I’ve tried to sit down many times to write about being mixed-race, but for some reason it never feels right. I don’t feel entitled to my own story because it almost doesn’t feel like a story. It doesn’t feel like something that’s particularly marked by hardship or adversity. When I talk about the “struggles” I face as a mixed person, it more so sounds like complaining. I’ve always felt that anything I’ve faced as a mixed person should take a backseat to the hardships faced by my two separate races. Because, for whatever reason, with my two races mixed together, I benefit from privilege. And while I do have mixed friends, they don’t have my unique mix, and so I don’t have any experiences to compare mine to. I don’t know how to validate these seemingly benign, but definitely damaging, occurrences that only I can relate to.
But somehow I feel this tugging, nagging feeling that I’m not being treated how I should be despite being treated relatively well for a person of color. Because I’ve heard it all. I’ve heard every compliment and every bit of praise for simply being what I am.
You’re so exotic.
Mixed people are so beautiful.
You’re so unique.
That’s such an interesting mix.
And I always joke, “I had nothing to do with it.” That always gets a few laughs. But the harder they laugh, the more hollow I feel. And I’ve batted away what seems like thousands of hands as they wind up to reach into my curly hair. And I’ve fake-smiled a million times as white girls put their arms up to mine and tell me that I’m “lucky” for being so “tan”. I always say the same thing, “I’m not tan. I’m black.” They laugh and I die more inside. What people say to me is not intrinsically bad or negative but why does it make me feel so bad about myself?
And you’ve probably noticed that I’ve been evading the question of “What are you?” on purpose. You’ve probably been wondering this entire time and don’t worry baby bird, I’ll feed you. But this is how I feel most of the time. Like people are always staring at me, wondering what on Earth I am. And don’t get me wrong, I’m proud of who I am. But when people ask me what I am, it makes me feel as though they are asking me to assist them in judging me. I don’t make sense to them. I don’t fit into a perfect little box. They can’t say, oh she’s this so she must be that. They have to ask me for my help in forming their generalized opinion of me. And so after I tell them, I feel like I’ve almost sold away part of myself.
People always feel entitled to me, to my body, and to my experiences. I’m so other, that I’m almost like a museum exhibit or like an art piece for people to ogle. They touch my hair and inquire about my skin and ask me personal questions about my parentage before even knowing my name. And this happens to me every time I’m around people. Any time I’m in a social situation, one of the first questions I get is “What are you?”. They forget that I’m a human person. They forget that underneath this brown skin and arbitrary set of features I have is an actual living, breathing human that doesn’t like to be poked or prodded and treated like a foreigner in her own home.
And it makes me question the way that people think. Is race really the first thing that people notice about another person when encountering them for the first time? Is this idea of race so pervasive and so important that it’s necessary that they take momentary leave of their manners in order to inquire about it?
I’ll tell you now that I’m half Korean and half Jamaican. Both of my parents are dentists. They met in New York in dental school, got married, had two children and moved to suburban New Jersey to raise us. The only strange thing about my family is perhaps the fact that my parents are still married, which is rare these days. But other than that, my family is as typical as they come for an American family. I don’t speak Korean (which disappoints a lot of people who would like me to be more interesting than I am), I am very bad at math, I can’t play basketball, I’ve never eaten a dog, I don’t smoke weed any more than other Americans do, my parents didn’t meet in a war and I don’t prefer one race over the other. These are just a few of the follow up questions strangers feel comfortable enough asking me.
And for whatever reason, people find it strange that I can’t tell them that I identify with one side over the other. And the reasoning is simple really. I am not a person made up of two halves. I’m one singular person and it’s not like I can put my experiences into a sifter and parse out exactly what I’m experiencing as a black woman and what I’m experiencing as an Asian woman. I can’t separate my experiences that way and I shouldn’t have to. But when people ask me to try, I believe they are really asking me what stereotype I better fall under. For example, I’ve heard many times that I don’t “sound black” and I’ve always thought that that was bizarre. I am black and therefore any way that I sound should sound black. And I’ve been told that I’m far too aggressive to be an Asian woman, so I must identify with my Jamaican side more. But not all Asian women are obedient little Geishas waiting to be ordered around like children. Actually no Asian woman I know is like that. And so that question really irks me. I love my parents equally and asking me to choose between their respective cultures and attributes is to murder a part of myself.
