can I get my keys?”
I began to feel the absence of the culture that so many people associated with my appearance. I took college classes that focused on Latino and cultural literature. I started to reconcile with my father enough to finally immerse myself in the culture I had missed. By then, he was deported to Mexico.
I will never fit perfectly into either being White or Hispanic. I will always be both, and learning about the significance of being Hispanic in America will be a lifelong journey. Now that I’m older, my father’s physical features in me have become more apparent. I don’t entirely see him, though. Instead, I see a clearer version of myself.
Anna Coy – Dominican and Caucasian
I’ve never equally identified with my Dominican and Czechoslovakian sides. As a child, I lived in the Dominican Republic for five years and picked up Spanish as my first language. As a result, I know very little about Czechoslovakian culture. Still, I was always a little confused about my background when I was young. In school, I never felt like I fit in one ethnic group—neither one accepted me because I didn’t speak either language fluently and couldn’t fully relate to either culture. I was usually treated like an outcast or a gypsy. It didn’t help that my Dominican mother abandoned her culture when she immigrated to the United States in an attempt to become more “European” or “Caucasian.” She often shamed me for being nostalgic about my childhood. Many times, I felt like I didn’t belong anywhere or to anyone. It was frustrating.
Over the years, I’ve learned to embrace my mixed heritage by diving deeper into myself and living by my own standards rather than adhering to a culture that most people of one background would normally follow. As a biracial individual, I wear two sets of glasses. My Dominican and Czechoslovakian ancestries give me the opportunity to look at one’s story, and approach it from two angles. It allows me to offer a different perspective that most people, who solely identify with one race. Oftentimes, whenever I’m asked where I’m from, I take a deep breath and try to fit the details of my complicated background into a short and concise answer. Though many would consider my life “untraditional” given my mixed race, I wouldn’t have it any other way.
Holly Lawson – Caucasian, West Indian, and “Other”
A wise person once asked me, “If you could say anything to yourself as a little girl, what would it be?” My immediate answer was simply, “You are SO much bigger than your circumstance.” Now, upon a year of contemplation, I know that I would have taken that little brown girl to the side, brushed that straight bowl cut from her forehead, gotten down on my knees so I could have looked her straight in the eyes and told her, “Stop thinking you have to fit in. Stop worrying about what you are, why you’re different than everyone else, why you don’t look like anyone else in your family. One day, you’ll understand that your thick hair, your skin that can achieve a copper hue in the summer, your small hands, and your crooked smile are what make you YOU. And those traits you’d like to change to allow you to assimilate easier with everyone else? Those are the things that will still set you apart as an adult, and one day, you will understand that you weren’t meant to fit in.”
My “ethnic ambiguity” is a running joke between me and my friends. Every time someone asks me if I’m Persian, stares blankly when I don’t respond when he or she speaks to me in Spanish, or raises an eyebrow when I sing along to dancehall and later explain my West Indian background, my friends and I look back at those moments with an eye roll and laugh hysterically. However, I spent many nights as a child wishing I looked more like everyone else in the small logging town I grew up in. I am saddened now when I think about how I would strip out of my bathing suit after a long day at the beach in the summer, stare at my stark tan line, and wish that my limbs weren’t quite so brown. I am saddened by all the times I would have to bite my lip to keep from crying when kids would tease me on the playground and mockingly ask, “What are you anyway?” How could I answer that when I didn’t know the answer myself?
The problem with being different is that you aren’t ever afforded the space to just exist. You can’t blend into the crowd, and you’re never really anonymous. No matter how quiet I tried to make myself, no matter how far I shrank into the wall, no matter how hard I wished I looked like my siblings, who were all White and “normal,” I never was one of them.I remember the first time I had to fill out a form that contained a question about race. It involved some boxes in which I was supposed to mark one with an “X,” defining myself as either White, Black, indigenous Canadian, Asian, or other. I sat there chewing on my pencil for what seemed like hours, trying to understand what “other” meant. What exact mix of races was it? How would I know if that’s what I was? And why was there such a limited selection of choices?
Defining oneself is hard enough, let alone adding in the factor of mixed race. If you are one of the millions of people who’ve never fully understood all of who you are, like myself, finding a title that you can claim can become something of a crusade—a way to validate your existence when your existence doesn’t fit in any box.
These days I wear my “otherness” proudly. My mutable looks fit well within the dichotomy between the seemingly random things that I am passionate about. My ability to blend into every culture without even trying, the range of shades my skin can achieve with exposure to the sun, and my affection for the rest of the “others” in the world are all the things I consider superpowers now. When I look around at the people I have surrounded myself with, the folks I admire, and the incredible humans I choose to make family, I see that I am not so alone in my “otherness.” In fact, I would venture to say we are the lucky ones who are not tied to any one race or culture. Perhaps our ability to remain undefined is what has allowed us to find ourselves in one another and to build a community of “others.”