But I Can’t Possibly Be Racist, My Mother is Asian

By Erika Margaret Reiko

In the year 2000, Americans were provided with the option of checking more then one race on the U.S. Census box. The ability of being able to “check one or more boxes,” is often presented as a more inclusive and accurate attempt to identify the racial makeup of our country’s population.

The incorporation of Mixed Race individuals into the US Census reflects our culture’s growing awareness of mixed race individuals. But it’s not just the government that has an invested interest in collecting data about the rising population of individuals identifying as Mixed Race. Dominant media has interpreted the data and decided that in the future we will all be Mixed, therefore racism will not exist. Though this narrative appears to come from an optimistic and well intentioned perspective, it dismisses who is responsible for the creation and promotion of racism while failing to acknowledge who benefits from racist ideology today.

left: modern media portrayal of mixed race individuals. right: historical anthropological documentation of “non-white people.” “Mixed or Not, Why are We Still Taking Pictures of Race?”

The social construction of race stems from a living history of whiteness attempting to maintain white power. Categorizing people into different racial categories, creates and justifies a racial hierarchy that continues to support white power and privilege throught the United States. Historically, whiteness has been set as the standard to which all other races are compared.

illustration of the original racial categories

If you do not meet the criteria for what white is, then you are categorized as something Other. For example, President Obama is half Black and half white. Yet when dominant media and culture talk about his racial identity, he is only portrayed as Black or Mixed, never white. Try to unpack why that is. If he is half Black, and portrayed as Black, then by that same rhetoric if he is half white, why is he not interpreted and portrayed as White?

Check out this cool video that deconstructs what Race as a social construction

The constant promotion of the mixed experience as “love conquers all,” silences the complexities and challenges of navigating a racialized world as a mixed family, relationship, and/or person. As enticing as it is to believe that love has the power to conquer and abolish differences in race, class, ability, sexuality, religion, and gender, it is just not true.

The complex and ambiguous nature of love is something we are all familiar with. Most of us haven’t had the opportunity to experience love without hurt, because the world is hurtful. There is no “Happily Ever After” because “after” is not a fairytale, but real life with real life problems and challenges. Yes, love has the ability to be both beautiful and empowering, but the love between an interracial couple is not enough to dismantle institutionalized systems of oppression. The more we romanticize the Mixed Race experience, the more we distance ourselves from the reality that we live in a racially oppressive society.

Thankfully, there have been Mixed Race individuals that have humanized Mixed Race identities by speaking their personal truths. The Mixed Race experience is vast and varied. Here are but some of the truths Mixed Race individuals experience.

  • We are not all mixed and/or identify with whiteness and not everyone has access to white or light skinned privilege.
  • Many Mixed Race individuals find themselves working hard to prove, defend, and have their racial identity and identities affirmed not just by strangers, but family, friends, lovers, co-workers, communities and more.
  • Often Mixed Race individuals are perceived to belong to a racial group or ethnicity to which they have no affiliation.
  • Some are able to pass as one race, entering spaces “undercover.”
  • A lot, but not all, parents of Mixed Race children can’t always relate to their children’s racial identity
  • Mixed Race individuals are often pressured or forced to align themselves with only one part of their racial identity.
  • Mixed Race individuals with white heritage are often perceived to be more beautiful than their non-white relatives and non-white Mixed Race People. The more “white” characteristics a Mixed Race individual possesses, the more “beautiful” they are perceived to be.
  • Because of their racially ambiguous appearance, Mixed Race people are often labeled as “exotic.” Labeling someone as “exotic” is to mark them as extra-ordinary and an object of desire, often fetishizing Mixed Race People.
“National Geographic Determined What Americans Will Look Like in 2050, and It’s Beautifulreally means “look how nice we look, as a people, when white gets to be more interesting and minorities get to look white. Look at this freckled, green-eyed future. Look at how beautiful it is to see everything diluted that we used to hate”

For many of us, home and family is where we first encounter the rigid social expectations the world has in store for us. We are taught the difference between behaviors and characteristics deemed as “good” and “bad” while learning whether or not we have access to belief systems such as entitlement, worthiness, innocence, and guilt.

Kelsey Henry’s “An Open Letter to the White Fathers of Black Daughters,” further complicates the “love conquers all” Mixed Race narrative, and highlights the complexities of intimate racial dynamics that rarely get acknowledged within the space of home and family.

left: anthropological documentation of “exotic” and “unnatural” bodies in the name of science right: “stunning” picture of mixed race family. Notice the similarity in technique in which all six bodies are documented.

As a Mixed Race person who has access to white privilege, the way I navigate the world around me is a stark difference to the way other Mixed Race people do. Whiteness mixed with America’s perceived “model minority,” allows me to access privileges and spaces that other Mixed Race individuals do not have access to. However, despite the inability to claim Henry’s experience as my own, there were some points that deeply resinated with me. I grew up in a household where the presence of my father’s whiteness dominated and shamed my mother’s Japanese identity. His whiteness not only controlled and shaped the way my family and household functioned, but ultimately impacted the way I perceived myself, mother, father, and future lovers.

