What are you? That question may sound a bit strange, not to mention vague, but it’s one I’ve been asked so many times that, at this point, I’ve stopped keeping count. My most recent answer to that question was: human. I was being sarcastic, sure, but at a time when people’s identities have taken on a political urgency—just look at the ongoing conversation around race and American patriotism—I’m struck by how little time we spend considering the complex experiences of race, including, in my case, those of biracial black women.
Because what we’d soon discover, on closer inspection, is that our country has a fundamental perception problem—of who’s in and who’s out when it comes to being American.
The subject of being black and biracial came up recently in a conversation I had with a coworker who’s black and Asian. I’m also black and Asian: My dad is a black American, and my mom is Japanese. My parents met when my dad was stationed in Japan, serving in the Air Force. I was born there and came to the United States when I was two years old. I spoke fluent Japanese until the age of four, when I learned how to speak English by watching American TV. And by the age of five, I’d undergone total assimilation: We only spoke English at home. My mom continued to speak her native language with her friends, but she chose not to raise her kids as bilingual. For a while, I was OK with this—with not having this particular linguistic aspect of my biracial culture—because I still thought that, on some level, I’d be embraced by both cultures. It wasn’t until I visited my grandmother in Japan that I saw that this wasn’t necessarily true.
I was nine years old and walking with one of my cousins to my aunt’s noodle shop when a young Japanese boy called me a name. I’d forgotten all of my Japanese, so I didn’t understand why my cousin got so angry. Later on, my cousin told my mother, in Japanese, what had happened—and my parents got upset, too. I found out that the boy had called me the N-word in Japanese.
I relived that day in my head as I got older and began to investigate my place in this world. I felt, in short, like I didn’t belong anywhere. I was never going to be accepted as Japanese—a given, since my dad was black and Japan grapples with its own, sometimes exclusionary idea of belonging—but I’ve found gaining acceptance in black communities to be its own challenge.
Besides me, the group discussion I had at work included three other women: one who’s black and Korean, another who’s black and Chilean, and the third who’s black and Jewish. Though we covered several different ethnic groups, there was one common denominator: Sometimes we feel like we can’t identify with either of our ethnicities. We aren’t always accepted by our black brothers and sisters—perhaps we’re not “black enough”—and, for me, it’s unlikely I’ll ever be accepted by Japanese because I’m not 100 percent Japanese. It’s a slap in the face, but being an outsider on two levels shines a light on the importance of complicating narratives of identity.
My coworker who’s black and Korean and I straddle similar feelings of social isolation, even stigma. My citizenship, for instance, has been questioned on many occasions (much like our former president), and being misidentified as Chinese, Filipino, or Latino has become a routine part of my life. When my family returned to the United States in 1970 and I attended D.C. public schools, many of my classmates called me “that Chinese girl.” That was dispiriting to me not only because I’m not Chinese, but also because it showed a lack of historical awareness.
I’d tell my classmates that I’m black—because “my daddy is black” and my country would treat me as such—and they’d call me a liar. It seemed like a weird inversion of the “one drop rule” that was born during American slavery and used well into the Jim Crow era to decide whether a person was black. Yes, I have family members, like a great aunt, who look like and can “pass” as white. I also had a great uncle who lived as a white man by moving to Europe to escape Jim Crow. I know my black history, too, though, and that’s because my dad made it a point that I learn about my family history, as well as what our forefathers had to endure in order for my black brothers and sisters and me to live a life of opportunity—one better than the one they had.
But I digress. This isn’t a history lesson. It’s one woman’s view of what it’s like to be black and also biracial in America and how, hopefully, one day, we can fuel greater acceptance.
How can we do that? For one, by asking the right questions. Or at least, by not asking What are you? or, equally bad, Where are you from? or What are you mixed with?—deceptively innocuous questions that, especially when aimed at people of color, are loaded with grating curiosities and presumptions about “foreignness” and “otherness.” (At best, these questions make us feel like we’re non-resident aliens, and at worst, like we’re mixed-breed animals.) I’m sensitive to the fact that people are curious to find out a person’s heritage, but the way the questions are posed only positions us to have to reassert the same point: that we belong in this country. Just like you.
So, looking ahead, here’s a better question: What’s your background? In my experience, this question has led to far broader, more robust conversations. It doesn’t assume, or imply, that I’m not American. And neither does it ignore the reality that most Americans—especially black Americans, because of history and lineage—are of a rich tapestry of racial identities.It’s important to radically expand the national narrative because what our country’s racial tensions say about it—and about us—matters. In the culture we currently live in, I can wear my hair natural or straight and not feel at all like I’m “different.” Yet America, as a whole, is still considerably constrained by our understanding of what being, well, American means—let alone of what being black means. Having had a black president who also happens to be biracial made me proud, in no small part because I could relate to and empathize with the exclusionary comments he faced from people of all stripes. Yet we can still do better to hold ourselves to higher standards of inclusion, no matter how uncomfortable that process might make us. After all, America’s racial diversity is far too vast, and far too granular, to strip it of its specificity.