But as a child, all of this extra attention looked a lot like love to me. I truly believed myself to be special and so I couldn’t reconcile all of this self-doubt and insecurity I felt. They were symptoms of being a young woman. I struggled with body issues, depression, anxiety and identity issues to name a few. And it made me feel guilty that I felt this way about myself despite being told by strangers daily that I was exotic and unique and gorgeous even. But when you’re a teenager, you don’t want those things. You want to fit in to the point of disappearing. And so I had moments of extreme narcissism and histrionics that would alternate with moments of extreme insecurity and suicidal thoughts. I started to believe that all of these people that approached me were intrusive and rude. My precarious mental state mixed with the heightened hormone levels of puberty caused me to feel like everyone was out to get me and I suffered from extreme paranoia. And the constant questioning by random strangers didn’t help with my serious social anxiety either.
These people would ask about my race and then keep going about their day unaffected by my answer. Because they didn’t care. At least not in any way that mattered. But I didn’t realize that at the time. They were giving me attention for reasons that I didn’t understand but at least they were giving me attention. But when I was young, how could I have known how confusing that attention was? I grew up seeing the poor treatment my father received, being that he was a black man that came to America right smack dab in the middle of the Civil Rights Movement. I also saw how people treated my mother like a developmentally challenged child that couldn’t speak English, despite her being a doctor. So there was just this missing link in my brain. Why were people so dismissive, rude and sometimes openly hostile towards my parents, yet I was told that I should model? I was torn between desperately wanting the attention in order to build the foundations of my early adolescent self-esteem and wanting to disappear. It just didn’t make sense and I was too immature to even begin to understand. All I saw was what I believed to be praise and love, not knowing that I was just being commodified and quickly dismissed. I thought that people were interested in me but they were just collecting me and colonizing me in a new and sneakier way. They were just gathering me up in their collection of oddities. I felt like I should have been in a glass jar, floating around in formaldehyde. They didn’t care if I was smart or funny or that I had a master’s degree and taught myself how to speak Spanish. They only cared about what they saw because race is all about looks, isn’t it?
I’m just as black as Drake or Obama or Alicia Keys but I’m not as accepted as they are in black spaces because I know that I don’t necessarily look black. Most people think that I’m Hawaiian or Filipino. And I’m not typically accepted into Asian spaces either because I’m very tall, darker skinned and I have an ethnically ambiguous first name and a slave surname that says very little about who I am or where I come from. So I’ve always occupied this peculiar space of being too Asian to be black, to black to be Asian, too Jamaican to be African-American but too African-American to be Jamaican. And I wanted to break free of all of those restraints. I didn’t want any of those schemas thrown on me.
Something a friend told me once stuck with me all of these years. He said, “I try to be weird so that people don’t call me ghetto.” It struck me because I always assumed that people who weren’t mixed had a stronger sense of identity than I did. And I sort of lived by those words for a while. I tried to be as weird as possible in an attempt to shake a lot of the stereotypes. But after a while I don’t know where society’s influence started and where I began. But he made me realize we’re all just struggling constantly to find our place in this messed up, backwards world.
I remember on my first day of school, in kindergarten, I introduced myself to someone. I hadn’t gone to preschool and I’d never left my dad’s side for more than a few hours before ever in my life. My dad was standing behind me and I said hello to this little boy and told him my name. He asked me who the man behind me was and I told him proudly that he was my father. The little boy then asked if I was adopted. I was five and had no idea what that meant. But I think that’s the moment when I realized I was different and little has changed since then. I went on a date with an Italian-American man and he told me the only reason he asked me out was because he’d always wanted to date black women but was too scared. I was a “safer” option.
So when people tell me that they wish they could have mixed babies, I’d like for them to really think about what they’re saying. That child will have so many questions that you won’t be able to answer. They’ll have all of these experiences that you may not know how to approach. And they’ll inevitably struggle with identity their entire lives.
I’m in no way saying that my life has been difficult. I more so felt like an amorphous blob floating around purgatory. I’m just saying that when I was forming my identity and my sense of self, I wish I had a community that understood my unique issues. I wish that I had dealt with my feelings of isolation, alienation and difference better than I did. I should have realized the value in being a misfit earlier on in my life in the way that I do now. But this isn’t to say that I don’t still struggle. I struggle every single day, just like everyone else, and I probably always will. And in this I find my oneness, my sameness, and my belonging that I’ve always craved.