Henry’s letter pushed me to not only recognize the racialized power dynamics I witnessed within my own family, but to recognize how my own internalized racist beliefs have burrowed deep within me. Internalized racism not only affected my perspective of my white father and whiteness, but more importantly, the perspective of my Japanese Mother and “Asian” women in general.

Please watch…

During a particular pre-teen episode, I remember scanning the dining area of a chain restaurant my family had chosen that evening. Out of the corner of my eye, a family of four caught my attention. I can’t recall what they were wearing, what the kids looked like, or how they were engaging with one another. What I do recall is the intense feeling of disgust and horror that washed over me at the sight of a White man with his Asian wife. Rage, rage was definitely present. “How could this White man take advantage of this helpless Asian woman?”

Within a split second, I had already felt entitled to strip these two people of their autonomy and agency, projecting a racist narrative onto their bodies and their relationship. I decided he was a pervert, he got off on the submissiveness of his Asian wife, he liked that she said yes to everything he said, in fact he wouldn’t have it any other way. Why else would he be with an Asian Woman? The anger and disgust I projected onto to him was accompanied by pity that I felt for her. Pity: a complex and strong emotion that arises out of a feeling of superiority. I felt superior to this woman, and the only thing I knew about her was her Asian appearance. I decided she had to be stuck in a marriage in which she had no say, in which she was only seen as an object. She must feel very alone I thought. She must be very stupid. She must not have a mind of her own. I was only twelve years old.

That moment was the first time I realized the depths of my internalized racism. Before then, whiteness had influenced me to perceive my Japanese mother as ugly, incompetent, submissive, and unworthy of my father’s love. Whiteness had taught me that my white father was exceptional in all his blonde-hair-blue-eyed glory. Beautiful was tall and slender, taking up just the right amount of space. She was short and stout, always attempting to fade into the background

As soon as “Asian” woman became more visible within dominant media, I remember being further frustrated that my mother even failed to meet the beauty standards that Whiteness dictated “Asian” women must possess in order to be seen. I learned her “foreign” appearance resembled an infant, influencing myself and others to treat her as an agent-less child. I learned that her thick accent was not a sign of intelligence, but a sign that she was socially and mentally stuntted.

Strangers always asked my mother “So where are you from?” My mother always defiantly responded: “San Diego.” But in those moments, I wasn’t proud of my mother but ashamed. Whiteness had taught me that her accent automatically gave other people permission to mark her as foreign, granting strangers the ability to ask private and personal questions in the name of marking her as Other. “Mommmm… that’s not what they meant!” I would say exasperated by mother’s failure to “understand,” what they were really asking.

But Where are you really from??

The journey to self awareness has been long and exhausting. It has been sixteen years since I realized I harbored internalized racist perspectives. However, it wasn’t until this past year that I have acknowledged to myself that I am emotionally and physically triggered at the site of interracial couples. Recently, my friend and I were in mid conversation of love and relationships when the man sitting at the table next to us captured my attention. Invested in publicly humiliating his company, this White man began to unabashedly verbally abuse the Asian Woman he was sitting with.

Spouting violent words and thoughts, he told her and the entire restaurant that she wasn’t worthy, that she was disgusting, that she was an embarrassment. He kept going and going, shaming her with his racist and misogynistic words, spiting them out like daggers, telling her that she was ugly, that she was lucky to even be with him, blaming her for the scene that he was making. She sat in silence, with her eyes on her plate. I didn’t want her to know I was looking; I didn’t want her to feel embarrassed. I sat there frozen to my seat, rage beginning to slowly cloud my vision, anger boiling at the surface of my skin. I wanted to physically hurt him. I wanted him to feel her pain, to feel my pain. I wanted to kill him.

So when people share with me that the world would be a better place if everyone was in a mixed race relationship, I think of this incident and others like it. I think of how this white man treats this Asian woman in the privacy of their own home. I think of the way I still feel angry towards my father for the way he and his whiteness treated my mother- for the way I and my whiteness treated my mother.

I wish I could say that I have grown past the internalized racist messages that have impacted my life and the one’s I love, but I can’t. I wish I could say that I wouldn’t trade my Mixed Race experience for anything, but right now I’m not so confident.

What I can say is this: The Mixed Race community needs to hold space in which we can acknowledge that the majority of us inflict emotional and physical violence against ourselves and the ones we love. We need to acknowledge and talk about the anti black and white supremacist narratives that dominate our shared, personal, and familial spaces today.

We need to humanize Mixed Race people and challenge the romanticized narratives that “love will conquer all,” and that Mixed Race people are somehow evidence of a more “utopic” future. But most of all, the Mixed Race Community needs to be transparent with one another and have conversations about the ways internalized racism and anti-blackness manifests in the ways we perceive ourselves, our loved ones, our communities, and our society.

My mother is Asian and I am still racist. Let’s talk about it.

Secret History of America

New Essays in American Studies from UC Berkeley

Thanks to Michael Mark Cohen

Erika Margaret Reiko

Written by

Secret History of America

New Essays in American Studies from UC Berkeley

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