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“But you’re not a true Asian,” people say when I try to assert an Asian identity.
I never gave these comments too much significance because yeah, it’s true. I’m half and half, Taiwanese and white, hapa, mixed. I’m not white. I’m not Asian.
But why do my friends feel it necessary to police my identity?
Am I not a “true Asian” because I’m outspoken, because I don’t have an overbearing doctor father who wants me to pursue the Fortune 500 professions, because I have double eyelids? Or is it because if I were indeed “truly Asian,” you wouldn’t associate with me, and so by denying my identity, you preserve your confidence in a hierarchically sound social group? Gotta have that drop of whiteness to be considered worth your time, huh?
Multiracial identities are liminal, soluble identities. Liminal because we are not easily categorized as one race or another, and soluble because we can mix and manipulate which racial characteristics we want to prominently feature.
The malleability of self-identity varies depending on the races that are in the mix. Asian multiracial identities are indeed more soluble than black/white or black/Latino multiracial identities, perhaps because of the higher social rung on which Asian skin tones sits in American racial biases. However, studies find that people with unstable multiracial identities have poorer psychological health because of the instability of their self-concept.
People of biracial backgrounds enjoy a greater range of expressive freedom. When people of multiple racial identities exaggerate features of a certain identity in different social contexts, that’s called compartmentalization. For me, this is where I can tap into the culture of power — whiteness. I make my voice more American, eat American foods, engage in typically white activities and choose white friends. I distance myself from my Asian background to gain legitimacy in the eyes of my white peers, yet not enough that I’m no longer seen as exotic, a token friend, a fetish. What’s more fucked up — being accepted for being a “cool” mixed person, or being accepted only because I’m not entirely non-white?
My friends are quick to attribute my work ethic, my blemish-free skin and lack of cultural literacy to my Asian heritage but are not generous enough to grant me the claim to that identity. So while I’m othered, I’m not allowed to be Asian either.
Playing to stereotypes, horribly, works to my personal advantage. Yet I can’t help but feel that perhaps I’m doing a disservice to “true Asians” by placing further value on whiteness. Part of this is in response to a deep fear that maybe I’m not Asian enough, that I don’t have enough necessary Asian characteristics to identify that way, so why even bother — I even refused to take an advanced math class in high school to avoid the chance of not being top of the class. It would have been shameful to be the Asian who sucked at math. I experience guilt for perpetuating harmful stereotypes, but I do so to save my own, yellow-undertoned skin.
Even if I could, I don’t feel entitled to claim an Asian identity because I can so easily pass as white — or “basically white,” as I’ve been called — and I do this to gain respect and further my own interests. I consider my last name to be incongruent with how I perceive myself, yet somewhat amusing when used to challenge others’ assumptions of my race. This conflict of identities is something I grapple with on the daily, while having virtually perfected the art of hacking “the system.”
It is shameful. I have the privilege to control the dominant narrative about who I am and what my status is, while visibly non-white people are not entitled to the same autonomy over their identity. To have the power of the dominant race behind me affords me greater control over how I allow myself to be perceived and valued, but at the cost of losing the other half of my heritage, an invaluable component of my personhood.
Multiracial identities are complex, and frankly, they are something our society isn’t quite sure how to approach yet. There is a discomfort with not being able to easily categorize another human, and that effectively leads to the whitewashing of mixed-race people and the denial of heritage. Identity integration is challenging both for the multiracial individual and for the society that perceives them.
People of multiple racial and ethnic backgrounds are no longer just the love-children of warriors abroad or rebels against anti-miscegenation. The stiffness of our society’s conception of race and identity leaves multiracial individuals testing out the cracks between the hierarchical divides but unable to find a secure fit in this current structure. So we drift in and out of group affiliation, shifting our presentation in accordance to those we perform our blended identities before. Yellow as the #2 pencil I use to ace my exams, or white as my brand new Adidas — it all depends.
This is a call for the recognition of multiple identities as possible of existing in harmony, as something unique.
I am not a person with two halves, incompatible with myself.
Contact CU Independent Head Opinion Editor Hayla Wong at firstname.lastname@example.org.