One hapa’s take on white-passing biraciality

“At times it feels as though my race depends on its interaction with those around me.” Courtesy of Dodek via Wikimedia Commons

My ethnic makeup is 50 percent Chinese (mainland) and 50 percent white (European mutt). Even as I write this, I feel the need to apologize for the invalidity of my POC experience because I can and do pass as white. Moreover, while East Asians in the U.S. have certainly dealt with historical discrimination and present-day bigotry, East Asians’ current position in the United States’ system of racial oppression affords us higher privilege than Black and brown folks, who are far more often victims of poverty, police brutality and poor education. I want to begin by acknowledging this inequality. However, the following reflection is really just me figuring out where I fit into the schema of race in America in conjunction with my own identity. It’s a conversation I’ve had with myself for a long time. I’d love to share it with others and I welcome your thoughts.

I am definitely closer with the Chinese side of my family than the white side of my family. Ironically, this has only made me feel more white. Growing up, I was a picky eater, choosing to say “I’m not hungry” rather than eat dim sum, bok choy and wontons. I became known in my family for my taste for white food, so my relatives would always order me french fries and fried rice at our favorite Chinese restaurant. (It’s only recently that my Nai Nai and Yeh Yeh have realized that I will actually eat what they cook now.) When we visited relatives, my half-Chinese, half-Japanese cousins would call me hauli, Hawaiian slang for a white person. Though we didn’t know how to put words to the racial divide in our family, my brothers and I felt that separation, which was constantly perpetuated by the adults of the family too.

When I attended Chinese school on Saturdays from age 6 to age 11, I stuck out like a sore (white) thumb. I was constantly singled out for being, in their words, “so fair!” Perhaps my fair-skinned appearance could have been overlooked had my performance been the exception. However, because neither of my parents spoke Mandarin, I stuck out academically as well—and not in a good way. For the first time, I felt like a failure in a school setting, and for the first time, I felt my race as a tangible part of how I move through the world. Though my ethnic heritage earns me minority status in the United States, I was too white for the environment in which I grew up. The feeling of non-belonging in Asian spaces is part of why it now feels so difficult and invalid for me to identify as a person of color.

Now I am an adult who speaks three languages, none of them Mandarin. I’m not Chinese-looking enough for people to expect me to speak it, but I feel Chinese enough to be guilty that I don’t. I jokingly refer to myself as ethnically ambiguous, as the question I often field from strangers and acquaintances is: “So like…what are you?” Only after leaving the California Bay Area (where East Asians and other hapa abound) have I begun to feel powerful enough to claim my racial identity for what it is—and that doesn’t mean running through the list of things that justify my Chinese-ness, checking the boxes that prove my Asian status. Yes, I can check a lot of stereotypical boxes (no shoes in the house, extended family is close family, homemade dumplings and wontons and fried rice, pressure to become a doctor and stay away from a career in the arts, etc.). But just having to enumerate them makes me feel like an imposter; if race is how others perceive you and ethnicity is your genuine heritage, then my race fluctuates based on who I’m around.

In college, it can still be jarring to hear other people refer to me as a woman of color. Weirder still is hearing a white romantic partner say that they’ve never dated “an Asian” before (that article! That reduction of my identity into one word! Ouch!). Is my whiteness somehow erased by my genes of color, despite me ultimately benefiting from systems of white supremacy in the United States? Undoubtedly, to be defined by one’s race is always weird and inappropriate. But it becomes especially startling when someone else pinpoints my Asianness, considering it’s something I hardly felt I could claim myself. It can be uncomfortable to suddenly remember that I’m not always white-passing.

On some level, no matter how white I feel or how Asian I feel, the way I will be seen both ways depends on who is looking at me. It’s like that optical illusion with a rectangle that’s been laid onto a color gradient, making the rectangle appear to be a gradient as well, when it’s actually just a solid color rectangle.

Just as there is a distinction between race and ethnicity, we must acknowledge the distinction between racism and bigotry. Though I may experience individual incidents of bigotry or prejudice, I will never experience the systemic racism that Black and brown people deal with. I am still working on not feeling like I have to prove my ethnic identity, even though I often feel that my racial identity invalidates it. I know by my experiences and by my genes that I am Chinese. I know by my other experiences and my other genes that I am white. Being both is an experience I am reflecting on, analyzing and grappling with every day.

One Comment

  1. You might want to read Thomas Chatterton Williams’ latest book, “Self-Portrait in Black and White: Unlearning Race” about his journey with his biracial identity. It reflects many of the same sentiments.

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