There’s a photo of my great-grandmother I look at often. She is small, wearing thick black frames, with my grandmother, my aunts, and my mother huddled around her like she’s queen of the hive. My great-grandmother was a widow and a landowner in China who lost everything during the Communist Revolution. She was punished for her wealth, and tortured and robbed before she fled to Hong Kong with her daughter to survive. For a long time, that’s all they did: survive.
My mom tells me this story late one night over a cup of tea. She whispers, like she’s afraid that if she talks too loudly, history will barge through the front door and repeat itself. “The people in our family are very strong,” my mom says. “Especially the women.” When I look at the photo, I’m reminded of my family’s resilience. I’m fascinated by the women who came before me. I feel proud of my lineage when I look at that photo.
But somehow, I also feel like a fraud. I become very aware of my whiteness.
I oftentimes get the feeling that I don’t belong to my own racial group (in fact, it’s common among multiracial people; NPR even coined it racial imposter syndrome). When I talk about my history, share photos of my family, or speak Cantonese, I vaguely feel like I’m appropriating my own culture.
It wasn’t always this way. As a small child growing up in Alief, an Asian neighbourhood in Houston, I spoke Toisan with my grandmother, went to the Chinese grocery store with my mom, tore apart chicken feet at dim sum, and never thought anything of it. Perhaps because I never knew my biological father, it never occurred to me that I was anything but Chinese.
But then my mom remarried to another white man, and we moved to a more rural town outside of the city. Bacon replaced chicken feet for breakfast, and I started speaking more English at home. My identity has become more a grab-bag of customs. And it’s not just what I do. It’s what I look like as well: Random strangers feel comfortable telling me “You don’t look super Chinese” or even “Nah, you’re just white.” When you’re multiracial, people feel like they can pick your identity for you. They try to pin down your background like it’s a wine tasting tour — I’m detecting notes of Italian. Ooh ooh! Don’t tell me, just let me stare at you harder until I get it right.
When Sarah Gaither, a researcher at Duke University’s Identity and Diversity Lab, moved to North Carolina and applied for a driver’s license, she was told that she couldn’t mark both of her races on the application. Gaither explained that she was biracial. “They were like, ‘No. You’re not.’ So I said, ‘Yeah, I know I look white, but my dad is Black, and it’s just how the genetics worked out,’” Gaither says. The DMV agent told her they didn’t have a biracial option, so she’d have to choose: Are you Black or white? Gaither didn’t want to pick, so she left it blank. “My driver’s license literally says nothing on it. There’s an empty space next to race.” It’s too appropriate. Often enough, that’s how it feels to be biracial — like you’re nothing.
Despite being one of the fastest growing demographics in the United States — one paper by the National Institute of Health predicts that one in five Americans will claim a multiracial background by the year 2050 — there’s little research on the multiracial experience. This is largely because we think about race in such a fixed way, at least in countries where there is a dominant race from which to compare others. The U.S. Census didn’t even allow people to check more than one box when documenting race until 2000, and health documents also don’t keep track of multiracial experiences.
Practically speaking, allowing multiracial people to claim their identity is important for gathering demographic information and funding public programs, but knowing who you are is deeply important on a personal level. It’s the stress of having to choose your identity that leads to mental health problems in the multiracial community, Gaither says. In a 2009 study by Wesleyan University, researchers found that multiracial college students who had to pick just one race on a demographic form had less motivation and lower self-esteem than multiracial students allowed to choose more than one race. “Because they get constantly denied their racial and ethnic identities that breaks their internal sense of belonging, that leads to increased depression and increased anxiety,” Gaither explains.
To be fair, forming an identity is taxing for anyone. People spend their entire lives searching for themselves in relation to others. We spit into DNA kits, travel to homelands, dabble in religion, and Facebook message our long-lost biological fathers, all in an effort to figure out who we are. But when your racial background is complicated, that inability to put a simple label on yourself can make searching for who you are even more confusing because, in a way, you’re discouraged from searching. I’ve been pushed out of groups, and my membership questioned. People feel free to choose labels for me. This makes it hard to form a true sense of self.
