“Well what do you mean by that?” – Being Mixed-Race

I’ve never really considered myself the type to write these kinds of longform think-pieces. However, I’ve recently been grappling with the issues of race, identity, and my own experiences in higher education. And perhaps the longform think-piece is best outlet for me.

This is something that is difficult for me to write. For the last several weeks, I’ve gone back and forth in my own mind over how I want to address this topic, or if it was something that I even wanted to write about at all. As a scholar, I’ve wanted to primarily focus on my work–my research interests, what I’m reading, and what I want to write. My own individual experiences within the setting of Academia have obviously been important to me as an individual, but have never felt like something that needed to be shared and addressed in a more open setting. However, I have come to realize that my stories and experiences nonetheless do have value, and that sharing them is something that is not just beneficial for me, but might even help others understand me as an individual.

I also believe it is important for me to note that I feel I’m taking somewhat of a risk by writing this and sharing my experience. At this early stage in my academic career, sharing stories that involve some of my colleagues and various faculty members may be unwise. Nonetheless, I feel that I would be doing myself (and perhaps others) more of a disservice by holding these narratives to myself, and believe that sharing this is something that I need to do. Although I do plan on only selectively including information, as well as editing and anonymization, to at least partially obfuscate some identities of various individuals, it is entirely possible that someone could piece together enough of the details to and figure out additional identifying details. I fully recognize this and accept the risk of doing so, and hope that my close friends and colleagues who likely have additional context will be thoughtful about (1) piecing together that additional information, and (2) choosing to share that with others.

Recently, one of the faculty in our department shared a personal anecdote about the moment that they became a hearing person. It wasn’t that they had previously been deaf, and had suddenly gained the ability to hear. They had always been able to hear, but that trait had not always been a component of their identity. It wasn’t until they were working with a community of deaf individuals that their being a hearing person was brought to the forefront of identity. In this moment within a deaf community, this faculty member had become a hearing person.

In a similar light, it was not until Fall of 2018 that I became mixed-race. I have always described my own identity as Japanese-American. Whenever I was asked, “where are you from,” my go-to answer has always been “some hospital in Denver.” I’ve had to fill out forms, and have always been at least somewhat amused by the questions that ask about race and ethnicity. I’ve always known that I am both white and Asian. However, I never fully considered the implications of this and as such my own identity as a mixed-race individual did not exist, at least not until this Fall.

For the majority of my life, I’ve had the privilege of not having to directly confront my own racial identity, and the implications that this has on my day-to-day experiences. I generally pass as a fully white person, and have distinct curly hair that further obfuscates my Asian traits. Additionally, as a straight cis male, I have also had the privilege of not needing to directly consider many aspects of my identity. Everyone has their own experiences with their own racial identities, and the things that I have experienced as a mixed-race individual merely contribute to that ongoing conversation and discourse.

However, there was one specific moment this Fall in which I was forced to become acutely aware of my own race, and how others perceive me based on the way that I look. I am, always have been, and always will be, mixed-race. Japanese-American-ness is a large component of who I am, but it wasn’t until Fall 2018 that I was really pushed to consider it as an explicit component of my identity. Because of a particular experience that I had in the classroom this semester, I was forced to confront this aspect of who I am and incorporate that into a major piece of my identity.

In one of my graduate seminars, we had been discussing race and ethnicities, and the portrayals of each within various media contexts. Prior that that class, we had read Stuart Hall’s “New Ethnicities” and  Manthia Diawara’s “Black Spectatorship.” I actually really enjoyed both essays, and thought that their definitions of race (as compared to ethnicity), as well as how the two are often portrayed and perceived within the media. For obvious reasons, race can be a difficult topic to discuss within classroom settings, but I was curious and looking forward to the conversations that we might have within our graduate seminar.

However, I found myself feeling somewhat uneasy during our initial discussion. Some students in the class brought it up, but our professor continually emphasized and reiterated the need to put clear labels and definitions onto media texts, as well as individuals. Now I’m all for trying to categorize and organize certain things for the purposes of analysis and understanding. But especially in the context of race, I believe it is critical to acknowledge (and embrace) the fluidity of definitions and recognize that racial identity is a complicated and often messy thing to sort through. It felt as if my own experiences and identities were somehow wrong, or invalid, just because they didn’t fit neatly into a single box with a single label.

Of course, I really didn’t enjoy being put into this uncomfortable position. However, I also understood that this was only within the context of a class discussion, and I was willing to concede that conversations about race were always complicated, especially when everyone else in the room is unfamiliar with my own racial identity and experiences. But this slight feeling of unease absolutely paled in comparison to what happened next.

After a short break (it’s a two and a half hour long class session), I came back into the room and saw that the professor had started drawing a table on the board. Two columns: one was labelled “race,” and the other “ethnicity.” I figured that we might discuss how these two related, but different, aspects of identity are constructed, and consider the differences in how they are perceived. I thought it could be an interesting approach to the topic. But that’s not what happened. Once the class had reconvened, our professor announced that this activity was something that they had been looking forward to, and was interested in seeing how we answered. Then, they said that they would go first, and added the first row to the table: “Asian” and “Korean.”

I immediately recognized what was going on. Our professor wanted us all to disclose our personal identities and put those on display for everyone else in the room. Race is something that is highly personal, and should only be shared when the individual is comfortable with doing so. There are numerous factors that may contribute to someone choosing to disclose or not disclose aspects of their personal identity. For me, race is already something that I really only like to directly acknowledge with my close friends. And even then, I tend to be selective about how I do so, and to what extent. I have often joked that whether I’m white, Asian, or something in between depends on what day of the week it is. I’ve realized that I’ve struggled with understanding my own identity, and figuring out what it means to be mixed race. It’s not something that I like to bring up in most situations, and certainly not within the classroom setting with a professor that was already making me somewhat uncomfortable within conversations about race.

I felt my sense of fear and nervousness building as we went around the table. With each person that went before me, I felt my heart rate increasing, and a rapidly growing uncertainty with what I was going to say. When it was finally my turn to go, I was pretty worked up, and still really unsure of what exactly I should do.

I explained that I always struggle with these kinds of questions. I think part of me was trying to make at least some light of the situation, and draw attention away from how uncomfortable and out of place I felt at the time. I think I made some joke about always checking the “other” box when filling out forms that ask for your race and ethnicity. For the professor’s table on the whiteboard I stated that I sometimes consider myself “white” for the race, and then “Japanese” for ethnicity.

It was an awkward moment, and I did feel somewhat put on the spot and thrown from my comfort zone. But for the most part, everyone else in the room seemed to be pretty understanding. I had explained that I’m half-Japanese, and usually tell everyone that I’m American. But if I had to pick specific labels, I think I would go with white and Japanese. Around the table there were mostly nods of understand. I figured that the moment would pass. The moment did not.

Rather than moving to the next person, the professor stuck on me for a little while longer.

“Well what do you mean by that?”

In a piercing, and somewhat accusatory tone, our professor prodded me to explain my answers further. Now I definitely felt like I was being forced into the spotlight, and my own racial identity was being showcased in front of everyone. Just because of the fact that I didn’t have a clear and immediate answer to my own race, because of the fact that I’m mixed and it’s really difficult for me to answer that question, I found myself being highlighted and otherized in front of my peers.

“Oh, so you don’t feel as much of a connection to the culture? That’s so interesting.”

I was born in Denver. I’ve lived in the United States my entire life. I’ve never been to Japan ever. I know I have Japanese heritage, and look kind of Japanese. There’s nothing interesting about that. That’s just who I am. I hated this entire experience, and felt like I was being interrogated. And for whatever reason my answers just weren’t quite satisfying the professor. I felt a total combination of being angry, sad, confused, and overall just really crappy about myself. Not only is my racial identity a very personal part of myself, but it’s also something that I’ve been trying to negotiate and understand. So when our professor called me out in class like that, it was incredibly alienating. In that moment, I felt so alone and isolated.

I have found some solace in the support and validation that I’ve received from my close friends. I’ve shared this experience with a handful of people, and they have all agreed that this entire situation was highly unusual, and probably inappropriate for a professor to put us in that kind of a situation. This validation of my feelings has been incredibly helpful to my own mental health and well being, and has truly helped me to at least somewhat work through not just this experience, but my overall identity as well.

I’ve come to realize that yes, I don’t necessarily look the same as everyone else in my day-to-day interactions. And yes, because of the fact that I look a little different, people perceive me differently. At first glance, I do look white. Yet at the same time, I definitely look Asian. (Fun fact, it’s because I’m both…) And I think a lot of people, myself included, don’t always know how to reconcile those two things. And that’s okay. Being mixed-race is kinda weird. But it’s what I am. I’m not really white. I’m not really Asian. Some mixed-race Asians use the term “person of color.” I’m not entirely sure if that applies to me or not. But regardless, this uncertainty, fluidity, and confusion are all things that I have come to accept and embrace as part of who I am.

Sure, this moment in my class what absolutely awful. But there is one good outcome, which is that it has pushed me to rethink several moments from previously in my life. I’ve realized that many of these moments very well may have been motivated by race, and what I look like, even though I hadn’t realized it initially. Childhood friends making the “Chinese, Japanese, American Knees” joke – complete with squinty eye hand motions! Some guy on an airplane raving about how “I look like I’ve got some orient in me,” and that “well your kind are just so smart.” A family member muttering “ching chong chang” before reading their fortune cookie at a restaurant. People learning my middle name and being fascinated by “how unique” it sounds. At best, these types of things are said with no malintent. At worst, people truly do mean to ostracize, alienate, and cause harm. But regardless, one reason for it remains the same: it’s because I look different, seem different, and at some fundamental level just am different.

In Fall of 2018, I became a mixed-race person. I always have carried that fundamental quality of difference–both in what I look like, and how people perceive me. But for the first time, I recognized it as a large component of my identity, and realized the full-implications of what that means.

I’m white. I’m not white.

I’m Asian. I’m not Asian.

All I know is that I’m mixed-race, I probably don’t fit neatly into any of your labels or expectations, and I don’t really care if I do or not. I’m happy with who and what I am. I just wish more people would start accepting my non-answer as a valid answer.

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