For ages, I felt like I had no control over my own identity, so identity didn’t seem important to me. I didn’t bother dabbling in the standard methods for “finding yourself.” It wasn’t until my late twenties that I even thought about searching for my real dad. Even then, it was at the suggestion of my best friend, who was curious on my behalf. “You’ve never thought about contacting him?” she asked. “Sure,” I told her. “But I don’t see the point.” Self-discovery seems pointless when people are just going to tell you who you’re allowed to be.
It’s confusing and threatening to have people regularly doubt your identity. As a child, Gaither was often approached by strangers who thought her Black father was kidnapping her. People still ask her if she’s sure she’s Black —as if she must have gotten it confused with something else — so she carries around a family photo to prove herself. When I was a kid, a family friend said something in front of me in Cantonese, which I could no longer understand at that point. My aunt translated: “Don’t give the girl any Lai See. Her dad is one of those bad Americans.” It was the first time I understood that my whiteness could nullify other parts of me. To put it simply, I wasn’t Chinese enough.
People play down how much this matters, Gaither says. More often than not, we celebrate the often oversimplified advantages of being multiracial — you’re a melting pot! You know two languages! — without considering the serious drawbacks of not knowing who you are or where you belong.
Our either/or approach makes for some messed up situations. You’re lumped into one race or the other, depending on how neatly it fits with the point of view of the person judging you. Recently, I sat down with an acquaintance over beers. Our conversation was going well until we started to talk about Asian discrimination, a topic I figured she brought up because I’m Asian. When I chimed in, she interrupted me. “You can’t understand,” she told me. “You don’t look Asian enough.” I certainly looked Asian enough for kids to pull back their eyes and mock me in elementary school. Or when a stranger from the Internet emailed me to call me a chink. But somehow, it was even more frustrating to share a beer with someone who makes me feel like those things never happened.
On the other hand, she had a point: Appearance plays a major role in racial identity. In fact, it’s the most influential factor in how a multiracial person identifies, according to research from Kristen Renn, a professor of higher, adult, and lifelong education at Michigan State University and researcher of mixed race identity development. In a series of studies, Renn found that physical appearance, cultural knowledge, and peer culture all influence the way multiracial people identify. While ethnicity and culture are determined by where you come from and the customs you experience, race is primarily measured in terms of looks. And it’s that simple fact that makes Rachel Dolezal infuriating for so many people. Dolezal can claim to identify as Black, but the privilege does not extend the other way around. A Black woman can’t escape discrimination by simply proclaiming that she identifies as white. As Gaither says, “The more minority you look, the more you can claim a minority identity. And that’s usually because if you look more like a minority, you’re going to face more discrimination.”
There’s privilege in the ability to be flexible with your identity and, specifically, pass as white. That’s not to say multiracial people can’t understand discrimination, or that we deserve to be pushed out of our racial identities. But because race is a social construct that’s partially defined in terms of discrimination, it’s important to acknowledge that a multiracial experience can be radically different from a monoracial one, depending on your appearance. However fucked-up this is, discrimination is a part of how we understand racial identity in America.
Today, my mom teaches me Cantonese over the phone. She always blamed herself for the fact that I lost it. “English was just so much easier,” she says, but it’s true, and that’s okay. We should recognise that when people move into a new environment, they’re going to change, argues linguist Amelia Tseng in an NPR interview. The key, she adds, is to preserve connections to our culture as we come up with new ways of being, which I find creative and beautiful. When I look at that photo of my great-grandmother and think about how I fit in the picture, the words “bad American” echo in Cantonese in my head, and I see myself as my family friend saw me that day. I start to feel like an Asian imposter. But then I remember: My grandmother didn’t think of me that way, and I don’t think my great-grandmother would have, either. The last time I saw my grandma, I squeezed her and said I love you. She bashfully brushed it off and laughed, mumbling something in Cantonese. It was a very Chinese reaction to an American display of affection.
It’s human to want to label and categorise things so we can better understand them. But maybe there’s a more fluid, flexible way to exist. We search for identity because it feels good to understand why we are the way we are. However, like appearances, labels can be deceiving.
As a kid, I always thought my great-grandmother looked small and meek in that photo. Turns out, she had a massive amount of strength. Similarly, the words we use to classify ourselves never tell the full story of who we are. Before she died, my grandma and I may not have been able to communicate in the same language, but somewhere in that awkward, affectionate hug, I’m certain we understood each other.